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Learning Series Lesson #5: Your First Draft

Welcome back! Back in lesson four, you completed your script outline. At long last, you’re ready to dive in and start writing the first draft of your new screenplay!

You’ve already accomplished a lot: you’ve created your logline, refined your story ideas, developed your characters, and completed your outline. This is where it all comes together.

At this point, you can answer all the basic questions about your plot and characters. Moreover, as you go through your writing process, questions like “how should this character react?” and “what should happen next?” will be easily answered as well.

It’s finally time put all this planning into action and begin your first draft.

In this lesson, we’re going to show you how to advance from your outline to a completed first draft by understanding three crucial concepts:

  1. Understanding scenes.
  2. Writing dialogue.
  3. Refining your action.

This lesson will also teach you how to keep your work flowing by taking advantage of Celtx’s various story development and scriptwriting tools.

Understanding Scenes

Every scene should function as kind of mini-movie. Ideally, it should have a central character, an arc (i.e. a beginning, middle, and end), and a turning point or decision for the character(s) involved to come to.

Each major scene description in your outline should easily match this structure. Try to think of it as a series of four small paragraphs (i.e. 2-3 lines each):

One of the common complaints about scripts is that “nothing happens.” This is typically shorthand for “nothing changes from the beginning of the scene to the end.” Instead of thinking of the flow of your scenes as “and then this happens”, try thinking of it as “but then this happens.”

For each scene, define to yourself what is going to change from the beginning to the end in terms of the plot moving forward. If the answer is nothing, there’s a good chance the scene is going to be boring.

Writing Dialogue

Flat dialogue and samey characters are a problem you’ll want to avoid from the outset. These problems generally stem from not knowing your characters well enough. Remember a few lessons ago when you did your character interviews? Time to dust them off.

Characters should speak in a way indicated by their interviews. Background, experiences, and other factors will influence how they speak, what kind of language they use, and even their choice of words.

Avoid overusing expositional dialogue. Exposition refers to instances where a character openly and directly explains things like the present situation, backstory, what they’re feeling, and so on. While it is sometimes absolutely necessary to include exposition in your scenes, you should endeavor to have your characters infer these things rather than flatly stating them. Subtext is key.

Subtext in dialogue is something often mentioned but rarely explained. It doesn’t have to be everywhere in every scene, but it does have to be present for your characters to feel intelligent, fleshed out, and real. 

Essentially, subtext is the difference between what a character says and what a character wants. You know most people rarely say what it is they really want, or what they’re really feeling. The trick of subtext is to make sure your audience is aware of the real meaning behind what your characters are saying.

Refining Your Action

A script is a unique document: it is simultaneously an engaging, story-driven narrative and a technical blueprint for the production crew that will bring it to life on the screen.  This technical component requires that the script be written in a standardized format, commonly referred to as the ‘Industry Standard’.

This standard is composed of several formatting elements, the most important being scene headings, action, and dialogue. In Celtx, our script editor takes care of the formatting for you by automatically ensuring that everything you write is properly positioned on the page. Of course, it can’t teach you to write properly.

The majority of your script will be composed of ‘Action’, which describes everything that is happening in your story outside of dialogue. To write action properly, there are a few key principles to keep in mind:

Present Tense: Action should always be written in the present tense. Be aware that what you are writing is an active description of events that are unfolding on screen.

Show, Don’t Tell: A script describes only what an audience can see and hear. Therefore, you must be explicit in everything you write – avoid prose that does not actively serve an audio-visual description. Do not describe a character’s thoughts in your action – create it through dialogue and description of their physical behaviour.

Be Brief: A common adage is that a single formatted script page approximates one minute of screen time. Space on a script page is a premium. You don’t want an individual piece of action to approach paragraph length unless it is absolutely necessary. A general rule is to never go more than four lines without a break. This is because large, unbroken chunks of text will disrupt your pacing and smother the details. When you’re writing, try to imagine the reader’s eye moving across the page, and approximate the amount of detail that you dispense to the rate at which a person could conceivably absorb that information if it was up on the screen.

Don’t Direct From The Page: It can be tempting to include directions for framing, camera movement, and composition in your script. While this does serve a purpose when the script approaches the shooting draft stage, it’s best to be avoided in your first draft. Focus on telling the story.

Expand Your Outline

In your last lesson, you converted your outline index cards into scenes in your Celtx project’s script file.  Now it’s time to dig in.

As described above, work through each scene and expand them to match the four basic beats. If you feel you’re ready, you can even start writing in screenplay-style prose, but this isn’t totally necessary.

As you work through your outline scenes, you might find it necessary to break certain beats into multiple scenes – no big deal. Just make sure they follow the same basic structure.

Also, don’t worry if you get stuck. You can always jump around in your script and work on different parts if something isn’t inspiring you in the moment. Sometimes it helps to know where you’re going to end up, so you can write towards that goal.

Set A Page Goal

Head down to the Insights button at the bottom corner of your script editor and open the Insights Module. From here, you can set a page goal (for a feature, this will typically be between 90-120 pages) and a completion date. Insights will help track your progress and provide useful analytics of your script’s content.

The First Draft Pass: Add Dialogue and Refine Action

At long last, the actual screenwriting can begin. Go through each expanded scene outline and start rewriting them in the screenplay format described above. Turn your described conversations into real dialogue exchanges.

Take your time, don’t overthink things, and steadily work through turning each outlined scene into real, action-driven screenplay scenes with real dialogue. From here, it’s about dedication and hard work. Once you’re in the flow, you’ll find yourself surprised at how quickly the pages will start flying by.

To help keep yourself motivated, check in on your Insights Module occasionally. Focus on your daily page goals. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around.

After all, this is only your first draft… we hope that doesn’t sound ominous.

By the end of the steps described above, you should be looking at the first draft of your script. Congratulations! It’s a major achievement, and the first real step towards the process of editing, finalizing, and and taking your script into pre-production.

More on that later – in the meantime, take some time to celebrate (as long as you hit your page goal!).


  • Noel Moffatt, a graduate of Memorial University in St.John's NL, now works as an SEO specialist for Celtx to help people transform great ideas into scripts.

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