The First Draft Shortcut
So, you’ve got an idea for a script. Great! You’re super excited. But then you sit down to write and wham! The enormity of the task hits you:
"I can’t possibly write all this! Who am I to write this anyway? What do I know? I never finish my ideas so what’s the point in starting at all..."
Never fear! There is another way!
I’ve pulled together my ‘First Draft Shortcut’. The aim here is to get scenes written as quickly and efficiently as possible. It breaks down the process into manageable chunks, so you don’t get overwhelmed by filling 2 hours of stage time. It also motivates you as each day you take another step towards that hallowed first draft.
We’re absolutely not looking for perfection at this stage. This is about getting this idea out of your system onto a page. Once it’s on a page, the writer’s life become so much easier. You can get someone (like me!) to read it and help you shape your ideas further. You can submit it to a new writing night and see extracts performed. You can get some actors together and hear the text out loud or use the text as a springboard for improvisation.
This ‘First Draft Shortcut’ is about making the loneliest phase of writing feel manageable, achievable and (dare I say it!) enjoyable! So, what are you waiting for! Let’s get started!
STEP ONE - FLESHING OUT THE IDEA
Here, I’m working on the basis that you already have some kind of idea or stimulus. So, let’s say you’ve got your idea. Let’s just flesh it out a little bit and get a better sense of what it is that interests you, what the world might feel like and what might happen in it.
Get yourself four sheets of paper – I prefer to do this the old-fashioned way, but you can use a computer if you’d rather. Give these sheets of paper the following headings:
This sheet is for questions you have about the piece you’re writing. These might be questions you want/need to answer (eg. How many characters does it have?) or they might be questions to explore or leave open for an audience (eg. Can we trust the protagonist?).
Any ideas, details or thoughts you have about characters. Definitely don’t worry about names at this stage – Pinter famously just used A, B, C for his characters to start with.
Here we’re looking at things that actually happen or might happen in the story. These could be dramatic (eg. A and B have a massive fight) or they could be more contained (eg. A and B have coffee together).
This sheet is for anything that gives context to the characters and events. This relates to time, place, culture, politics, style, etc.
The key to this exercise is not to think too much or filter your ideas too much. Set a timer for 10 minutes. And in that time write as many things under each of those categories as you can. These ideas can be as fully formed or as vague as you like, it really doesn’t matter at this stage. Right now, we’re looking to get your imagination going. To build on your initial idea and spark new ones.
If you’ve still got more to write after 10 minutes. Take a short break. Then set the timer for another 10 minutes and go again.
These sheets can then become the foundations of your piece. Have them close to hand so you can add to and amend them as and when ideas come to you. Having them on sheets of paper, helps you to externalise your ideas and to give you a visual touchstone as you move forward.
And get creative with how you make these sheets! You can use different colours. They could become more of a spider gram. Or they might include pictures and images as well as words. Make them exciting and visually pleasing so that you want to spend time with them.
STEP TWO - BREAKING YOUR IDEAS INTO BITESIZE CHUNKS
So, now you’ve got your big sheets of paper with some ideas on. Focussing on the EVENTS sheet you can now start to pull these ideas into some kind of provisional order.
Here is where your Three Act Structure (mentioned in 5 Tips for Writers) really comes into its own. Yes, I’m going to talk a bit about structure BUT I PROMISE IT WILL HELP SO DON’T RUN AWAY! And, remember, this is all provisional and can change at any time.
You are simply looking for the 5 main events that interest or excite you. Broadly speaking you’re looking for the following:
1) INCITING INCIDENT – This is the moment after which nothing can be the same again. It is the catalyst if you like. The lovers meeting for the first time, the death of the king, etc.
2) FIRST TURNING POINT – This is the moment where we start to kick into gear and the impact of the inciting incident is felt. Generally, it’s the moment where things start to go well or better for the protagonist. But this absolutely doesn’t have to be the case.
3) MID-POINT – As the name suggests, this generally happens towards the middle of the piece. It’s the moment when the action triggered by the First Turning Point comes to a head. Normally, this is the point where things start to get more challenging for the protagonist. It’s the point where whatever obstacle the protagonist faces starts to fight back.
4) SECOND TURNING POINT – This is the moment where things change again. Normally, this happens at the moment when the protagonist is really struggling, and something happens that starts to propel the action towards its climax.
5) CLIMAX – As you might imagine, the point at which the action all comes to a head. The moment when all the different tensions, questions, agendas meet, and we get some kind of outcome.
An example might make this slightly easier to understand. So, I’ll take you through how I’ve picked these events for my adaptation of Great Expectations [SPOILER ALERT!]:
1) INCITING INCIDENT – Magwitch is recaptured. He makes a silent vow, that any money he ever earns will go to Pip.
2) FIRST TURNING POINT – Pip learns that he has an unknown benefactor and is to become a gentleman of ‘great expectations’.
3) MID-POINT – Pip receives news that his sister, Mrs Joe, has died.
4) SECOND TURNING POINT – Magwitch returns to England and reveals that he is Pip’s benefactor.
5) CLIMAX – Pip tries to get Magwitch out of the country by boat. There is a chase, the boats collide, and Magwitch is thrown overboard, sustaining fatal injuries.
(Obviously, you may have your own opinions on how Great Expectations can be broken down into these key structural events and I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts!)
So, what are the key lessons from this and how can you move forward?
The main point is, DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH AT THIS STAGE. Go with your gut. If your ideas don’t seem to neatly fit the above headings – DON’T WORRY! Just pick 5 events that excite you or interest you, and work with them.
What we’re doing here is breaking your idea down into manageable, bite-size chunks. Forget about the big picture now. Just focus on writing these 5 scenes. They might be 2 pages long, they might be 20 pages long. But just get something on paper for each of these moments.
Focus on one scene at a time. And before you know it, you’ll have the backbone of your first draft written. Once you have these 5 scenes, you literally just need to thread them together and you’ve got yourself a play!
STEP THREE - FILLING IN THE GAPS
So, you’ve now got your 5 key scenes. You’re not sure they’re right, they’re certainly not perfect but, hey, you’ve turned your idea into something that resembles a play. If you gave these 5 scenes to a director and a group of actors, they could actually start turning it into something that could be performed. You might even already have a scene or two that you could send to a new writing night and get it up on stage. This is huge progress.
Now, all that’s left is to tie these moments together. Here, again, we’ll break it down into manageable chunks.
You’ve got another 5 key areas to focus on:
1) THE SET UP – This is about establishing what life was like before the inciting incident changes everything.
2) RISING ACTION – This carries us from our first turning point to our mid-point. Normally this is where things are going well for the protagonist.
3) FALLING ACTION – This takes us from our mid-point to our second turning point. Normally this is where things are going badly for the protagonist!
4) PRE-CLIMAX – This is the build from the second turning point to the climax. It may just be a ramp up of tension, or it may be a dramatic event in its own right. (eg. In Great Expectations this would be the fire at Satis House).
5) AFTERMATH – This is where the impact of the climax is shown and potentially we have some kind of resolution.
It may help to refer back to the graph above here. You can see visually how the rising and falling action follows Pip's journey through the play - when things are looking up and when things are taking a turn for the worse.
So, as with Step Two, we’ve broken this process into 5 key scenes. The big advantage of this structure is that it makes it very clear where each scene needs to take us. Some sections will almost certainly need more than one scene – if the ideas come for those then great! Get them on paper. If not, that’s absolutely fine. It’s all about gradually piecing together the full play.
Again, as with Step Two, work on one of these at a time. Get something out, however bad you think it might be! Because by the end of it, you’ll have something that resembles a first draft! By the end of it, you will absolutely have something that tells a story, has a dramatic arc and takes its audience on a journey. In other words, you’ll have written a play!
Once you’ve threaded things together you can start to smooth the edges. You’ll see more clearly where an extra scene is needed or where you can merge scenes. And this is where the re-drafting comes in.
It’s also worth noting that, depending on the style of piece you’re writing, these don’t have to be clearly separate scenes, you could thread them all together into one continuous piece of action. But by breaking them down into scenes initially, it ensures you are building in the ebb and flow of the drama, and you’re able to tackle the writing process in bite-size chunks.
So, there you have it! My First Draft Shortcut! If there’s one thing to take away from this it’s: get something out on paper. We're not looking for perfect. Write it now. Make it better later. As a very accomplished and successful director once said to me, you’re looking for ‘progress not perfection’. Words on a page is progress. So what are you waiting for?!
Marcus Bazley, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director
Before founding Cyphers in 2014, Marcus studied History at King's College London.
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