I finished the first draft of my first solo screenplay, and it’s not very good. I’m not saying this out of low self-esteem or false modesty or anything like that. I’m usually beyond pleased with my first drafts. But this is badly paced, inconsistent, full of plot-holes, kind of boring, and the main character doesn’t actually do anything. I have some ideas on how to fix it, but I may need to put it down for a little bit before I try.
I learned some important lessons along the way. First is that you can’t write the beginning of a screenplay without knowing how it’s going to end. I can’t do what I do with a novel, and that is write from the beginning and let the story write itself and the characters tell me who they are as I move along. You need a lot more control in a screenplay, which is more rigidly structured than a novel.
You can’t try writing a screenplay as a way of exploring the idea of time and change and your own identity vis-a-vis the identities you embodied in the past. You can write a screenplay that is a look back at your past selves, but you’d better have a really good handle on the characters and plot before you sit down and put pen to paper. Likewise, you can’t be very introspective in a screenplay. There are introspective movies, but that’s generally the work of the director.
Basically, the more I wrote, the more I knew about the characters and the settings and realized that I’d have to introduce these ideas sooner in the story. I came up with an idea about a minor detail from the beginning that should have loomed large through the whole story, but I didn’t recognize the importance of it until I was about a third of the way through. I had an idea that I thought was genius but will be the first thing I cut in the revision.
If I was writing a novel, I’d close my laptop, say “Well done, old chap” (I talk to myself like I’m an upper-class Englishman), and put the notebook on my bookshelf with all the other notebooks for completed and abandoned novels. I’d take a few days to read a novel, and I’d sit down and start my next book. But my screenplay isn’t done, not by a long shot. This is a whole new thing to me, and it’s pretty exciting, actually.