What are some of the most common screenwriting misconceptions — and what can screenwriters learn from them?
Welcome to our ongoing series about the common misconceptions that screenwriters have when it comes to screenwriting, the film and television industry, and the screenwriting journey as a whole. There is so much information that screenwriters have to wade through online, and so much of it is either false or misleading. And if screenwriters are not being given this false or misleading information, they’re conjuring it themselves.
This series of discussions will cover some of the most widely-touted screenwriting misconceptions and will attempt to offer perspective and proper context to what you may have heard or read about the art, craft, and business of screenwriting.
So let’s turn our focus to our inaugural topic — the vomit draft.
What Is the Vomit Draft?
A vomit draft is the version of a screenplay that you write in a short amount of time with few to no goals beyond getting from beginning to end as quickly as possible.
You metaphorically “vomit” everything you currently have in your mind regarding the characters, worlds they inhabit, and the conflicts they face. And you do so with little-to-no process structure as you write.
The idea is to get what’s in your head on the paper without the “interference” of over-thinking how you’re going to go approach the writing of the story. Instead, you just “vomit” it out of your brain and onto the page with the sole goal of getting to the end of the script as quickly as possible so that you can move onto the next draft.
Once you’re ready to start writing your vomit draft, download our free guide here.
What Are the Benefits of Starting with a Vomit Draft?
You are surrounded by workshops, seminars, gurus, and countless screenwriting blogs and books claiming to have the secrets to writing the perfect screenplay. You read on and on about the need for strict character arcs, specific story structure, and secret formulas to success. You are pulled in multiple directions as multiple pundits declare that X needs to happen on this specific page while Y needs to happen on that specific page.
It leads to the paralysis of analysis, which refers to the fact that a screenwriter can often overthink the development of their screenplay, and therefore miss some fantastic choices that could come in moments of inspiration.
When you employ the vomit draft process for the first draft of your screenplay, the thought is that you’re saving yourself from the possibility that your over-preparation will hinder you. This over-preparation is a natural occurrence because so much emphasis is put on outlining, thanks to the many screenwriting books and declarations that prominent screenwriters share about their process, which most novice screenwriters feel the need to replicate for success.
Vomit drafts also offer you the opportunity to not only get the good stuff out but also discard the bad stuff.
Sometimes certain scenes or sequences are good in concept, and even on the page, but they don’t necessarily fit within the confines of your structured script.
Sometimes you have conjured interesting, funny, or badass characters that you love, but when placed within the composition of your screenplay, they just don’t work.
Sometimes you find that the concept you’ve been developing isn’t developed enough, or you’ve attached too many elements to it that don’t need to be there.
Writing a vomit draft can be a quick and easy way to identify not only what works, but what doesn’t work.
What Are the Misconceptions of the Vomit Draft?
All screenwriters develop their own process. And that process can and will evolve, depending upon the situation. Because of this, the concept of a vomit draft changes. This is what leads to most misconceptions of this draft.
If you’re writing on spec, with no one waiting for your work, you have more freedom.
If you’re writing on assignment for a major studio or production company, you’ll generally have ten-to-twelve weeks for the first draft and then a couple of weeks for a second draft, followed by a couple more weeks for any additional polish work beyond that.
If you’ve been brought onto a project late in the process, or if the project has been presold to foreign territories already and needs to go into production as soon as possible, that ten-to-twelve week dead can shrink down to a couple of weeks or less.
Read The Script Lab’s How Long Should It Take to Write a Screenplay?
So the concept of a vomit draft changes when you’ve gained some experience. The vomit draft can often do more harm than good if you’re writing under specific deadlines. You won’t be able to afford the time and effort it will take for you to dissect that vomit draft and sort out the good from the bad.
In short, it behooves you to shy away from that process because reliance on it — or even the simple belief that it’s necessary — isn’t going to be doing you any favors down the road.
But here’s the real misconception of the vomit draft.
Too many screenwriters think that once they have the general concept that they want to write in mind, they should sit in front of the computer, type Fade In, and write their vomit draft — without any outlining or preparation.
That’s the biggest mistake you could make.
How can you possible structure a cinematic story within the confines of the blueprint of a film — the screenplay — with little to no development?
It’s different if you’re writing a novel. When you’re an author writing a book, there’s so much more freedom. Not only do you not have to write within the confines of screenplay structure (90-120 pages, give or take), you also don’t have to worry about going on tangents, writing character inner thoughts, tell backstories, etc. All of those are things that you can include in your novel.
You can go into detail. You can get into the head of your characters and display their inner thoughts and emotions. You can explore tangent stories.
With screenplays, you don’t have those freedoms. You’re writing a blueprint of a film which is going to require the work of hundreds of other artists and crew members to interpret. And everything you write has to be able to be filmable. Thus, if you go into writing a screenplay without any development before you begin, you’re just creating more work for yourself.
The biggest misconception about the vomit draft is that you’re writing before any significant development has been performed.
Before you start that script, vomit draft or not, you need to know the main plot points, story beats, and character arcs. You need to know the major conflicts that will be thrown at your characters. You need a general idea of the themes you are exploring. You need to have upwards of 75% of the film visualized — at least generally — in your mind’s eye before you type a single word.
Many major screenwriters do vomit drafts — but most do so after they’ve done the necessary work.
Some screenwriters write physical outlines or treatments. Others rely on their visualization and memory of those visuals. Some use rows and rows of index cards or color-coded post-it notes. Others use bullet points digitally or penciled on pieces of paper.
Whatever development process you have, you need to go into that vomit draft knowing a majority of your story. Yes, you can and want to leave an opening for discovery, but you can’t go into any draft of your script blind.
The vomit draft — at least to those who know what they are doing —has never been about taking a logline and then locking yourself into a room until you come out with a 100-plus page script. You’d only be creating more work for yourself in the end, likely leading to frustration and heartbreak — and additional months of rewrite after rewrite.
So What’s the Best Way to Write a Vomit Draft?
Do the work.
Before you ever type a single word, you need to do the research and development necessary to get a majority of the story, characters, scenes, and sequences visually structured in your mind.
Here are some general steps that you can take to be ready to write that vomit draft the right way:
- Develop a good logline for your script.
- Expand that logline into a three-paragraph short synopsis — similar to what you would read on the back book jacket of a paperback.
- Visualize the bad movie trailer version of your script. You know, the trailers that give away everything, including the final twist?
- Visualize the main story beats of your movie as you walk, run, drive, and daydream. See these details and play them over and over in your head.
- If you like to outline or write treatments, then go ahead and do that.
- If you like index cards or post-it notes, get those together.
- If you have a good visual memory bank and can outline in your head, that’s your thing.
Read The Script Lab’s 7 Things Screenwriters Need to Do Before Typing a Single Word!
Then, and only then, should you even attempt to write a vomit draft.
If you have the story bursting at the seams, needing to be told, you’ll vomit out all of that great development work — instead of mostly crap. And by the end, you’ll have a true first draft that is closer to a final. You’ll have saved yourself weeks upon weeks and months upon months of work.
That’s the real way — the better way — to write a vomit draft. You’re still throwing caution to the wind and getting it done without paralysis of analysis. You’re still going to be editing, cutting, and rewriting. You’re still going to find both the good and the bad. It’s just a better way of going about it.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies