Friday, March 14, 2014

What was the first script you wrote?

On Go Into The Story yesterday, Scott Myers asked the question, "What was the first script you wrote?"  Though I answered over there, it felt like this was something worth covering on this site as well. I actually re-read that final draft of my first script a couple weeks ago and live-tweeted the experience. It wasn't as wretched as I feared, but it's still not anything I'd want out there as a sample of my writing.

(For the purposes of this post, I'm discussing my first feature script - not any of my shorts or scripts for the TV show I created in college.)

The story was about a disgraced cop who was in exile on a small-town police force after being the Mark Fuhrman-like fallguy for the failure of a high profile case. He's thrown a nuisance case that arrives in the form of a student film showing a murder, with a note saying that this actress has really been killed.

The cop investigates the local film school (I developed the story in college and wrote it my senior year. I was writing what I knew, sue me) and quickly matches the film to its director, who has a lot of holes in his story AND who had been dating the actress. Surprise, surprise, they were having problems. But a couple other twists emerge and red herrings start popping up left and right.

I first came up with the idea during my freshman year and at that point, I was intending it to be a 20-minute short I would make as my final project senior year. Overtime, the story evolved and expanded to the point where I realized my treatment couldn't possibly fit into 20 minutes of screentime.

During my senior year I took a screenwriting class and two of the assignments involved writing a treatment for a feature-length story and then writing the first act (delivered to the class in 15 page increments as we went round-robin rotation.) We had just learned the three-act structure before being given the treatment assignment. I went back to my dorm, looked at my printed treatment and drew three lines between various paragraphs: END OF ACT ONE, MIDPOINT, END OF ACT TWO.

In what surprised me at the time, the story beats that in a perfect world would have matched those turning points, landed EXACTLY where they would have if I had done it on purpose. Basically, I had internalized the pacing and structure of your typical thriller to such a degree that I innately followed the beat sheet without trying.

Before I pat myself on the back too much, I'll note that for all my plotting and structure strengths, the show comes up light on character. I was - and still am - a huge fan of LAW & ORDER and its influence was very apparent in the script's style. There were a lot of short dialogue-driven scenes. Almost everything in the plot is advanced through dialogue. No real set-pieces, just a lot of talking, interviewing, debating and interrogating.

As I said, we wrote the first act as part of the final project for that semester. We then had an option to continue into Advanced Screenwriting, where we would spend the full semester finishing our scripts.  As before, we worked in a rotation. There were nine of us in the class, broken into groups of three.  When our group's turn came up, we were to deliver pages (anywhere from 10-20 pages each) to the rest of the class for reactions and in-class critiques at our next meeting.

However the schedule worked out, by the time it was coming up on my final turn in the rotation, I was just at the start of Act Three.  I knew I was doing something right when a couple students realized that my next turn might not necessarily finish off the story if I stuck to just 15 pages. (During finals week, we were to rewrite and complete our scripts before submitting them to the professor, so the assumption was that those who didn't have a complete draft before then would complete it at that time.)  More than one classmate implored me to finish the story for the next class.  They had to know how the mystery was resolved.

For all the nitpicking and issues they had had with the script up to that point, that was when I knew that in some sense it was working.  It was one of the few scripts in that class that left the audience with a need for the closure.  That desire was far less evident in reactions to scripts where the writers were clearly making it up fifteen pages at a time.

This was the script I brought with me out to LA. My first internship was at a boutique management company. It passed muster with one of the assistants, who compared it favorably to a script they had just sold for $1M. He had a few suggestions before he passed it up, most of which just involved adding another red herring. I made the changes and one of the managers read it. It came out as a gentle pass and some very correct advice that this was a hard sell. I believe his exact words were, "I'm not sure the best possible version of this script could be a spec."

[Note: a really weird quirk of this office was that they would use "spec" only to talk about hot scripts that sold for a lot. Technically, the script already was a "spec" since I didn't write it for a buyer, but in the terminology of the office, he was basically saying he didn't see people paying a lot of money for it.]

I moved on to another internship - a production company responsible for a lot of hit films in the 90s. Coincidentally, their latest film was that $1M dollar spec. It also was their LAST film. Take from that what you will.

Anyway, the director of development agreed to read my script one day. Not long after I delivered it to her, I saw her walking through the office, nose buried in a script, reading WHILE WALKING TO THE BATHROOM.

Yes, whatever she was reading, she didn't even want to put it down to pee! About an hour later, she calls me into her office and says, "This is great writing, Bitter! Do you have an agent?"

Don't get too excited for me. She passed it on to an agent and nothing came of it. Later I gave it to a development exec at the first company I actually worked. His takeaway: He could see I had a lot of talent, the story moved well, but he just didn't think it had much of an audience as a feature. I asked him if he thought it would work for me as a writing sample and he bluntly said, "Agents are looking for something they can sell."

So I moved on and wrote another script. I'd learned enough from that first script that the next one was a little better. And then the one after it was stronger still, as was the one that followed that.  In fact, out of six solo feature specs and two feature specs written with partners, I'd really only want the three, perhaps four, most recent features to stand as any kind of representation of my writing.

(My TV samples have a higher hit ratio, but that owes to the fact that I only wrote one early TV spec before focusing on features for several years.  By the time I returned to TV writing, I'd gotten a LOT better at it.)

I read some of those early scripts now and they feel like the work of a different person.  I might not be making all of the rookie mistakes, but I still see a hundred things I would do differently now.  Being a good writer is about more than just not making the most grievous errors - it's about knowing how to tell a story in a compelling way.  The best version of my first script works on the page in some ways, but it would never make a good film.

So if you finish that first script, bask in the accomplishment.  Be proud of what it represents.  Then site down and start writing your next one.


  1. Funny, coz I stumbled across a hard copy of my first script while cleaning out the shed recently. Brass brads were rusty as shit.

    Gotta say I was pleasantly surprised! Of course, it was caveman crude when it came to craft and technique. But there was "something" there.

    If I could go "Back to the Future" and speak to that wide-eyed innocent today, I'd offer this advice:

    "Kid, keep at it. And you'll be overworked and underpaid in no time. But stay away from [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted.] They'll dick you around and piss you off for years. F@%king arseholes."

  2. Having only just finished my second script, my first script isn't all that old (perhaps 8 months). It's fresh enough in the mind that I can recall most of it. Craft wise I think it's pretty decent - couple of ok action sequences - few bits of authentic dialogue.

    At the end of the day though it was a throwaway action flick and the character work was flimsy almost across the board.

    Still, it did get me a few reads, some nice comments and an invite to submit more work to a mid-sized agency. Not bad from all the way over in Yorkshire. At the time, with limited skills and experience, it was the best script I could write.

    Bitter - what are your opinions on querying with your first spec?

  3. Great story, Bitter. Thanks for sharing!

  4. After years of bitter failure to finish any script, despite starting many, this past summer I decided I needed to find a way to break this habit. So I allowed myself the room to write something fun, familiar, and relatively without gravitas or artistic intent. My goal was to write a feature length script (OK 90 some odd pages) and then use that momentum to continue onto more difficult and fulfilling projects.

    A production company's contest was my point of inspiration. Due to the tight deadline for entry, I had to write, then (of course) rewrite the script in less than a month. So I wrote for about 12 hours a day for almost a month. It was somewhat grueling, but overall even more fulfilling. Did I win the contest? No. But I did make it into the top few finalists according to their public relations contact. Keep in mind this wasn't a screenwriting contest. The winner probably got a tattoo or redecorated their house to show they were the biggest fan of the company's work.

    Anyway, winning wasn't the end goal, finishing a feature length script was. And now? I'm on the second draft of my next script. A much more ambitious sci-fi story running 126 pages (as of this edit).

    Why do I bother relating this? Because it might be helpful to some aspiring writers who are having trouble overcoming their inner critic and getting on with the job of completing screenplays. Let yourself write something just for the fun of it, that you might not even show anyone else, that you know you wont be super proud of in the future, but that has the effect of creating a new habit of finishing. That proves to yourself that you are indeed capable of this kind of work.

    The title of my first script?
    Mega Three Headed Sharktopusicane Vs Mega Piranhacrocnami

    Now just think how much better your first script could be.

  5. When I was 14, I wrote a super-serious remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I was so excited when I finished it. When the Coen Brothers shot Burn After Reading in my neighborhood, I gave them my script. Surprisingly, nothing came of it.