Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Your first script

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?


  1. I started my first script about two weeks into my senior year of high school. I worked on it for about two weeks, and then I shelved it.

    In my second semester of my freshman year of college I took my first screenwriting course. I salvaged the concept, which was always intended to be a two-hour TV pilot, and turned it into something a bit better. Our final project for the class was supposed to be the first 30 pages of the script. I worked my ass off and finished it. I wrote a 135 two-part pilot. In other words, it was way too fucking long.

    At the time I was disillusioned enough to think I could sell it. That it would be brilliant, and I would become rich and famous off it. I wanted to be that person who sells their first script. Uhm, yeah...no. I knew even back then that the script wasn't up to snuff. I knew it would have to undergo multiple huge rewrites. And, as such, I never took it past first draft. I was, however, told my professor that I had raw talent, which was certainly quite nice.


    I actually just took a few minutes to read the first 26 pages, and to be honest...it's not the worst thing I've ever read. I mean, it still wouldn't sell in THIS draft, but in my incredibly biased opinion it's a really solid first attempt. I don't know how I did it, but I avoided an enormous amount of newbie pitfalls. Chalk it up to fast learning?

    I might take it through extensive rewrites at some point, or turn the concept into something I could pitch, because I like it well enough. It would take major retooling though to get there, because it has some major structural issues towards the latter half, but I actually have something workable here.

    It's still shit compared to how I can write now though.

  2. I wrote a few screenplays before I actually knew how to write in official script format, so I guess my first actual 'script' would have been an adaptation of VH1's 'Bands On The Run' series from back in 2000-2001.

    For the uninitiated, it was a reality TV/road movie/battle of the bands mash-up where four unsigned bands trekked across the USA, playing gigs, selling merch and doing 'hilarious' promotional stunts with the total revenue earned by each band determining a final winner.

    My screenplay version assembled four bands largely built from people I knew and bands I was in/friends with, then did the aforementioned road trip with plenty of hijinks along the way - a romance, sabotage plots by one underhanded band, comedy courtesy of the boozer/stoner band, and other concepts that seemed like pure comedy gold to my 20-year-old self.

    It was far too long (two and a half hours, roughly), the lead character was a pretty obvious clone of myself, it bogged itself down in unecessary stage direction and description, had lots of patches of stale dialogue and conformed to no known screenplay structure on the planet. The first draft even had a 'Return of the King' style multi-part ending to show how each band ended up.

    But it was fun to write, and arguably that's what's important. Lots of music and musician in-jokes, a load of stunts and near-slapstick routines, a set of villains and even a romance. I enjoyed putting it together, learnt how to actually present/format a screenplay through writing it and springboarded onto better things in the years that followed.

    Plus, at her request I sent a copy to Amanda Rootes, lead singer of Harlow (one of the bands from the actual show), and she said it was alright, so I take that as a compliment :)

  3. I wrote my first feature at the end of three years of studying film at university. I'd been writing creatively since I was twelve, and I'd been writing short films for the entire three years.

    That said, it still wasn't great. I put in a lot of effort and research, but after four drafts and four different endings, it's still unfit to show people. To this day, I've only shown my mother and my script editor. The editor has encouraged me to take another stab at it. I haven't touched it in a year and a half, so maybe one of these days I'll go at it with a red pen and some fresh ideas.

    ...or maybe I'll just chalk it up as a fun experience and start something new and slightly more original.

  4. my first screenplay was a children/family comedy, because I wanted to try something "easy" and I learned a lot from writing and re-writing it. someday, I would really like to write a SERIOUS screenplay, but I just don't have a story yet.

    of course, i'd been writing stage plays all my life, but screenplays are very different. my 1st screenplay was absolute shit, but I'm glad I wrote it.

  5. No one has ever read my first attempt at a screenplay. It had an indie rom-com feel to it. Hell, I wonder where that one is...

    My husband's first screenplay got him an agent -- in the Midwest. Of course we didn't really understand that it didn't mean anything. I know it got shopped to Bollywood. Hilarious. Then the agent retired and that was that.

    MAN... that was a long time ago!

    Now we're actually putting together a decent package of action thrillers before we seek representation again.

  6. Lots of voice overs and flashbacks. Not a bad idea, but not one I'll revisit. In fact, I don't think I know where a copy is, and that's fine because I don't think I want to reread it. As long as it stays in my memory, it can stay reasonably good.

    Unfortunately I sent it to an agent of a query request, and she of course did not call me back.

  7. Bitter Script Reader,

    GREAT post. And thanks for putting yourself out there relaying your own personal experience. I loved how you described how you built your first script:

    "... 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."

    THAT'S how it's done! You add on untill you have a full length script, THEN you shape it up with structure, and your learnings.

    Kudos to Dan Callahan for selling his spec, "College." Is he a friend of yours?

    I'm very proud of my first script, "Give It Up for Chimpy." Liked it so much a couple scripts after I wrote it, I wrote its sequel, "Love, Music, and Monkeys: Give It Up for Chimpy II." Still trying to sell both of these screwball comedys...

    I'm not as down on first timmers specs, BECAUSE a lot of times there's somebody's GREAT IDEA in there. They just haven't developed the writting chops to pull it off yet. A lot of times a first timer's story is something they'd spent quite a long time thinking about, THUS many of the story's wrinkles are ironed out.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

    P.S. Thanks to all who shared ahead of me. Great to learn a little more about each of you, and your first completed script. :-)

  8. I wrote my first script two years ago when I first decided to forgo film school to work in TV, so it was definitely a labor of love. After I finished it, I just sat on it for six months until joining my current writing group, which gave me tons of great notes and with which I was able to shape up the script into something that I can show off as a sample.

  9. I wrote my first script at 15. It was a terrible medieval fantasy film with a 15 year old lead who had at least two older love interests. I think I was wanting to star in it too, so that character was the only developed character in the bunch.

    I spent a lot more time worrying about the format, though. I would lose whole nights trying to make everything look just right. I used MS Word at the time. I remember spending a few days trying to figure out what the proper brad system was, without actually knowing what brads were.

    That was about ten years ago now.

  10. My first script was THE JONES PARTY, which is currently in pre-production now (so I'm told) ... it was optioned very quickly, once I wrote it, then when that one ran out and optioned by someone else and it's been a great calling card for me as a writer. It has a great hook, too.

    I'd written plays before, though, a lot of plays, so I'd been writing for awhile.

    I'd say, though, that while the first few drafts of Jones showed off my strengths as a writer (humor, dialogue, etc, that it had definite problems just in terms of formatting ... there were things I just didn't know NOT to do (great, long blocks of description, didn't capitalize character names when first met, and there are 43 characters, etc) and it was a bit thin, it read like something an amateur with potential would write ... in spite of that, some NYC producers liked it enough to option it, and they had it for awhile ... it wasn't until it was acquired with its current team, however, that I really got how to make it much better (by then I'd written a bunch more screenplays) and in following rewrites have gotten it to a place wherein I'm very proud of it. The thing I learned, the most important thing, is to make every moment and every character in the movie count, be necessary ... no throwaways, no random clerks, everything had a purpose ...

    Once I had that realization, I rewrote it and it read so much better that the difference was palatable ... and it changed how I wrote everything else after that ... I noticed a significant bump in my career as a result.

    So my first script was a bit different, but primarily because I didn't give up on it ... I should add, also, that I didn't give up on it becuz it had a unique idea behind it, and because I had producers who believed in it ... which makes a difference.

  11. Not to toot my own horn but my first script got me a rcommend as a writer. Unfortunately this was in the midst of THE STRIKE.

    So it's like start all over again. But I do have a short in production also and the maker likes my idea for extending it to a feature.

    The best thing about it was that it was my first opportunity to make changes\additions based on the film maker's notes. He loved them.

  12. I started my first feature in college, abandoned it, and came back to it about two years later. I too found my script magically adhered to a strict three-act format and I showed it to a couple people, one of whom set about immediately to find me representation and the other of whom optioned it in our first meeting. I have done about four drafts since then, and the optioner is busy with another project but I have high hopes for it.

  13. When my first script hit the midpoint at page 90, I decided to pack it in and re-beat the whole thing sometime down the road when I was a little bit less of a retard. My second script is going much better (and I've finished a couple TV comedy specs since then, too).

    I've found that screenwriting is a lot like stand-up -- or anything, for that matter: the first efforts are likely to suck out loud, on their own merits, but the experience they provide is invaluable.

  14. I actually love my first script. I might be the only one that loves it but it'll be one of those stories I'll work on the rest of my life probably. I will forever be grateful for it. After not writing or thinking about screenwriting for over two years, I woke up one morning after a dream and told myself I needed to tell that story. So I dusted off my writing program and wrote it in less than two weeks.

    Now here I am, repped, and getting the ball rolling on maybe something for the future. It's my favorite story and probably always will be. I'll just pick at it until it's perfect or I die...whichever comes first, probably the latter ;)