Burning Details

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First drafts

Treatments, handwritten, typed, rewritten again and again…

This month I’ve been writing first drafts from the treatments of my projected screenplays for this year. I’ve referred to these before as the “junk drafts”, to be rewritten and discarded as soon as possible before the real work of rewriting can begin, but this is only half true.

Yes, screenplays only become readable, let alone good, after many rewrites, but the first draft isn’t junk. It’s a dry run, a first rehearsal and, if used properly, utterly essential. A first draft is written to be looked at critically, mercilessly; torn down, noted upon and remodelled until one is ready to go onto the next draft.¬†

There is another aspect that appeals about a first draft: once written and printed, the screenplay is real. It exists. It’s a possible thing. I feel that this is quite a hurdle to get over for new screenwriters; the momentary sense of achievement at having¬†concrete evidence of achievement in the screenwriting process, even if it is at the very early stages, cannot be dismissed.

With a well-worked through treatment, a writer can get through ten pages of script per day. I haven’t yet managed that, but with the treatments I have, writing the screenplays has been an enjoyably methodical process, with no moments of “where next?” when moving from scene to scene: it’s all down there in the treatment.

Recently though, there has been some debate at how to use a treatment or outline in screenwriting. Some advise on a very precise outline, rewritten until everything is exactly where it should be prior to writing a first draft; others favour a more loose arrangement, following the outline, but not slavishly, letting characters speak and the story evolve. The outline or treatment, in their eyes, is a guideline rather than an map.

I’m not sure where I stand on this, but so far, I have found having a treatment invaluable in getting the screenplay to a first draft. After getting it to that level though, the writing is still at a very early stage: much more rewriting is needed. The screenplay is going to evolve no matter how evolved the outline or treatment it’s based on.

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