How To Get To A First Draft

Do you have a story in mind which one day you want to let grow into a script or manuscript, but you don’t know how to start? And you don’t know how to get your first draft finished? Read on!

When I write a story, no matter if it is a script for a horror or science fiction film, or a sweet little children’s story, the process is always pretty much the same. And it is very straight forward; once one step is finished I proceed to the next step. To be honest, the writing part is – at least for me – the easiest part when working on a project, and I believe, that this comes because I never force anything. Below I have written down a breakdown of my process, which I hope can be helpful for you.

Step 1 – The Spark

director John E. Brito's sketch for a fairytale
director John E. Brito's sketch for a postapocalyptic cannibal film

Inspiration does not come while you are sitting in front of your computer, desperately trying to find a story. The idea for a story might arise in the most unfitting moments: While you are sitting in the waiting room of your dentist, or while you are waiting for the bus. I always carry a small sketchbook, or at least a notebook and some pencils and fineliners with me. I might see some miniatures of houses somewhere in a restaurant and I would imagine how cool it would be to be able to walk into these tiny houses. And then the thought gets its own life, telling me how cool it would be if there was a little village – hidden right below my feet, underneath the floor. And then my seven-year-old self tells me how cool it would be if there were little fury critters living in there… and on it goes. Actually, this is how the idea for my children’s book was born.

Back to the writing process: When something like that happens I quickly reach for my sketchbook and write the idea down. Of course I can’t write down everything that comes into my mind, because – like everybody else – I have a life to live and obligations to fulfill, but writing down some of the ideas – at least here and there – is already worth a lot. If you do this for some months you will be surprised how much cool stuff your inner child is constantly coming up with. Sometimes I go through my notebooks and think:

Man, I have written that? I can’t remember that. What was I smokin’ when I was writting this down? I love it!

At this point I should mention that I do not do any drugs. My mother always said, that her son – me – does not need to take drugs in order to get high. 🙂

Step 2 – Escaping

Now and then I love to write down stuff for no other particular reason than to explore the world that is currently in my head. If I made a sketch or took some notes some days or weeks ago, I would go back to these thoughts and write some short scene, or an explanation of what is going on in this scene. This is like some kind of background information on the topic that is currently on the page. At this point there are no thoughts about whether this will make a good story or not, I just write it down for the pure fun of writing it down.

Step 3 – Choosing one of the Projects

When I am near the finishing line of a project (this might be job related stuff, that was occupying my mind as well as personal stuff) I mentally flip through my sketchbooks and choose one of the stories – or I already know which one is going to be the next one to be taken a step further, which is:

Step 4 – The Structure

Here I would take some sheets of cheap paper and just write down the milestones (or plot points) of a story.

outline for a children's book fairytale by John E. Brito

More often than that, I would take a bunch of index cards and write some keywords or a short sentence to capture the idea of a scene or a character or location. Using index cards is really helpful if you want to organise your story elements and do a quick and dirty brainstorming of scenes and things you can get excited about. I´m not sure, but I think, that I found this tip in J. Michael Straczynski‘s Complete Book of Scriptwriting, which is really worth the read.

Usually, those index cards are throw away items, which I would get rid of once the script is done. Below you can see some left over cards I had found in a far away corner of a cabinet.

director John E. Brito's index cards for film scripts

The step with the index cards would usually takes about two days. At the end, I would have something like 80 to 150 index cards, either with just a short character description or some kind of raw scene written on it. (I know I had mentioned before, that I would just write a sentence down, but sometimes a simple sentence grows into something bigger. And in the end, the process should be fun and not creatively limiting.) Also, sometimes I would just make a quick and dirty sketch to remind me of a scene I want to write (like in this case for my postapocalyptic script with the working title Project 12).

director John E. Brito's sketches for a postapocalyptic film Project 12

Once I have my index cards set up I would organise them into columns. As each column would represent a scene, I would have the whole story laid out in front of me, on the desk. Here you can move around scenes, add some new scenes and throw away the boring ones. If I work with index cards I would not do the extra effort to write an outline, as the index cards serve (at least for me) the same purpose. Instead, I would switch immediately to a scriptwriting software called…

Step 5 – Celtx

Celtx is an open source scriptwriting software which allows you to organise your script in – index cards. 🙂 You can use Celtx for writing a film script, as well as a story for a comic or a theatre script. The cool thing about Celtx is, that you can create a scene by adding the beforementioned virtual index cards, which can have a scene name as well as a short description in their meta data.

So what I would do in this step is to simply create as many placeholders for scenes, or parts of scenes, as my paper and pen index cards indicate.

Below you can see the index cards for my fairytale children’s book called Below the Floor, which is currently getting finished 🙂

celtx index cards for a children's book fairytale by John E. Brito

Step 6 – Writing

Once I have created all the Celtx index cards / scene / parts placeholders I need (which should take no longer than 30 minutes), I would do a break. I usually would not start writing on the same day, but wait for the next morning. Instead, I would see how many scenes I got and I would do a rough calculation on how long I am allowed to spend writing a scene. For example: I decided that I wanted to write the script for my horror film The Wendigo Effect in five weeks. So I took the number of scene parts (118) and divided it by the number of days (25). So In knew, that I had to write 5 scene (or scene parts) on every working day (while not writing on weekends) in order to get it done within 5 weeks – writing fulltime.

I know that with a daytime job, a family and other obligations it is really difficult to do so, but in my experience the best way to getting a script done is by getting some time off the job, locking yourself in a silent room during the time you are writing (switching off the internet and phone of course). Why is that so? Because in my experience you loose a lot of creative energy if you do otherwise and the risk of giving up midways grows when your energy is divided between a daytime job and your creative endeavours.

celtx script for a children's book fairytale by John E. Brito

Celtx script for the children’s book Below the Floor

Of course, there is the possibility of writing at nights. If you do so, you have to take more care of yourself – try not to be too exhausted when you sit down at your writing desk to write the daily portion of your script. And do not get discouraged if it takes longer. You will need more willpower if you do it by night, but I think, that it is do-able. Working this way is more of a marathon than a sprint. Just think about it this way:

If I have 120 scene parts / index cards to write, and I write one piece per night (Monday to Friday), I will be done in 6 months.

This is still great, and you will be further down your creative path once you have pushed trough these six months. At the end, compared to a life time, six months is not that much.

And don’t forget: Actually writing the script is the fun part of the whole process. You can keep pushing through your scenes and dive into the world you are creating without wasting a thought on whether the scene should be written or not, because you have already done that. During the writing process you will notice, that you might need an additional short scene or scene part here and there to make the story more understandable. That´s okay as long as you get done 5 index cards / placeholders per day (or per week if you are writing by night).

Important note: Do not read what you have written the days before. And never do any rewrites. You just want to focus on getting through your script. You can do the rewrites at the end of the process, but first it is important to get your script done. I have written two horror film scripts and and two sci-fi scripts that way and I have to say, that at the end I have always been thankful for resisting the urge to do some rewrites during the creation of the first draft. And this leads to the next step:

Step 7 – The Reward

After you have pushed trough your script get to your favourite media store and buy a DVD you always wanted to have, but never bought, because it was too expensive. Or do something else to reward yourself. You can honestly be proud of yourself, because very little people ever manage to get their first draft done. 🙂

Take a break from your script for the rest of the week. Just print it out, give it a spiral binding and put it on your writing desk.

script for John E. Brito's fairytale children's book Below the Floor

Step 8 – Spell Checking

When you come back to your (printed) script the following week, read through it several times and put marks on the spelling errors you have done. I really want to encourage you to do this with a printed out version of your first draft as you are 25% faster reading offline than online. At this point you might also take down some notes on the weaknesses you are finding within your own script.

script for John E. Brito's fairytale children's book Below the Floor

After you have marked your spelling errors you fire up Celtx to correct all those mistakes. Correcting your mistakes is important for the next step…

Step 9 – Getting Feedback

…because you will choose two to four persons you trust, which like to read / you consider experts in the genre of your script / have written scripts themselves / are script doctors. You will call them and ask if they would like to read your first draft and would like to give you some honest feedback. You see now why it was important to correct all those spelling mistakes? Because you do not want to create the impression, that you are not taking your script serious.

Print out your script for those who are willing to read it. Again, I would recommend to hand them a printed out and spiral bound scripts instead of a PDF, because – even with advanced tablets – it is more comfortable to read on printed paper than on the screen. Also, in my experience, many of my trusted feedback readers prefer writing down notes on the script.

Make sure to ask your readers when you can call them back. Don’t be pushy. You are taking their time and they are doing you a favour.

And before I forget it: If any of your trusted readers ever needs a favour from you, never ever hesitate. Help. Full stop.

Back to the feedback round: When your readers have read the script, meet them in person. One by one. Invite them to a coffee in a coffee house which is not noisy. Ask them if it is ok for them to take notes while they talk, so you can be sure not to forget anything they said. Listen to their thoughts and take some notes while you are doing so.  Also, don’t hide your notebook, let them see that you got nothing to hide. And most importantly: Do not defend your script. Do not explain why you wrote the things you wrote. Just let them express their thoughts. This is important, because you have to respect their opinion, you do not want to interrupt their feedback and you do not want to get some bias into the conversation.

Step 10 – Going Through the Feedback

Sit down with your own notes and the notes you have taken from your readers’ feedbacks and find the problems you should address.

Step 11 – Rewrite

Do a first rewrite of the portions which need one. It is difficult to say how long this will take. This depends on your story and the structure of your story.

Done. You have your first draft. Congratulations! 🙂

The list above was my roadmap to getting a first draft of a film script (or book manuscript) done. Of course, there are different writing styles need different approaches, but nonetheless I hope, that you can take something out of it and that it helps you getting your first draft finished. I think, that the secret is: Know that scripts are not written, they are rewritten. Of course, your journey won’t end here, but I think that getting a first draft done is a huge step forward which separates the talkers from the do-ers 🙂

If you liked this article check out the section called On Writing in which I post the things I have learnt so far about – writing (while I was writing children’s books and movie scripts).

What is your process of writing a script or manuscript, or what do you think of the process described above? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

11 responses to “How To Get To A First Draft

  1. This is excellent for like a month I’ve been having an idea for a science fiction script but didn’t even know how to started, I’ve never done this before but this would help me to do my first steps!


  2. Pingback: Beta-Reading Below the Floor | I create worlds. John E. Brito's Blog·

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