I have to admit, I usually subscribe to the theory that no one's first script is any good. It's a necessary step to get better, but usually when someone wants me to look at their first script, I brace myself for every amateur mistake that I so often rail against. Given that, I never expected that anyone would sell the first spec they every wrote - which is why I was so surprised a while back when Dan Callahan told me he did just that with College.
However, it's worth noting that Dan had always been writing. College might have been his first full-length feature, but he'd written many other things. He was a writing major in college, he'd been writing stories all his life and he had read many, many scripts. Thus, he'd written creatively before and he had a pretty strong knowledge of the craft of screenwriting. Judging but the first-timer scripts I've seen, that sort of background is rare. Because of this, most people's first scripts are crap. In fact, a lot of writers have made the mistake of burning a few of their good contacts on a first script that simply isn't good enough to compete with the other specs out there.
I came out to LA with exactly one spec - a screenplay I'd written for a screenwriting class my senior year in college. It was a story I'd toyed with all through college. When I came up with the idea, it was a whodunit that I figured I could make into a 25 minute short. As the years went on, every few weeks I'd pull it out of the drawer, add a few more twists and red herrings, and before I knew it, the idea had gotten to feature-length. Even then, I hadn't formally structured it, at least not consciously.
When it came time to pitch ideas for the class, I hauled my synopsis out and was amazed to discover that the story broke neatly into a three-act structure. In fact, it conformed almost exactly to the three-act diagram that my professor provided. This was more a coincidence than anything else, likely the result of me absorbing pacing and structure by osmosis from all the films I'd watched over the years.
The result was a procedural murder-mystery that was heavier on the plot twists than it was on character development. I had a mild arc for the lead character, but it is little surprise that most of my classmates who read it felt that it played like an episode of Law & Order. (Fortunately, most of them felt it would have been a good episode of L&O!)
Despite that, it didn't have much in the way of a high concept hook. It was the sort of thing that people might read and go, "It's a decent writing sample, but it'll never sell." I showed it to an assistant and a manager at my first internship and got some great notes back. Their input actually helped me cut the story down, improve the pacing and add a few red herrings. Looking at that first draft I gave them, I'm aghast to note that I had written the script using Microsoft Word, with the margins set manually. Not only did I have the margins wrong, but I wrote the script in Times New Roman. The result was that the formatting errors threw off the length of the script. And it looked pretty amateurish.
After about three rewrites and exporting the script to Final Draft so I could painstakingly fix each and every last formatting error, I'm left with a script that is at least decent enough to show people if all my other specs fail to get a response stronger than, "What else do you have?" (This is actually a compliment, in some ways. If the reader in question thought my writing was terrible, they'd never ask that.) I'm not embarrassed by the script in its current state, but its a far cry from what it was when I came out here.
So tell me about your first script? Does it embarrass you? Have you rewritten and salvaged it? Do you look back on it and cringe? Did you make the mistake of showing it to people before it was ready?
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