Writing the first draft of a screenplay is already a huge accomplishment and any writer should be proud anytime they write FADE OUT. But taking that screenplay from first draft to a strong and polished version can take years and countless rewrites. How does a writer approach finishing a story?
Here’s a list of steps to take with your first draft (or second or twentieth, no judgment) to help you take it to the final draft.
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Table of Contents
First Draft Feedback is Key
Getting feedback or script coverage is key to any writer. It can be hard to assess our own work, so make sure to have multiple people read your material and give you constructive feedback.
Next, make note of the feedback you received more than once. That’s usually a sign of something that might need adjusting in your story. I like to create a comprehensive list of notes and ideas I received and see if I can identify where the issues are in the story.
Navigating conflicting notes can be a challenge. Figuring out which direction to take a story when there are conflicting opinions can be daunting. See if you can find the issue these conflicting notes are diagnosing.
Example: I once had different people tell me a certain character was too insensitive, while another person told me that character was not insensitive enough. The takeaway from that was: I need to develop this character a bit more as right now they don’t seem like a real person, so I did a pass of that script looking only at that character and the choices they made. And that takes me to the next step, creating a plan for the rewrite.
Make a List of Changes to Make on Your First Draft
Make a wish list of the feedback you want to implement and why. You might have suggestions on how to improve the main character, the plot, or the secondary characters. One of the things this list can also become is a mission statement of sorts.
Example: You might add to your list that you want to make your protagonist less of a stereotype. This might serve you later when you are pitching this idea as a talking point. Also, at this stage, you might make discoveries about who you are as a writer.
If one of the items on your list of changes is to make the script more inclusive by changing the race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, or disability status of your characters, this choice can also become a talking point for later but will inform the type of story you want to write and why.
You might also end up making a major change like switching genres. I always recommend thinking of ways to make your script stand out. Considering that most stories have been told already, what do you bring to the table that is unique to you? Knowing why you are making those changes takes you one step closer to finishing your story.
Read: 6 Factors to Rewriting Right!
Create a New Outline
Sometimes the best way to move forward is to go back to basics. You might be making so many changes to this draft that a new outline will be easier than cutting and pasting and editing lines here and there.
A new outline will help you track your major scenes and set pieces, your character arc, and your subplots. It might feel like a step backward, but getting a clear view of the story in its entirety might give you insight into what’s working and what needs to change.
Focus on What’s Important in Your Story
Writers often get asked, “Why tell this story?” It’s a question that has stumped me a few times because, by the time I’m done with my final draft, I’ve made so many revisions, I heard so much feedback, I watched films for inspiration and research, and I’ve written other things. It’s easy to forget what inspired you in the first place and why this story matters to you.
Write a Mission Statement
Anytime you come across those feelings, the best thing to do is to focus on what is most important to you. A good way to do that is to write a mission statement about that particular story.
Ask yourself what you want to accomplish with that story. How do you want the audience to feel at the end of the movie? What does this story mean to you? Anytime you get stuck, go back to that mission statement and remember what truly matters and why. Odds are there’s something deeply personal you want to explore with this story. Put that on paper and check to make sure that idea is clear throughout the script.
Set Up a Writing Schedule with a Firm Deadline
Writers are masters of procrastination. Sometimes telling yourself you need to rewrite your script but never actually doing it is a safe way to avoid rejection. If it’s not done and you don’t submit anywhere, you’ll never hear the dreaded “no.” Fight the urge to avoid writing but setting up a schedule and a deadline. Can you carve out an hour a day? How about a few hours a week? Sometimes just committing to 5 pages a week might be enough. Start with a manageable goal that works for you and stick to it.
Joining classes and writers’ groups can help you meet deadlines. Finding an accountability partner can also be a great way to keep yourself on schedule. (That means building your screenwriting network!) Tracking competition deadlines and using those as a target for completion is also a great trick to force yourself to write.
Know When Your First Draft is Done
Some writers have a tendency to rewrite their work forever. At one point you have to step away from it and call it done. It’s tempting to continue to make changes, but know when to stop. It’s not uncommon for scripts to change over the course of pre-production all the way to the release of the film.
But, for all of that to happen, you the writer have to consider the draft done and send it out into the world. There’s no formula for getting there. Your gut will tell you when you’ve arrived at a stopping point. It usually happens once you read your script and can’t think of anything you’d like to change.