First Draft: Why “Good Enough” is the Enemy to Screenwriting Greatness

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting, we present “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting. New articles, first published by Creative Screenwriting, will be posted frequently.


“Screenwriting is the most prized of all the cinematic arts.

Actually, it isn’t, but it should be.”

~Hugh Laurie

Nearly 40 years as a writer has taught me some important lessons, one of which is that writers, whether they’re just starting out or well into their career, all need access to the absolute, straightforward truth about their craft and the journey they are taking.

This is especially important for first-timers because there is so much information out there—much of it from dubious sources—which makes it very difficult to know whom to trust.

In this article, I will give you three points of absolute truth.

Truth One

Established successful writers—sadly—get away with mediocrity all the time.

How often have you been disappointed with a favorite author’s most recent offering or the follow-up movie by a screenwriter you respect?

I know I often have.

It’s because they already have a threshold market, a group of people that the producer can accurately predict will buy a screenwriter’s next effort. If that number is high enough, the company will produce the writer’s next piece of work, regardless of quality.

For example, even if a successful novelist’s next book is not up to snuff, the publisher is likely not to reject the book and risk having the author take his or her future books elsewhere.

For them, “Good is probably good enough.” And so they move on to the next project. However, for first-timers like many of you, Good is never going to be good enough.” 

Truth Two

You must be great. Your first script must be great in order to sell.

Why? Because it has two challenges that it must meet.

First, it must be better than the mass of other submissions from first-timers. Luckily, this may not be so difficult if you do a good job.

Second, your work must be strong enough to shoulder its way through the ranks of established writers to find a place in the production budget.

Imagine for a moment the conversation being held as these decision-makers are considering your work. No one is going to back your project if they’re on the fence. “I like it . . . it’s an interesting idea . . . but I don’t love it,” is not a statement that gets you a contract.

If the producer or agent who has just read it doesn’t want to give you a contract to purchase the piece, then your work, as it stands at that moment, simply isn’t good enough. Current sensibilities exist so that these readers will either not have the guts to tell you the truth or are scared that they will hurt your feelings. Instead, they say something like, “I like the concept, but characters need a little more development, and Act II is a little thin.”

It’s called the “Hollywood No:” something that sounds like encouragement but is really a blow-off. And unless you do what it takes to make each of your next offerings great, you better get used to it.

Also, don’t buy into any posts on social media, where someone says a professional reader looked their script and really liked it. This is another insult offered to writers in the 21st century. For if anyone inside the industry reads your work and doesn’t instantly contract that work for production (a.k.a. they send a check), then they don’t like it enough to produce it.

In the end, you have to wow them. Anything less leads to a failure. You must understand this. There is no middle ground, for there are only two types of scripts. A work is either:

  1. Great-and-wonderful and anyone who reads it wants to buy it, or
  2. Not good enough and it gets rejected.

pile of scripts

 

Truth Three

I have built my reputation as a teacher on this one fundamental belief:

You must spend all the time, skills and talents necessary to master your rewrites.

I repeat: Your success and failure as a writer lies almost entirely on your ability to rewrite your work. You must have:

  • a compelling, engaging premise
  • correct, professional formatting
  • great natural dialogue
  • cut-to-the-chase, grabbing description
  • a wholly structured story
  • two or three subplots
  • a superb and compelling conflict
  • fascinating characters
  • a fulfilling resolution

You hardly ever find these in the first draft! They are only brought to life in the rewrite.

“Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.”

Robert McKee

I have seen more than my share of scripts, and most writers are so relieved that they have finished an actual draft of the work (an accomplishment, to be sure) that they give it a quick polish and hope for the best. This leads to a pass from the reader, and time has been wasted simply because the writer did not have a thorough-enough process for creating a great script.

The writer’s dedication to craft is always revealed in the rewrite, where, if they have done their work well enough, they have created a compelling premise, fully explored the concept, chosen strong main characters, and applied their knowledge of structure to make the script an easy read. They have made the nine points above shine.

It sounds like a near impossible task, but time and time again, I have seen new writers embrace what is necessary to succeed. So I know it is inside each one of you to make your script great. By embracing these truths and truly learning your craft, you can develop a process that you can use to write compelling, exciting and page-turning screenplays. MM

Art Holcomb is a writer and lecturer, who has written for Marvel and DC Comics and the Star Trek and X-Men franchises. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Andromeda Entertainment.

fbbanner-2-1This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (the Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

2 Comments

  1. Sarah Gabrielle Baron

    May 28, 2016 at 7:03 am

    As a developing writer, I’m now engaged in the art of re-write. I have 8 specs, and have done a Page One on one of them…three times! The finished product is definitely WAY better than the original(s) but still needs work. You are so right, Art, that this is what it takes to become BETTER, and it is not easy. Thanks for letting me know I’m on the right track with my craft.

  2. jeff dobkin

    May 28, 2016 at 6:54 am

    This is an amazingly succinct and wonderful post. Right to the point. Thank you for this in both brevity and accuracy.

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