Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I’ve written a first draft of a play, where do I start with re-drafting?”
It can often feel like the first draft writes itself, you just sit in front of the keyboard watching it happen. Your characters come to life, your plot begins to take shape and you can see the possibilities stretching over the horizon. It’s a beautiful thing.
Getting to the end of it is a fantastic achievement. You should be proud.
Don’t let what I’m about to say take anything away from that, you’ve done something amazing. Countless people throughout history have set out to write something and not made it past the first page. If you’ve got a completed first draft you’re already way ahead of most.
So you show your first draft to someone. A director, a producer, a fellow playwright. Someone whose opinion and theatrical credentials you trust. And you’re looking forward to their inevitable words of praise and adulation.
What you get instead is “It’s a promising first draft” and “You need to dig deeper” and, worst of all, “In the next draft you really need to…”
Hang about. The next draft? I’ve written the play, it’s done. There’s a beginning, middle and end. That’s all my Year 10 English teacher told me I needed. What the hell is this second draft shit?
In no other industry does this happen.
Many moons ago, when I was young and carefree, I worked in McDonalds. I can’t remember a single instance in which my manager said to me “You’re off to a strong start with this burger, but the cheese feels underdeveloped, think about what it brings to the overall structure. In the next draft I think you need to really focus on the cheese and get to the absolute root – the essence – of what it means to be that cheese.”
I cooked the burger, slapped it in a bun, added cheese and ketchup, and sent that heart attack on its way. No second draft.
So why do playwrights have to go through the torment and anguish of this re-drafting business? What is a second draft supposed to achieve that a first draft can’t?
In every play there are an infinite number of possibilities. It’s all but impossible to wade through everything that could possibly happen within an idea, and nail it first time. Most writers still have gaps in their plot when they start writing. They don’t know how it will end. Or they know the end but not the beginning. Sometimes you know the beginning and end but not the middle.
Or maybe you just have a few themes you want to explore and the whole thing needs to be worked out as you go along.
This is why first drafts need work. They’re exploratory probes into the unknown. You’re shooting a little robot out into space just to see what’s there. You know it’s going to Mars, but you’ve never taken this journey before, and you have no idea what the planet’s like.
Your robot lands on the surface, trundles along very slowly until it reaches a canyon, gets stuck and spins its wheels until the batteries run out and you lose contact.
So you start again. Now you know a lot more about the terrain of Mars. You know your new robot needs bigger wheels, a sturdier frame and a more efficient battery. You know there’s an intriguing canyon just north of where your first robot landed that warrants further exploration.
This is all well and good, but how do you start with the re-drafting? You’ve got a first draft you quite like. You don’t want to tear it up and start all over again. That sounds horrendous.
First off, show the play to your trusted person or people. Be careful not to get too much feedback though, part of the process is choosing the best person to critique this particular play. If you show it to six different people and get six different opinions you won’t know where you are. Choose one or two people who are informed enough about theatre to make insightful comments. In our space robot example, we need to speak to a structural engineer and a tyre expert from Michelin. However awesome he might be, that guy you play badminton with on Tuesday evenings simply isn’t qualified to give advice on interplanetary exploration.
Note down all the feedback you receive. Now begin the re-drafting process as follows.
First and foremost, you start by not starting.
Before you do anything, hide the play away in a drawer for as long as it takes you to forget all the details of your first draft. It doesn’t have to be a drawer; hide it in the wardrobe, shove it behind the sofa, bury it under the patio. Essentially put it out of sight in a safe place. Make sure it’s somewhere you can find it again.
Of course, in this digital age, your play is probably on your computer. Don’t leave it on the desktop to stare you in the face every time you switch on. Stick it in a folder somewhere you don’t often visit, just make sure you don’t forget where.
Once a suitable period of time has elapsed, dig up your play from under the patio and set aside a couple of hours when you won’t be disturbed.
Read your first draft.
If you’ve left it long enough, you should be surprised. There should be moments when you read a line of dialogue and think; “Did I write this? It’s actually really great.”
There will unfortunately also be moments when you think; “Did I write this? I think I want to lobotomise myself with this fork.”
Don’t concern yourself with bad lines of dialogue at this stage. You’re thinking about the overall plot, the broad strokes, the character arcs. Little details come later.
Once you’ve finished reading just sit and think about the play. Have you explored the themes you wanted to explore? Do you have new questions? What was unconvincing? What works well? Which characters feel weak? These are the questions your second draft will address.
This is the point at which I personally like to evaluate other peoples’ feedback. If my trusted director/producer/writer/whoever feels the same way about something, it’s probably worth thinking about. If they feel the opposite, it’s also worth thinking about.
Remember, there’s no right and wrong. If it’s your opinion against theirs, all you can do is weigh up both sides and try to be objective. Which point of view makes the play stronger? If your reader has misunderstood your intentions, try to honestly examine whether what you want to say is as clear as you thought.
Once you’ve evaluated all the feedback and your own thoughts about the first draft, you might find it helpful to write a plan. This doesn’t have to be exhaustive, a lot of writers probably don’t do this step at all. I find it a helpful exercise to structure my thoughts and give the re-drafting some direction.
The final stage is doing the rewrite itself. There are a number of ways to go about this, and it really depends on what you prefer and what the play needs.
- Open a new document and start from scratch. This is likely to be the way forward if you’re making drastic changes to the structure of your first draft; if whole scenes need to go, new scenes need to be written, characters are being added or removed. This is chucking the old robot on the scrap heap and building a whole new beast with your new knowledge.
- Go scene by scene. This is a great approach if your overall structure stands up to scrutiny but you want to strengthen character arcs, add/cut dialogue to rebalance scenes or make cosmetic changes throughout. You start with the first scene, make your edits, then move onto the next one and make sure the edits carry through for continuity. This is like adjusting our robot from top to bottom, testing and strengthening each part as we go.
- Jump in and trouble-shoot at specific points. If your first draft is strong enough to be able to take this approach count yourself very lucky. For me this is normally reserved for the second re-write, when I’ve got most of the play nailed down and just want to make cosmetic tweaks at specific points. I thought it would be worth mentioning here because everyone works differently; if you’re a very precise planner your first draft could well be strong enough to take this approach now. This is the equivalent of swapping our robot’s old dinky tyres for a big set of off-road rubbers, bolting on some extra struts to make the bodywork more robust and shoving in a bigger battery.
I’ll finish with a warning; re-drafting is not a fun process. You will probably find yourself fighting your instincts, cutting parts you love, writing utter nonsense, hating every second of it, running down the street naked and screaming, diving head-first through the windscreen of an oncoming car, and rocking yourself to sleep in the corner of a police cell.
But you’ll get through it. Because you want to write a play, and this is what it takes.
Re-draft, then re-draft again and again and again until it’s what you want it to be. Don’t get demoralised, like most things, this is a learning process. I’m not saying you’ll learn to do it easily and painlessly. But, if you really want to be a writer, you’ll learn to live with it.
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