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Resources for Writers

There’s No Such Thing as a Final Draft by Peter Salisbury

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Article by Peter Salisbury ©.
Posted in Resources ().

Hands down, one of the best parts of being Anam Cara’s director is getting to know the writers- and artists-in-residence and their work. They have taught me and each other much about the creative process. Their genre/medium may be similar to someone else’s, but their approach is always unique and inspirational.

As a fundraiser for Pieta House, Anam Cara Publishing is offering Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process. For this anthology, 54 former residents and supporters generously contributed their personal essays in which they explore the many aspects and results of their creative processes. The American poet Billy Collins offered his support by writing the Foreword… as well as creating the title! 

Sue Booth-Forbes, Director, Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat.

There’s No Such Thing as a Final Draft

One thing I have discovered about writing screenplays is that there is no such thing as a final draft. Unlike a novel, a memoir or a poem, it does not end with the page upon which it is written. The screenplay is constantly being tweaked and altered, right through the production and post-production process. Where film is the visual medium of the story told, the script is the blueprint from which the film is made.

The film director John Boorman told me recently that “the film script is like a poem. Every frame should be meaningful.” He emphasised the need to think in images. To express everything on the page cinematically and to let the dialogue be part of the atmosphere.

This was certainly true when it came to writing Mother and Daughter, the short film I am working on at the moment. It’s a very short film. There are only six pages of script. But it is packed full of atmosphere and emotion, screaming to be released onto the screen by the life of an actor.

Like all creative writing, it began with an idea. Usually, I have more than one idea on the go. But I find that, over time, the one I keep thinking about is the one that I usually end up writing. Cinema is about storytelling; so, it’s important to pick the right story. The one you are most passionate about. If I feel that this is the story I’ve got to tell, then I just get on and write it.

I write every day until the first draft is done. The writing process is very organic. At first, I’m gleaning…thoughts, images, ideas, lines of dialogue, locations, characters, emotions, anything that comes to mind, however far-fetched and crazy it might seem. Making notes in a notebook, always by hand in pencil, never on a computer. I leave that for later in the writing process. It’s only when I feel I have gathered enough material, when I have a strong sense of what the story might be about and when the characters have started to come alive, that I begin to write the screenplay.

Writing a logline helps. It’s a painful task, especially when all you want to do is get on and write the script. But the dividends are bountiful. The ideal logline describes the story’s core conflict summed up in one sentence. Not an easy thing to achieve. A good logline will stand you in good stead when it comes to writing the story treatment and the script itself.

Finding character is very hard. It’s important to have a distinction between the characters. People think differently, look different, talk differently, act differently. If there is no distinction between characters, there is no conflict. It’s very important to create a narrative that isn’t one-sided.

In Mother and Daughter, the first thing I had was the image of a mother serving up a letter to her daughter for dessert. I didn’t know who the characters were, where they were coming from or where they were going. Just the image of a mother and daughter at the dinner table, moments before all hell is let loose.

Part way into writing the story, I discovered that they both had an opinion on the same thing. The mother, who wants the best for her daughter, believes going to university and finishing her education is the sensible thing to do. The daughter, who wants to take a gap year in America, believes university will be there when she returns. They’re both right. That makes it dramatic, and because both people have beliefs, they have to come head to head.

Today, with just over a week before we start shooting the film, I inserted another scene into the script, just before the scene in which all hell breaks loose at the dinner table. Four lines of description; less than twenty seconds of screen time. Two, maybe three shots. No dialogue. The quiet before the storm.

Although very brief, this new scene, in which we see the daughter alone in her bedroom at the end of the day, will function as a way of showing the passage of time from day to night, and, thanks to the careful placement of a poster of the Empire State Building on the wall behind her, will also provide a subliminal reference to her desire to visit New York. A poetic moment, which, hopefully, won’t go unnoticed by the audience.

(c) Peter Salisbury

About Diving into the Mystery – Studies in the Creative Process:

In support of Pieta House Ireland, whose mission is to replace suicide, self-harm, and stigma with hope, self-care, and acceptance, Anam Cara Publishing has produced Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process, an anthology of personal essays written by fifty-four creative people.

In his foreword, Billy Collins writes, “This collection holds an abundance of insights into the lives of artists [from a variety of disciplines] and their approaches to creativity. Many common threads unite their commentaries. Art often happens not when you are looking straight down the path but when you catch something out of the corner of your eye. Poems come “from the fringes of attention.” Making art is a way of “understanding yourself,” or of trying to make sense of a disheveled world. Art is the result of “repetitive awareness.” Art arises out of landscape. Self-expression combines “humility and boldness” or “alertness and surrender.

“Among the many compelling notions, the most essential agreement for me was among those who saw art as a way of finding out what you think rather than just expressing the thoughts you already have. One wrote: “I don’t know what I think until I speak it.” Another gave this: “If I begin… with something I know… the poem quickly curls up and dies on the page.” In creative hands, the pen, the paint brush, the camera are not recording instruments; they are instruments of discovery.”

Order your copy online here. Or contact Sue at anamcararetreat.book@gmail.com, cost: €12 plus postage and please include your postal address.  See here for more information about ordering and postage costs.

All proceeds go to Pieta House.


Peter Salisbury is a filmmaker and cinematographer based in Dublin, Ireland, with over 20 years broadcast and corporate filmmaking experience including documentary, news and current affairs.