Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to avoid getting lost in your first draft...

I'm so often struck by the number of playwrights and screenwriters who attempt to "discover" their stories by starting with page one and just forcing it out by trial and error--riding on a hunch and a prayer that somehow they will find their story in the writing of actual pages of script.  Usually lots and lots of pages, hundreds in fact.  They are often very good writers with loads of talent and believe this is the only way they can work.

Frankly, this never ceases to baffle me.

I once asked a famous and established playwright how many pages using this approach he actually writes on average and he held up the palm of his hand about six inches above the top of the table we were sitting at and said "about this many," meaning at least two reams of paper or around a thousand or more pages.

My apologies to all of you out there who work this way, but it seems to me it's the equivalent of consciously taking a hundred mile trip to ultimately arrive at a destination a block away from where you started.

Of course for some writers, this works fine.  I can't ignore that fact.  Great scripts eventually emerge from the mountain of pages produced.  However, to my mind there is a much more productive and faster way to create rich and successful scripts.  It starts with developing a process that includes extensive pre-draft exploratory work on your principle characters that then leads the way to inventing the basic building blocks of your story's dramatic structure--all before you attack page one.

In other words, a systematic writing process that views your story as an iceberg...

...and first takes a serious look at the nine-tenths of your emerging tale that will forever lie under the   surface and explores it thoroughly--putting under the microscope the milestone events that have shaped your characters lives and their attitude towards those past events, especially the personal episodes that relate in some way to the central dramatic dilemma you're dealing with.

This is what makes for rich and engaging storytelling.   And it can most successfully be achieved by exploring this subtext before plunging into actual draft.  Directly or indirectly, it's all part of your story and in working this way you are, in a very real sense, already in the process of writing your script.

As a result, when you've done this kind of pre-draft exploration, the actual writing of the script itself--the one-tenth of your tale that is above the surface--will be written with authority and sense of purpose.  And lo and behold, the characters that walk into your story will take over and on the best days start writing your script for you.  And the added bonus is that with a little luck and help from the muses, you'll soon have in your hands a viable and sturdy first draft of manageable length that's been written in a fraction of the time.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.


  1. So far, pre-draft writing has proven fruitful for me on my current project. Although I have yet to write a page of official dialogue, I feel as though I am learning these characters as I would know a close friend - I can imagine how they might act/ what they might say in any given situation, and what aspects of their personality and history would affect them in that moment. It's a very exciting process!

  2. Thanks, Kara. Like I'm fond of saying to clients and students, keep telling yourself that you are already writing your script, you just haven't gotten to the draft phase of the project.

  3. Themes, plotlines, character traits, locations, and most importantly character subtext or motivations as well as transitions are all key decisions to be made before writing any form of story. One question that I have been asked which guides my writing is "Why are you writing this?" It seems contradictory but, the more personal and less external one's motivation for writing, the greater the chance for the writing to have broader appeal and success.

    1. Exactly, Rene. I call it the writer's paradox--the more detailed, specific, and personal you become in your writing, the more universal its appeal.