Thinking too rationally, too early in the creative process can kill all sorts of possibilities dead in the water and leave you with an anaemic, generic screenplay.
The other day I listened to Nicholas Stoller, screenwriter of Get Him to the Greek, being interviewed on the Creative Screenwriting podcast (what a brilliant service to the screenwriting community that podcast is! Jeff Goldsmith should get a knighthood or something). When Stoller described his writing habits, he said he always gets to a point where he writes a “vomit draft.” This is a first draft, which is certainly going to be too long, unsophisticated, and far removed from the end product in terms of quality. But he gives himself permission to write it, in order to get the basic story onto paper. Then the real writing work starts, i.e., the rewriting.
The Creative Process: Inspiration and Elaboration
In any creative endeavour, the initial phase of coming up with ideas—the inspirational phase— has to be allowed to flow freely, without any thought about practicalities. In her book Screenwriting Updated, Linda Aronson equates this phase of the writing with lateral thinking. The kind of brainstorming technique, made famous by Edward de Bono, that can go in any direction, and that isn’t bound by any critical evaluation of the quality of the ideas. It’s only in a subsequent phase that more rational, task-oriented vertical thinking, takes over. This is the elaboration phase, or the craft aspect of the writing. A phase in which logic and conscious considerations play a more dominant role.
The Vomit Draft Gives you Something to Work on
Inspiration and elaboration are phases in every stage of the process of writing a screenplay. Whether you’re writing a logline, a synopsis, a treatment or a first draft, there’s a time to let rip and a time to be critical. The point is, that once you allow yourself to get something down on paper, however rough and unruly it might be, that gives you something to rewrite. And it’s in the rewriting that specific details begin to emerge and decisions about structure become important.
Giving Yourself Permission to Vomit, is Half the Work
The final draft of a screenplay usually contains about 15,000 words. However, the road to that final draft is littered with hundreds of thousands of words of discarded scenes, characters, dialogue, and so on. That is in the nature of screenwriting. The end result is tiny in comparison with the huge amount of material generated along the way, that isn’t used. So it’s essential to allow yourself to, uncritically, get all those initial ideas out of your mind, in order to be able to subsequently whittle them down into an imaginative, original and well-crafted screenplay. Of course, without a really firm understanding of the craft aspects of screenwriting, all you end up with is an uninspiring generic screenplay, or, well... a pile of vomit.