I Wrote a Screenplay and it is Utterly Terrible

After several months of writing effort, squeezed in whenever I had a few spare minutes, it is with great pride that I can say that I have completed the first draft of a screenplay. It is also with great pride that I can say it is completely and utterly terrible.

And that is prefectly fine.

First drafts are not meant to be great

Try a few online searches with the following format: "[author name] quote first draft" and you'll see what I mean. Perhaps one of the most notable is:

The first draft of anything is shit
— Ernest Hemingway

Simple and to the point. A man after my own heart.

But there are plenty of other well known authors who share similar, if not so direct, thoughts on the first draft.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
— Terry Pratchett
The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right but to get it written
— John Dufresne

You see, it is OK that I say my first draft is terrible. It actually seems like the norm. No author is brilliant enough that they can go from crazy idea to publishable story in one step.

It's a long and iterative process that takes time, effort, and dedication. And the acceptance that your first draft will be terrible.

Here are some of the reasons why my first draft is terrible:

Problem 1: It's lonnnnnnng

Industry expectation is for a feature-length screenplay to be 100-120 pages which is supposedly 1 minute per page. Mine is 171 pages! But this measurement is from the point of view of studio executives and agents trying to sell the screenplay. No-one wants to buy a 3-hour epic story from an unknown writer. But, luckily I am not trying to sell this. I just wanted to get the story out of my head and onto the page.

Problem 2: The plotholes

To help me achieve this writing goal I developed several systems and habits to keep myself focused on the task. One of these was a rule that I could not go back and edit any previous writings. I just kept writing. This was brilliant for keeping me on track but it means some of the things I wrote later directly contradict the earlier work. But I'll go back and fix those during editing.

Problem 3: Misdeveloped Characters

Some of my characters are not well developed or planned for. Some characters that I thought would be more important actually didn't get much screen time. And others I inserted as one-offs became critical players. Some were so irrelevant that they don't even have names but have been refered to with letters and numbers (e.g. H1 for Henchman 1). Looking through is reminiscent of that weird AI project that wrote a screen play and named two characters H.

Problem 4: Structure?

It's my first screenplay. That means I probably got the pacing all wrong. Too much action here, not enough there. To much dialogue here, not enough there. Too much direction...you get the point. I'm a noob screenwriter so this screenplay is bound to be rough.

So from this perspective it is quite reasonable to say my first draft is terrible. But....

A first draft is a terrible product, not a terrible first draft

The first draft is really only terrible when you compare it to a finished product. That's a key distinction.

Right now my first draft is a terrible product. But it's not a product yet. It's just a first draft.

It's only terrible when you line it up against all the other screenplays that have been through hundreds of hours of revision and polishing. It's only terrible when compared to all the great authors who have been writing and practicing their craft for YEARS. It's only terrible if I expected to write a masterpiece the first time I stepped up to the keyboard.

A first draft actually has a pretty low bar for quality when you only assess it as a first draft, rather than any real or imagined finished product.

So I should consider some of the reasons my first draft is actually a good first draft:

Reason 1: It's done

How many wannabe writers actually finish their first draft? I have nothing but annecdotal evidence but I'd say the number is very low. A lot of people have ideas but they don't start actually writing. Of the people that do start many get discouraged and give up before even completing a first draft.

Reason 2: Story options

I like having 171 pages of content, and many more notes and ideas, to work with. From here I could choose to cut it down to a good-sized screenplay or expand into a full-sized novel. Win-win. Plus I already have enough great ideas for at least a trilogy!

Reason 3: I love my main characters

This is probably mainly because they are subsets of my own personality but still, I really do like them. I think I wrote them in a good and realistic manner. I also enjoyed letting some of their backgrounds or desires naturally fall out of my writing process. It was like watching them grow up as I was writing.

Reason 4: Systems and habits

Throughout this process I created systems to help me focus, write, and achieve my goal. These have been amazing in helping me churn out my writing, even in difficult situations. I have learned a lot throughout this process and these systems will be usable again in the future, not just for writing but on any project I tackle.

Reason 5: I'm excited

I'm absolutely pumped that I achieved this! It's a massive milestone for me and that makes me so happy. Even if this screenplay never sees the light of day anywhere else I will know that I gave writing it my best crack and that is what really matters. And I've found this excitment, enthusiasm, and productivity is having flow-on effects to other areas of my life. Happy times.

So maybe my first draft isn't completely terrible after all. Maybe it's exactly as good as a first draft needs to be, and it doesn't matter what happens from here because I've already achieved the goal that I've had for a long time.

Maybe my draft screenplay is actually pretty bloody good. Oh well, too late to change the title of this article but it does lead me into an important message here.

Do not always compare your progress to the ideal finished product

This is true not just for creative artists but for everyone. You need to take time to compare your progress relative to your own starting position. Do not always compare to the end product and especially not to someone else's end product.

If you only compare yourself to your end goal then you are always in a constant state of failure. Even if you are 95% complete you'll still beat yourself up by only seeing the missing 5%. Take time to be happy with the progress you have made.

This applies everywhere. The first time you do ANYTHING will most likely be pretty terrible. First game of golf? You'll struggle to keep the ball on the fairway. Building a tech startup? You're first version will be clunky. Learning to cook? Barely passbable taste. And so on. This is just a natural part of the skill cycle.

But even if you are terrible compared to some crazy high standard you are still better off than if you had not even tried. 1% progress toward a goal is always better than 0%.

Don't compare your first draft to a finished product. It's just a first draft.

Love, Zac