So many seeming contradictions show up when you read Screenwriters on Screenwriting that it can make you crazy. One ever-unresolvable debate concerns starting points and end results. We could posit this as a literary duel in the sun that's also applicable to screenwriting -- call it the Hemingway-Ginsberg Paradox.
Allen Ginsberg: First thought, best thought.
Ernest Hemingway: All first drafts are shit.
Obviously, Ginsberg is right. And so is Hemingway. Are we clear? Now, back to your draft!
Seriously, though, there is a way of looking at these apparently opposite stances that honors them both, if you think of "first thought" as primarily having to do with idea, and "first draft" as having to do with execution.
Except, of course, when the first draft represents the best thought.
If you feel like flattening me with a frying pan right about now, get in line: my forehead's already flattened from me bashing it against my desktop. I've been working on a personal essay for weeks now (a week past its deadline and counting) and as beaten-up as my brain may feel, the piece in question has in no way been beaten into submission. A big part of the problem - besides the fact that it's supposed to be 2,500 words in length, and my first draft was over 10,000 - is that I'm still trying to define what the damn thing is about.
That's the essence of this issue, I think. And I may have been working at my day-gig for too long, because I think what I've been doing is replicating an endemic studio system problem.
Readers of this blog may know that I work for a certain studio which only a couple of years ago had five winning opening weekends in a row, but has recently released a string of tankers. Some of this is just the vagaries of the game (most studios go through such cycles) but in the Story Department, where we are by nature analytical, a Certain Tendency has been observed.
A script is bought. The project goes into development, and over time, in the thicket of often competing ideas, in the name of "improvement," something gets submerged and even lost - namely, the original point of the story. Thus, as the old "Does it have to be a lightbulb?" syndrome takes effect (i.e. the answer to the question, How many development executives does it take to screw in a lightbulb?), what gets lost sight of is what the movie is meant to be about.
It's for this reason that so many studio projects go through so many writers, and that often enough, after a string of rewriters have come and gone, the original writer is brought back in to finish the job. Easy for me to ask, but... Maybe sticking with the first take could've saved everyone a lot of trouble?
Obviously in moviemaking, a plethora of unavoidable X-factors come into play (read this hair-raising chronicle of one upcoming studio release's torturous gestation to see how that goes). And it's not like those many screenwriters hired to help don't do their job (and get paid well), as this info-filled look at the contemporary rewrite game explains.
But from my writer/story analyst point of view, the ball that too often gets dropped is the specific, well-defined answer to "What is the story about?" And keeping your eye on that ball ought to be any writer's primary order of business.
In this regard, even a shitty first draft often contains the seed or the essence of the story's best idea. Most rewrite-and- development problems stem from trying to improve other elements, but neglecting to keep that essence intact. The initial idea for a screenplay (or play, book, song, et al) is the heart of a given project; if you don't locate that organ and nourish it, after all the many transplants and other surgeries, you may find yourself working on a corpse.
This is why, more often than not in the writing of a spec script, "second act problems" turn out to be first act problems: it's all about the setup (first thought). Nonetheless, ironically, often it's not until you're done with a first draft that you really do know what it is that you're writing (shitty first draft).
In the case of my personal essay, my first thought was too vague, and so my first draft suffered accordingly. I'm currently about to throw the whole damn thing out and start from a better-informed scratch: I think I finally understand what I want to write, so I'll begin again, with that. With knowing what the story is about as my starting point and through-line, I ought to be able to put a better foot forward.
Once in a blue moon, a writer does get lucky - not that she or he necessarily knows this. I was amused to read in this NY Times profile of The National, one of my favorite bands, of how they spent exhaustive time and effort trying to perfect a certain song for their upcoming new album - employing everything from string sections to rebuilt drum kits, ceaselessly re-recording and re-mixing over months of angst-filled work - only to end up at the beginning: their producer decided to release the original first demo of the song, untouched.
As songwriter Matt Berninger said, "We tried so hard and it always seemed to fail as a rock song. It lost the charm of the ugly little demo. Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.” Or as T.S. Eliot said, We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Thus, to revisit the Ginsberg-Hemingway debate, I'll posit the following: A first draft is just something to change... Unless it's been proven to represent your best thought.
Wouldn't it be great if certain Industry People in High Places would observe this principle? Well, we can always hope. That's my first thought, and I'm sticking to it.