A movie director sits at a desk, intently reading a script page marked with a large “First Draft” stamp and making notes with a red pen.

What is a Screenplay First Draft: An Essential Guide for Screenwriters in 2024

Every great screenplay starts with a first draft. This initial version allows writers to finally get their story ideas out of their heads and onto paper.

While the first draft is rarely the final version that gets produced, it provides the critical foundation upon which the rest of the screenplay will be built.

So what exactly should you aim to accomplish in your screenplay’s first draft? And what are some best practices to write one that sets up your script for success?

This comprehensive guide examines what a first draft entails, common elements to focus on, and tips to craft a compelling first draft of your cinematic story.

What Does a First Draft Contain?

At its core, the first draft contains the bare-bones version of your overall story arc, characters, and dialogue. This includes:

  • The broad narrative arc and major plot points
  • An introduction to the main characters and settings
  • The key scenes, sequences, acts, and transitions
  • Dialogue, action lines, and sluglines are written out for each scene

Essentially, you are constructing the skeleton of your screenplay’s story and structure.

While the draft will likely contain placeholders for revisions or missing details down the line, it puts the major pieces in place.

Having this basic framework completed provides the necessary foundation for filling in smaller story gaps and polishing the script through subsequent drafts.

Common First Draft Elements to Focus On

While the first draft does not need to achieve perfection, there are some key elements that writers should focus on nailing down in their initial version:

Three-Act Structure

Most mainstream Hollywood films follow a three-act structure:

  • Act I – The set-up introduces the protagonist, establishes their status quo, foreshadows the conflict, and ends with an “inciting incident” that kicks the story into gear.
  • Act II – The longest act focused on the protagonist’s struggle against antagonistic forces and their transformation as a character. Usually contains plot twists and a “dark night of the soul”.
  • Act III – The climax and resolution where the protagonist faces their biggest conflict, undergoes their final transformation and restores a new status quo.

Having a clear understanding of this structure and mapping out your narrative to fit the mold gives your story natural progression and allows audiences to connect with the protagonist’s emotional arc.

While deviations from the model are possible, most screenwriting gurus recommend mastering this classic 3-act framework first in your initial drafts.

Hero’s Emotional Character Arc

At the script’s core is your protagonist or hero’s inner emotional transformation, which unfolds over the course of your 3 acts.

While the plot focuses on the external conflict and actions, the emotional character arc is about their internal psychological journey and change.

This character development turns them into a new or evolved person by the end, giving the story deeper meaning.

Common arcs include heroes overcoming flaws, changing their worldviews, or learning important lessons that alter their beliefs and motivations.

Making sure your hero’s emotional growth shines through even in early drafts helps give your script a strong backbone.

The Fictional Dream

When reading a script, audiences want to get sucked into a believable dream world and story. Maintaining immersed in this fictional reality is crucial.

Anything that breaks this illusion of being transported into the world and narrative can ruin the audience’s engagement and suspension of disbelief.

Watch out for gaps in logic, inconsistent details, pacing issues, or weak motivations that may yank readers out of the fictional dream.

Staying focused on crafting an airtight fictional reality that envelops audiences is vital, even in the first draft stage.

Tone, Pace, and Voice

While specifics of scenes and dialogue will likely change in future drafts, you want to establish the overall tone, pace, and voice of the screenplay right from the start.

Is your script a fast-paced comedy? Slow-burning drama? Action thriller? Horror?

Knowing your tone and dialing this in through scene descriptions, sequences, and writing style sets the stage properly.

Pace is about controlling the speed of plot reveals and story progression to match your desired tone.

Your distinctive narrative voice as the writer should also come through via your language choices and prose rhythm.

Genre Conventions and Tropes

Each film genre comes loaded with specific conventions and tropes that savvy audiences expect.

These common plot devices, archetypal characters, themes, settings, and story beats are what define a proper satirical comedy vs tragic drama vs slasher horror.

Do your homework to understand the mandatory conventions of your chosen genre. Getting these genre fundamentals wired in the first draft is important.

Best Practices for Writing a Solid First Draft

Outside of focusing on core story elements, what practices set up screenwriters for success when crafting that all-important first draft?

Here are some top tips:

Don’t Edit As You Write

The number one rule is avoiding extensive editing before the first draft is finished. This stops your creative flow.

Save line editing, tweaking dialogue, and polishing scenes for later. Just focus on getting the basics of your story, characters, and structure established first.

Perfectionism is the enemy of finishing a draft. Set editing aside to maintain momentum.

Write in Short Bursts If Needed

Marathon writing sessions can burn you out quickly. If focus wanes, switch to short bursts.

Set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Disable internet. Only focus on the draft during that time chunk.

Small seated sprints allow incremental progress so the blank page appears less daunting. Celebrate any output, even if minimal.

Know the Ending

It’s hard to start writing if the final climax and resolution are fuzzy.

Take the time to brainstorm and outline your ending properly before launching into the first draft. Know where the journey is headed.

The ending also sets up the required character arcs and plot points that must unfold to satisfy audiences.

Read Scripts in Your Genre

Study well-regarded screenplays that share your genre to understand necessary conventions and tropes.

Note their story beats, character types, settings, dialogue quirks, and other elements that constitute the genre.

This immersion primes your mind to intuitively incorporate mandatory components into a first draft.

Focus On Conflict and Tension

At its core, drama is conflict. The tension between characters and external forces propels the story forward.

Ensure every scene contains conflicting objectives between characters and builds tension through dialogue, actions, and pacing.

Raising the narrative stakes scene-by-scene will make your first draft compelling and gripping for readers.

Keep Descriptions Lean

Fight the temptation to overexplain or wax poetic in your scene descriptions or action lines.

Keep them short, punchy, and focused only on visual details that advance the story or reveal characters.

Trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Excess prose will only muddy up the draft.

Take Breaks

Step away from the draft for short breaks to get some distance. This allows you to return with a fresh perspective to evaluate the story’s progress objectively.

Short walks, meals, or even naps are enough to recharge your creative batteries and regain clarity.

Don’t burn yourself out grinding without intermittent breaks to renew your mental focus.

Polishing Your First Draft

Once you make it through that initial story skeleton from fade in to fade out, it’s time for minor polishing:

Identify Plot Holes

Review the full draft and look for any gaps in narrative logic or events that need better bridging between scenes.

Plug these plot holes so the storyline flows seamlessly for the reader without confusing disconnects.

Check Character Motivations

Ensure each primary character’s motivation from scene to scene makes sense based on their established personality and goals.

Look for any moments where motivations seem inconsistent or not properly conveyed based on their words and actions.

Evaluate Dialogue Flow

Does all the dialogue sound natural? Do conversations flow logically?

Read it aloud and fix any exchanges that feel stilted or contain unnatural phrasing.

Assess Scene Transitions

Pay attention to the transitions between scenes and sequences. Remove any rough/awkward jumps or unclear connections between moments.

Verify Genre Conventions

Has your draft incorporated enough of the appropriate tropes, plot devices, character types, settings, themes, and style for your chosen genre?

Add any missing mandatory elements.

This fine-tuning builds a strong first draft foundation before diving into deep revisions and rewrites.


A screenplay’s first draft allows you to finally translate your creative vision to paper and construct that initial story framework.

While it won’t be perfect, properly executing the first draft establishes your narrative architecture and sets you up for success in enhancements later.

Remember to focus on nailing the core elements like story structure, emotional character arcs, immersive world-building, and genre conventions in your initial version.

Follow screenwriting best practices around completing that draft quickly by avoiding over-editing, taking breaks, and setting small writing goals. Push through any resistance or blocks that arise.

The first draft poses the biggest hurdle. But once you have that initial story skeleton down, the revision process can truly begin and your script will start taking shape.

Think of the first draft as laying the groundwork that gives your brilliant cinematic ideas the necessary structure to blossom into a gripping screenplay.

Embrace the messiness and imperfections. Set aside inner critics and doubts. And get that earliest version of your creative vision written.

The sense of momentum and confidence gained from hitting “fade out” on your first draft will be invaluable fuel as you embark on the rewarding screenwriting journey ahead.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should a first draft include?

A first draft should establish the basic narrative structure, main characters, primary settings, key scenes, major plot points, and basic dialogue. It puts down the initial story skeleton.

What is the difference between the first draft and the Final Draft?

The first draft contains the initial rough version of the full story, while the final draft is the polished, production-ready version after extensive rewrites, edits, feedback, and revisions.

How many pages should a first draft screenplay be?

Most first draft feature film screenplays range from 90-120 pages. Going over 120 pages risks being too lengthy unless absolutely necessary for the story.

What to do after first draft of screenplay?

After completing the initial draft, let it rest for a short while to get distance. Then review it for potential plot holes, inconsistencies, pacing issues, etc. Seek trusted feedback and start the revision process to refine it.

What are the three 3 parts of a draft?

The three acts – Act I introduces the characters and world, sets up the conflict. Act II focuses on the protagonist’s struggle and transformation. Act III provides the climax and resolution.

How long should a first draft take?

There are no hard rules on timing, but most advise 1-3 months for an initial feature length draft depending on the writer’s schedule. Don’t rush it.

How messy is a first draft?

First drafts are usually quite messy and lack polish. They contain unfinished ideas, placeholder text, gaps in narrative logic, spelling errors, etc. The goal is getting the basics down.

Does the first draft have to be perfect?

Absolutely not. First drafts are meant to be rough and flawed. Trying to achieve perfection can paralyze writers and prevent making progress. Embrace the messiness.

Is Final Draft still being used?

Yes, Final Draft remains the industry standard screenwriting software used by professionals. Many alternatives exist but Final Draft still dominates, especially for production drafting.

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