The Dirty Draft

As I write this I’m knee-deep in dirty words. No, not the four-letter variety, although I may mouth off a few if I don’t meet my self-imposed deadline this weekend and finish a first draft of a script. And therein lies the rub.

If I write dirty I can meet even the most supernaturally tight deadline in hours and not agonising, revise-heavy months. But like a lot of you, I wanna be perfect. Or at least write perfectly, first time around.

And somewhere in the collective unconscious a gaggle (?) of Muses laugh hysterically. Write. Perfectly. First. Time. Around. Sure.

Dishin’ the dirt.

Superb screenplays, ie fast-paced, economically written, fresh, original stories stuffed full of quirky, yet believable characters and high stakes (phew) don’t spring out of a writer’s head fully-formed.

They really, really don’t.

A great script is deceptively simple. Looks great on paper but it doesn’t just happen when you let fly with the ol’ courier font and double spacing. If a script reads beautifully and simply it’s usually because the writer has worked long and hard on giving you a great, easy, free-flowing experience.

According to Pixar maestro, Andrew Stanton – and I paraphrase –

A good screenplay takes 10 man-years of labor. That’s two writers working five years or 10 guys working one year. Apparently, for Toy Story 3, 10 people toiled and spelt for two to three years.

So if it generally takes this long, why not have some fun when you first let your story free on the page?

Enter the Dirty Draft.

Get dirty. Feel free.

Unless you go back in time ten years with a copy of a Pixar script or Little Miss Sunshine or any other screenplay that whispers genius – and then you type it up, pass it off as your own, (…win tons of awards, designer goodie bags, endless acclaim – no this isn’t my fantasy), you ain’t going to write a watertight script first go.

The Dirty Draft is effectively your first draft. It’s all about staying in-flow and moving forward page after page in spite of mistakes, cardboard characters and nowhere plots that make Lost read like William Goldman penned it.

It can be a liberating writing experience and, here’s the crazy part, it can also be fabulous, mistake-happy, fun.

The purpose ain’t perfection. It’s about transferring the thoughts the notions, concepts and big dreams from your head onto the page. Don’t be precious about this process.

Just get your story down. And don’t interrupt your flow or allow vanity to sidle up to you and whisper,

‘Hey, go back and read that last scene – it was genius!’

The Great Write Hope.

You may be writing a script that’s going to get you noticed, kudos, be an incredible calling card in Holly / Bolly / Ozzywood (thank you, Mr Segers), but nothing will murder inspiration faster than expectation.

Yours. Mine. Theirs.

Weighing your script down with the hopes of a small village namely parents, spouse – your bank manager, will shoot the storytelling dead. The Dirty Draft should free you of any grand ideals especially if it’s typically, fabulously, crap – but only the first time around, of course.

The Dirty Draft gives your story space to breathe. It also alleviates the pressure to be scene-perfect.

How to do the dirty.

1. Shut up your censor.

We’ve all got one; it’s the nagging little voice that urges us to read the last bloody scene 15 times before moving on with the rest of the script. It’s a saboteur, a spoil-sport, an awesome pain in the butt.

So how to silence it? Wait until it goes to sleep. No, really. All censors need a snooze – even yours. And when they sign-off for the night you can unlock some amazing stuff inside you.

Just wait until you’re craving warm sheets and 8 horizontal hours and then, write. Your eyes need to be closing as you type. Do it for about 20 minutes and then go to sleep.

In the morning go back and read what you wrote. Granted, some of it will be otherwordly nonsense but you may experience the weird sensation of reading words that’ll make you think,

“Hey, that’s not bad. Who the hell wrote it?”

2. Find someone to get dirty with.

This is broken: Free Clean DirtA fellow scribe who’s working on their own dirty draft will push you to meet your deadline and stay in-flow.

Make sure it’s a writer you feel safe with and enjoy a healthy, competitive relationship – otherwise you’ll be writing to impress them – not yourself.

3. Stuck? Write scene place-holders.
You need that big, watershed scene between Penny the porn star and Daryl the deer hunter*. It’s a challenging moment in the story, but you can’t get your head around it right now. Fine. Don’t labour it.

Write a few lines of explanatory copy, describe the scene, maybe even write some dialogue – it’s okay, no one has to know – except you and your Dirty Draft confidante.

* not real characters. Just made ‘em up.

4. Pound out a page in 60 seconds.
Don’t think. Don’t analyse. Just enjoy feeling nervous about mindless writing. In many ways, the liberating nature of writing a Dirty Draft can be a silver bullet for writer’s block.

You’re creating art, but not as you know it.

The point of all this madness (and creating any art requires a modicum of insanity otherwise, what’s the point, right? Actually forget modicum – anyone who would tackle this intangible artform is an out and out stark raving, padded-cell loving lunatic – and loving it.)…

The point is, you’re getting it ALL down – every last little emotional, insane, sexy, hilarious, terrifying story beat that, up until the Dirty Draft, was just a hazy notion in your head. An anecdote you wheeled out at chi chi cocktail parties as you played ‘budding screenwriter’,

“So I’ve got this great idea for a scene in my movie, listen to this…”

Come on, you know you’ve done it, er, haven’t you?

When full-fat is fabulous.

The minute you release yourself from the shackles of creating immaculate art the first time around, you’ll liberate your muse.

And you’ll know you’ve got a Dirty Draft when you do the first read-through and discover a full-fat, over-written, flabtastic extravaganza. Now you can start cutting back on dialogue-saturated scenes, over-processed plot-lines and fatty big print.


If you still think the superscribes don’t write filthy first…

I have it on good authority that, a certain world-famous Aussie director with a predilection for jubilant penguins, draws pictures into his first drafts, eschews the sacred courier font and generally makes it look so unlike a screenplay it’s unbelievable.

Now we’re really talking dirty.

-Phyllis Foundis

Writer, media presenter — and stage diva (on hiatus) Phyllis Foundis has written and bellydanced her way to the tender age of 36. She’s been writing stories, ads, one-woman shows and to-do lists for as long as she can remember. She loves big shower heads and loathes coriander.

Creative Commons License photo credit ‘free clean dirt’: betterbethany
photo credit
: Gibson Claire McGuire Regester
photo credit paper: designshard

3 thoughts on “The Dirty Draft”

  1. Great advice, the more dirty you write, the more you get to know your characters and they’ll change when you start to clean the dirt off in the 2nd draft.

  2. nice piece! and very well written. I’m not sure if agree that a good or even great script takes 10 years etc… I think that is only really true in the context of mega-budget American movies super-eager to “hit the demographic”
    still, one thing is absolutely true: you gotta start somewhere and the enemy is not time or talent or ideas…..
    the enemy is fear.


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