Screenwriting First Draft Tips From Acclaimed Screenwriters

How do some of the most acclaimed screenwriters handle the first draft for each screenplay they write?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature BAFTA Guru‘s How to Write video series and share some of the best information that you can use to help your screenwriting preparation process.

1. Writing the Script

Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Michael Clayton) enjoys the process. “It’s fun when I go to write the script, because the movie, in a sense, is [produced] in a sloppy way… I’m coming in and getting to do what I consider the fun part of the job… I know what I’m going to do every day.”

Film production, even though there is a set shooting schedule for each day of production, is chaotic in many ways. A screenwriter can control their day more than a film production can. So screenwriters should enjoy that freedom.

Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes) writes from page one to the end. “I write it pretty much from Page One to The End… and then it evolves, ya know? I usually go over the script from the beginning every time I sit down. I’ll print it out and reread everything. So by the time I’m done, I’ve gone over that first twenty pages countless times. And I try to finish with enough time so that I can go over the end enough times too. Because I really think it’s the rewriting where the work gets a lot better.”

Hossein Amini (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman) prefers to write chronologically as well during his writing process, putting more effort into that first draft. “I’ve always, sort of written chronologically during the first draft stage. I don’t do that thing of burning… it’s such an important part of discovery for me. And also, the first draft is really where it’s laid down. It sort of gets into a groove, which is then quite hard to get out of. You can refine scenes and bring new scenes in, and take stuff out. But actually, there’s such an important setting of rhythm and tone, and whatever, in that first draft where I spend a little bit longer on.”

But the process is different for everyone — even among the greats.

David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel) doesn’t believe in spending as much time on the first draft as Amini does. “I think a mistake that a lot of beginning writers do is they try to rewrite while they’re writing their first draft. And I find that there’s two different kind of left-brain, right-brain modes of writing. There’s the pure creative side of it and then there’s the editorial side. The more analytical side. And I think it’s a mistake to allow the more analytical side to impede upon the creative side.” 

This is proof that there’s no single way to write a screenplay. Find what works for you while being ready and willing to try other ways.

Peter Morgan (Queen, Rush) resists the temptation to experiment with scenes within the actual screenplays. “By the time I’m actually writing dialogue, I really know — at least I think I know — where I’m going. Frequently, I’ll be writing, and then I’ll realize that I have to deviate. And then I will go back to note form. Back to outline form before doing that on the screenplay. I never experiment on the screenplay.”

This approach is interesting. Morgan will take the time to figure a scene out OFF of the page instead of trying to figure it out within.

2. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

Goyer advises, “You have to not be too hard on yourself when you’re doing that first draft. Sometimes if I’m really disgusted with myself, I will [literally] write, ‘Science gobbledegook’ in parenthesis for this one [character] or ‘sad story about his childhood’ in parenthesis and then I’ll go back afterward and fill it in.” 

Even the master screenwriters can’t figure some things out. This is an excellent tip for those that fear hitting a wall. The worst thing that you can do is shut down as a writer. You have to continue on.

3. Interesting Things Happen During the Process

Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love ActuallyWar Horse) comments on how strange things can happen, for the better, during the process. “It’s a mysterious process of addition. The new movie I’ve just written is sadder than I thought it would be… and I had an interesting thing happen with Notting Hill where I finished that film, really finished it properly and seriously, and then reread it and realized that I’d written the wrong film. It was the film I intended to write, but it was not a film I liked. So I went back and rewrote the last fifty pages.”

Amini adds, “Even if I’ve carded every single beat in the story, it takes on a life of its own. It doesn’t veer too far away structurally, but suddenly unexpected things happen.”

Grant offers newcomers some assurance by sharing that even the professionals freak out at times during the process. “I am almost invariably in tears at Page 85. Almost every time… and I’ve spoken to other writers. 85 is a bit of a black hole for a lot of people.”


Learn a few more tips, hear some further elaboration, and understand the writing schedules of these acclaimed screenwriters by watching the full video below!


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