Read these 8 Completing Your First Draft Tips tips to make your life smarter, better, faster and wiser. Each tip is approved by our Editors and created by expert writers so great we call them Gurus. LifeTips is the place to go when you need to know about Screenplay tips and hundreds of other topics.
You're having a problem with a particular scene or character, and there's no solution in sight. You've spent hours with your butt glued to the chair. You've brainstormed, turned the scene inside out, and even given your character a sex change. Still, nothing. You're beyond frustrated. You're suicidal.
Before you hang yourself, consider taking a break. It may sound illogical, but sometimes not working on a problem helps solve it.
Trying too hard to make your brain come up with a solution is like trying to make a small child stop crying by shouting at her—utterly counterproductive. By turning your attention away from the problem, you allow your subconscious to work on it in peace. So give your subconscious a little space, will ya, and go do something else.
Most writers eventually discover which activities coax their creative muse. "My best ideas come when I run and listen to music and really zen out," says screenwriter Lindsay Norgard. For me, it's taking a walk, daydreaming on a train or a plane, or doing some yoga. There seems to be something about a rhythmic, repetitive activity that frees the mind. But sometimes the solution just comes to you the same way a name you've had on the tip of your tongue hits you in the middle of folding socks at the Laundromat. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what you do so long as you get away from your story for a while.
Sometimes all you'll need are 10 minutes away from your desk. Sometimes you'll need a break of several weeks from a particular scene while you work on something else. Screenwriting isn't a linear process, so give yourself the time you need. It may seem useless at first, but letting an idea percolate in your subconscious is an essential part of the process.
"Write what you know." This is one of the most oft-repeated—and confusing—bits of advice for writers. If what you know is plumbing, does that mean all your characters are doomed to be plumbers forever? I think not. I prefer to write what fascinates me. Sometimes that means writing what I know, and sometimes it means writing what I want to know.
Hallelujah for research.
My process is fairly unstructured. I like to do the bulk of my research before I begin. I allow myself to follow any tangent, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. I read books I normally wouldn't, meet people I usually don't run in to, and discover brave new worlds online I never knew existed. I subscribe to magazines that aren't strictly necessary and Google more than is good for me, all in the name of research. I'm like a sponge, absorbing information, never quite sure how or if I'll use it.
Research fills my well of creativity with details, images, and sensorial experiences. Often, it's not even visible in the script in any direct way. Instead, it seeps into the characters and the story, lending them depth and authenticity. Research isn't about unfailing accuracy. It's about learning enough to create a cohesive and believable story world.
The trick to research is finding the right method and the right balance that works for you. Too little research, and your story might seem superficial and implausible. Too much research, and you risk turning your script into a litany of facts or procrastinating so much that you don't write altogether.
Research first, then put it away and write. Or write first, and then supplement what you've written with research. Both methods are valid, so use whichever one works best for you.
Another source of ideas are published novels or incredible true stories. However, unless the novel is in the public domain or the person whose true story you're writing is you, you'll have to secure the rights first. This costs money and is very tricky, but if you're determined, here are some tips from entertainment lawyer Judith Merians:
Get exclusive rights throughout the universe in all media now known or hereafter invented. Even if you intend to produce only a DVD movie you should buy all media so you don't have competition on the same story in other media.
If you're getting an option (securing the rights for a limited amount of time, after which they revert back to the original party), get it for a period long enough to pitch, set up a project, and do a draft before the option expires. Always get an optional second option period so that if the project is in active development you can extend the option period without having to pay the purchase price. You don't want to have to buy something before you know you're going to produce the project. Keep development costs down.
Do not grant approval rights to the author of the novel or the subject of the life story rights. That can kill a project at the whim of someone who does not want to "approve" for whatever reason. No one will finance this. You can grant consultation rights if the subject insists on being involved.
Life story rights should cover a broad enough period of the person's life to be able to tell the story. First check to see that you can get the rights to all other real people who are essential to your story. If you can't get the rights to an essential character without whom the story can't be told, and there is not enough information in the public records to write in the character, pass on the project.
Sign the subject to render exclusive services as a consultant by furnishing photos, documents, interviews, and giving you access to others. Your story will be richer and more authentic, and if anyone else is developing the same story from public records you'll have an edge by having exclusive access to inside information.
Get everything in a signed document and have all rights documents drafted and negotiated by an experienced lawyer. This is where you spend you money—securing the rights properly.
A warning: many beginning writers try to write their own life experiences. But that horrible breakup you went through at 17 is almost certainly an insufficient story. Creating good drama requires distance. Most of us are too close to our own stories. We get caught up in the personal details and lose sight of the universal. When that happens, the most dramatic event in our lives will only come across as boring to an audience.
A good way to brainstorm is by asking, "what if?"
Let's say you want to write about a mother and her teenage daughter who are constantly fighting but you're having a hard time coming up with a unique twist to this universal theme. What if their constant bickering spurred someone to cast a spell on them? What if they magically switched bodies? What if the only way to switch back was to learn to understand and accept each other? This is Freaky Friday (the 2003 remake).
At the heart of every good story lies a "what if?" question. And inside every good writer is a curious child who just won't quit asking, "what if?"
A good way to tap into your creativity is through brainstorming. The idea behind brainstorming is to set a problem and then allow your mind to search for solutions it normally wouldn't come up with.
Set the problem: Start by defining the issue. Do you want to figure out a better setting for your love scene, create a new character, or elevate a line of dialogue? Frame the problem with a question, such as, "How many different ways can Joe insult Terry?" or "Knowing everything I know about Jake, where would he take Susan on a date if he's trying to impress her?" And then allow yourself to come up with answers.
Quantity, not quality: Focus on generating as many ideas as you can without worrying about their quality. In brainstorming, anything goes. Switch off the internal judge, and let the ideas run wild. Write whatever comes to you, no matter how goofy or shocking. Go overboard. You can always throw it away or scale it back later. Only by giving yourself this freedom will you come up with stuff you never dreamed of.
Keep at it for as long as you can. As screenwriter Susannah Farrow puts it, "Brainstorm till it hurts. The first idea you come up with is rarely the best one, the right one, or the most compelling one." Sometimes it takes one hundred bad ideas to come up with one good one. If you feel awkward at first, it's because you're still judging. It usually takes a minimum of 20 minutes in the beginning before you really shut off your internal critic. The more you brainstorm, the better you'll get at generating results.
Brainstorm with a partner. Sometimes two heads are better than one. Give each other complete freedom to say anything. Once you get all your ideas down, play around with combining them in new and provocative ways.
Before we can flesh out a concept, we need an idea that sparks our imagination. Ideas come from the things we experience or are curious about. Feed your creativity—and your soul—by trying new things, meeting new people, and asking lots of questions. Don't turn down an invitation to go parachuting, for example, or to spend a day tracking a paramedic.
A fellow writer once told me that he made opportunities to learn something new each and every day. If he took a cab, he'd interview the cabbie in detail. How long were his shifts? What happened when a customer didn't pay? Had he ever been robbed? He did this even if he wasn't currently writing about a cabbie. He'd simply tuck his notes away for future reference.
Anything, no matter how banal, can serve as a springboard for a story, so become observant in all that you do. Collect ideas every day. Jot down story plots, character descriptions, places you've seen, things you've read about, or snippets of dialogue you've overheard. Try capturing a person's speech pattern and choice of words. Look up new words you learn. "I like to cut out pictures from magazines," says screenwriter and documentary filmmaker Lindsay Norgard. "This helps me capture a mood or a character."
Always carry paper and pen, a tape recorder, or a camera on you. We absorb so much each day that unless we record it, we'll forget. I use a filing card system so I can separate my notes. For example, if I meet a witty woman at a dinner party, I'll note her snappy dialogue on one card, her physical description on another, and the dinner setting on a third. When I get home, I file my notes under broad categories: plot, dialogue, character, situation, setting, and title. This allows me the freedom to shuffle and combine my ideas as I like, whenever I like.
Each writer has his or her own methods for collecting ideas and brainstorming. Experiment and develop your own.
The Writer's Idea Book, by Jack Heffron: A book of over 400 prompts and exercises to get the juices flowing.
Want to make leaps and bounds as a writer? Give yourself permission to write a lousy first draft.
Writing and editing are two different processes. How can you feel totally free to be creative and inventive if your inner critic is constantly reading over your shoulder and making faces? Write now, judge later.
Gather your research and decide what a scene is about, then jump in and start writing without worrying about length or word choice or even correct spelling or grammar. If you know you need a certain beat here, but it's not coming to you, jot a reminder to yourself to come back to it later and keep going. After you get your lousy first draft on paper, then refine, elevate, re-arrange, expand, and trim. As screenwriter Andrew Bennett says, "Writers build. Editors cut. You can't do both at the same time."
Here's another trick most writers use: Never show your very rough first draft to anyone. Not your spouse, not your friends, not even your goldfish. It's for your eyes only. Why? Because you never have to worry about anyone's judgment! You can write whatever you want! I didn't show my husband the first draft of this book, and I haven't seen the first draft of his new novel. He may be writing incomprehensible nonsense, but I'll never know. I get to believe he's always brilliant.
If you don't allow yourself the freedom of a lousy first draft, you risk not completing your script. "Always remember the Art of Getting the Damn Thing Done," says Bennett. "Finish your script at all costs. Write an ending that you hate if you can't find a better one right now." Your subconscious will work on the problem, but only if you give it something to work with. So get it down on paper and trust the process. Embrace the lousy first draft. It's a writer's best friend.
I used to think I could find my story by simply writing. Armed with only a seedling of an idea, I'd write about 30 pages—the first act—and get stuck. I usually knew how I wanted the story to end, so I'd write the last 10 pages. But the middle was a mess. I couldn't figure out how to get my hero from point A to Z in a logical and compelling fashion.
I was confusing the brainstorming process with the writing process. True, I needed to kick around ideas, discover my characters, and develop conflicts and dilemmas—in other words, find my story. But once I'd written scenes or characters I liked, it was hard to throw them out when they didn't work. I found myself trying to fit the story around the parts I liked, and I'd hit an impasse.
Then I tried outlining, and it was bye-bye to writer's block.
Many writers fear wrongly that outlining will stifle their creativity. But in fact, it can lead to amazing breakthroughs. It's much easier to try out wild ideas and test, add, and discard story elements—plot, subplots, characters, and so on—when you're not attached to specific scenes, characters, and lines of dialogue.
Outlining comes after you've developed and tested your concept. Whether you use file cards, a step outline, or another method is up to you, but your outline should include the major events of the story. In a three-act structure, they would be:
1. Opening scene/s
2. Inciting Incident
3. First turning point at the end of Act I
5. Second turning point at the end of Act II
On the first run-through, stay focused on the primary story as you hit these marks. Include the subplots only when they influence these story events. Then go back and brainstorm connecting scenes and add the subplots. Keep your outline concise—one or two summary sentences per scene. For example:
INT. LAB – NIGHT
Hunched over his microscope, David pulls an all-nighter trying to crack the case.
As you work, keep asking questions. Is the central conflict compelling enough to carry the movie? Would the story be better if a different character became the hero? Is the climax powerful? Go through the outline trying different possibilities.
If you get stuck, then you probably need to solidify your central conflict, develop your characters, or do a little research. Take a break from outlining to brainstorm or gather the information you need. You may find your concept shifting as you outline. Don't worry, just take another look at it. Can you improve on it? Once you've elevated your concept, go back to outlining.