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By Patrick Kirkland · April 14, 2011
This week’s plan: Pick my topic. Do enough planning to get me through the first draft. Do a quick draft, just to fill up the page. And I mean quick. My overall plan was to speed-write a thousand words and send it out, as fast and dirty as possible. So with my notes and my laptop at my ready, I started typing out the first paragraph. And then what I thought would never happen, yet always happens, ended up happening: I started hitting the backspace button. Again, and again, and again. Delete came as many times as the words themselves. And soon, my so called NASCAR Draft of this week’s Script Tips… In Action veered off the track, hitting the wall at 190 mph, and burst into flames.
So, what happened?
Well, first, with a month’s long jury duty and four hours of sleep behind me, I was tired. Tired, which led me to being underprepared, as well as my brain not being able to fire on all cylinders. So whatever ability I had to be able to fill in the blanks with fluff, in this article, I'm not able to. Secondly, as I said, I’m unprepared. In order to write the first fly-through draft, you need to have all your prep work done. For instance, in a normal screenplay, you should have a full outline, with plot points, turns, character arcs, and scenes mapped out, either in a beat sheet or, my personal favorite, 3×5 cards. For short stories, I’ll usually plot out the major beats, but leave them in my notepad instead of pinned to the wall. And for articles, I’ll draft out the main points and the overarching theme. This time? I opened up a new Word doc and let the keys fly. So for those of you who think that’s what I’m talking about doing, let me tell you this: you’re only wasting your time.
Yes, the point of the NASCAR Draft is to fill up the page as quickly as possibly, but it’s more than that. It's to give you a glimmer of an idea to where you’re headed. I won’t even say it’s a solid idea, because chances are, at this point in the game, it’s nowhere close. Then, you might ask, what’s the point? There are several:
Your idea can’t live in your head forever.
It has to come out sometime, somewhere, somehow. Why not now? You’ve spent massive amounts of time and energy with these characters and plot points stuck inside your brain. It’s important to get them out and let them breathe, not the least of reasons other than to just get a different perspective on them. Your idea looks a lot different when it’s on paper. Plus, you’re a writer, which means your job is to write things down. You started getting there with index cards and little notes taken and all of that, but it’s not a script. Which is another reason.
It’s not a screenplay until you reach “The End.”
Outlines and beat sheets are important, but they’re not screenplays. Just because you’ve got a wall full of index cards doesn’t mean your actual story makes sense, or that your character development is what it should be, or that you have an ending that brings tears to eyes and gets people talking. And you won’t actually know that until you see it in screenplay format. Even if you get it out there, and no one reads the damn thing but yourself and your mom, it’s still important. This first draft is where dialogue finally takes the stage. And all writers love dialogue. I’ve never heard a writer say in an interview, “I have an intense passion for writing action sequences and slug lines.” This is where you get to find out if your hero is a smartass only in your head, or out in the real world. And this is where you find out your movie’s true meaning. How? Your ending. Your ending tells you everything; it dictates how you begin, whether your main culmination is a high or low point, the journey of the main character’s arc. And, again, even though you’ve plotted everything out and that final index card is up on your board, and you’re certain that the end you outlined is absolutely perfect, you don’t really know your ending – not exactly – until you actually write “The End.”
Screenplays are meant to be read.
By somebody. Anybody. But just as the theater is required to have an audience, a script is required to have a reader. Even if that reader is you. Even if it’s you reading it out loud to your dog, or your chair, or your coffee cup, it’s not a screenplay unless it’s being read.
If you read it and find out that you’ve got absolutely nothing, at least you now know. If you realize your protagonist has no goal, or there’s no antagonist, or scenes don’t make sense in their current order, then your draft has been totally worth it. Things leap out to you. Words become visual, conspicuous, even obtrusive. Action sequences may seem boring, or maybe they’re missing entirely. You'll start to hear the tediousness of the monologues and speeches that you were blindly in love with only weeks earlier. And you'll begin to own up to the fact that a lot of the most important and memorable scenes are the ones you still haven't written.
But if, in fact, you actually have the nerve to plan a group reading around this draft, I’m actually going to tell you something you wouldn’t expect: don’t do it.
This draft, while important, isn’t meant for the public. And it’s not meant for you to ask the “what do you think” questions. No. This draft is meant for you. If anyone gave you the wrong advice now, it could tear your heart in half, snuffing out months of hard work. It’s too fragile a time for that. Instead, once you’re finished, simply print it out and put it in a drawer. Go have a drink to celebrate, and wait two weeks. Yes, a full two weeks before you pull it out, and begin rewrites. Yes, rewrites. Lots of rewrites.
You have to write it if you’re going to win that Oscar.
This one obviously applies only to those who want to snatch up Oscars, right? We write it “because we have to,” because we want to “tell the world,” right? We don’t do it for the recognition, right? Right? Wrong.
Look, I want to believe that, I really do. I honestly couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else in life; I absolutely love pouring my heart out day after day. But frankly, I want the recognition, and I can’t imagine how other writers are any different. This isn’t selling out. This is selling yourself. Just because you get recognized for your screenwriting doesn’t mean you’re betraying some cardinal set of principles. You can be Indie your entire life if you want, but even somebody as Indie as Aranovsky ends up in multiplexes. Even Sylvia Plath, goddess of the “I do it for my soul” camp, had an illustrious and award winning writing career by the time she snuffed herself at age 30.
Writing is personal. Screenwriting is personal. But the movie business? About as impersonal as it gets. And, if you didn’t want the recognition, you wouldn’t have chosen screenwriting. After all, you’re writing for someone else (actually a whole lot of someone else’s) to visualize what you put on paper, and then for other people to see it. You’re writing for a collaborative process, and a political industry. Your script will be read by actors, writers, editors, assistants, script readers, producers, and even the occasional bike messenger. There’s a good chance it will be edited by any of the above. Don’t let that scare you. The part you’re in now, this very first draft, is a very personal process, but after this, it’s time to let it go. Get the story out of your head and onto the page, and then make it good enough, so it can take flight on its own. For every hand it touches, you want to be recognized as the original writer. For every read, you want it to have your voice. And when the time comes, because it will come, you want to be the one who walks down the red carpet to collect your golden statue. Don’t get caught up now thinking about the process of getting it made. Instead, let the idea of success – whether it’s an Oscar, a Globe, or a phone call from mom – push you into finishing as completely and quickly as possible.
The objective of the NASCAR Draft is to gas-guzzle your way from point A to point B, because before you can do anything of quality, you first have to get it down on paper. It’s not going to be perfect. Not even be close to perfect. But as Hemingway poetically put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” The good news? It’s supposed to be.