First Principles Thinking: A Helpful Skill for New Drafts


(Jerome Keith) #1

Second drafts (and however many come after that) are extremely important. In my writing, the first draft is normally spent taking an outline and then spending a lot of time just putting down the bones of scenes. Often this leads to writing scenes that lack in subtext and where characters lines are on the nose.

I’d always had trouble with second drafts. I would usually need at minimum two weeks (more often months) to separate myself mentally enough from a first draft that I could rework the scene substantially. Yes, I could edit down lines, cut stuff, and move it around, but tearing away the atrophied muscles to rebuild anew was difficult.

Then between listening to different video essays on Rick and Morty, I heard an essay on First Principle thinking. The idea behind First Principle Thinking is that we try to get ourselves to stop working from assumptions we already possess and spend our time on breaking down a problem into its individual components. Once it is broken down we then evaluate each of those components from a new standpoint.

Say you’ve written a scene where a kid stands up to his bullies. (We’ll call the kid Timmy and the bully Chester). It’s easy to succumb to writing a simple hero moment in which Timmy punches Chester out or ruins his rep by divulging information to downgrade his status amongst the class. The ability to cause fear is removed from the bully and now the kid is not only safe but a hero.

When you come back on your next draft try taking a blank piece of paper and writing down a page on what this scene means. Ask yourself as many questions as you can about it as a whole and each word you’ve put on the page. Ensure the scene is unique to your story. I always take at least a page for this, because I want to force myself to dive deep into what I’m trying to say and what is already there. In the above example, I might either be saying that sometimes violence is not only necessary but useful or that strategy can defeat any foe. I then look at what I know about Timmy and see if what I’ve created fits the tone.

After that, I always challenge myself to write down ten different ideas for scenes that could possibly accomplish what I’m trying to convey. Maybe I was right about the fact that Timmy at heart is a strategist. He’s spent my entire film watching chess’s legendary match of Deep Blue versus Kasparov and clearly prefers his brains to his brawn. But he’s also quiet. He’s happy in his shell with his small tight-knit group and his life wouldn’t be necessarily improved by becoming a high school legend for embarrassing Chester. Instead, Timmy might leave Chester a private note in his locker, a piece of blackmail that causes a relationship change between them the audience understands, but the school doesn’t take much note of.

Essentially First Principle Thinking is just about not working from assumptions. It challenges the thinker to break the problem down into its component parts, and then spend time evaluating those parts before they come up with solutions. Try it out and see if it works for you.

(Herman Wang) #2

One thing I generally do is make several passes through the script, each time reading the lines for just one character. Is everything that character says and does consistent with their personality and history? And if you don’t know, you haven’t written that character strongly enough.

I find this helps avoid the writing problem of having people do what’s convenient for the plot rather than being true to themselves.