Skip the Vomit. Make a Plan.
OK. Here you are. You’ve rescheduled your life, so you’ve finally got time to write on a fairly regular basis. YEAH! But then, no matter how long you stare at your computer screen, you don’t seem to be making much progress on your screenplay. In fact, you’re feeling more confused and frustrated than ever.
It’s not supposed to be like this.
Then you hear that speed-writing a vomit draft of your script without much concern for structure, story plausibility, or characters will get you where you want to be in a hurry. You’ll soon have 100 pages that you can polish into shape.
Woohoo! Sounds great. You rush to your computer. Type like a demon possessed. Your stream of consciousness turns into a raging river of consciousness. In practically no time, THE END appears on your screen. Hooray! Time for your happy dance.
Except for one thing.
It’s gonna take far more than a “polish” to hammer this pile of steaming vomit into any kind of recognizable shape. Why? Because first you’ve got to dive into your script and figure out what you even have to work with.
A huge time eater.
Then you’ve got to decide what to keep, what to cut.
Another time eater.
Then you’ve got to search for your story/plot. Do you even have one? Odds are you’ve got a situation, not a plot.
Then you’ve got to analyze each scene. Do they advance the plot? Are they in the proper sequence? And what about your characters? The list goes on and on.
Talk about eating up your valuable time.
Let me ask a couple questions:
Would you try to build a house without a plan? Never in a million years. Then why would you try to build a story (and its world) without a plan?
NOTE: Before continuing, I want to make it clear that, when speaking of screenwriting, whenever I use the word plan, I’m talking about your beat sheet, outline, treatment, notes on a napkin, whatever you use to represent the structure of your story.
Now, back to the article.
As a former residential builder, I can assure you that building houses and screenplays have far more in common than most people imagine.
With a house, the first thing you pick is the lot. Its size, shape, contours, relationship to the sun and view, all dictate its design/plan. Which sure sounds like picking a genre.
Once you’ve got a lot, you have to come up with a suitable plan, which will dictate the house’s components, as well as the sequence in which the builder will need them.
OMG. This sounds a lot like screenplay structure.
The plan enables the builder to proceed in an orderly fashion and juggle his schedule (work on something else) if a certain component is backordered. He might, say, strap the interior ceilings if the roof shingles are delayed. Which reminds me of a writer jumping around in a script (assuming he’s got a plan) when his imagination is stymied by a particular scene.
To reinforce the house/screenplay analogy, let’s build a vomit house.
Let’s assume a builder without a plan strolls through a lumber yard. Does the stream-of-consciousness thing. Says, “Give me some of these, some of those. Oh, yeah, throw in a few windows.” Yada. Yada. Yada.
The next day, trucks packed with lumber, shingles, windows, doors, interior trim, etc., pull up to the lot and unload everything at the same time. The chaos is unimaginable. When the trucks leave, the builder will now have to sort through the piles, do an inventory, organize what he’s got, and discard what’s damaged. Which sounds like the first steps a writer takes when trying to salvage a vomit draft. A colossal waste of time.
And the house isn’t even close to being done.
Because the builder will still have to design the house based on whatever the trucks brought, and then he’d have to build it. Yikes! Not only would this take forever, but it’s likely the builder’s morale would be crushed … and he might start looking for a different career.
And what about any changes or revisions?
With a planless vomit house, you don’t know if the walls you build will be strong enough to support the floors overhead. Because you don’t know if there are floors overhead. What happens if you impulsively move what you don’t realize is a structural wall?
Crash! Now you’re looking at a complete do-over.
But if the builder has a plan of the entire structure and discovers the view on the second floor is much better than expected, he can add or move windows without any fear of the structure falling down.
My point is, it’s far more time-efficient to build a house—or your screenplay—by starting out with a plan.
Your goal shouldn’t be to race to a page count regardless of the quality of the writing. It should be to create the best screenplay you possibly can while maximizing the limited time you have to write.
So, skip the vomit. Make a plan. It will ultimately save you time.
Of course, it won’t seem so at first. Why? Because it takes time to develop a plan (aka break a story). But in the long run, it’s much faster to move 4x6 cards around on a table, or shuffle paragraphs in a beat sheet on your computer, than to try to build a quality script out of what you may or may not find in a vomit draft.
If you get discouraged, keep reminding yourself that creating a plan is the hardest part of the writing process.
By the way, it might be comforting to know that many professional writers spend about two-thirds of their time breaking the story and about one-third of their time writing the story.
Another major benefit of a plan is that it helps you create an effective logline because it contains (or should contain) your story’s most important elements. If your logline sucks, it could be a key element is missing from your plan. Once you fix it, though, you’ll have a strong logline that will guide your decision-making as you write your story.
As will a poster.
A poster? Yes. Imagining or sketching a visual, highly condensed version of your story can reveal what’s working and/or what needs to be revised or added. Interestingly, as I write this, Jimmy (Palmiotti) and I are collaborating with a producer who worked on an Oscar-winning film. As we discussed possible storylines, the pivotal question was often “What’s the poster look like?”
Point is, as you develop your plan, condensing your story into its most essential elements via a logline or poster will force you to make sure your plan does, in fact, contain these essential elements. Or it might indicate that you need to modify or create them.
It’s a great use of time.
Hopefully, by now you’re convinced that creating a plan before you start writing is a far better investment of time than going the vomit-draft route.
But before I sign off, here’s a last thought: even though you’ll spend lots of time developing your plan, it’ll undoubtedly change as you write.
Because writing is a process of discovery. Better ideas pop to mind. Your story changes. Your plan is modified.
You should embrace these changes. They improve your script. Add a character. Move scenes. Tweak your logline.
Enjoy the process. It’s your world. Have fun building it!
*Feature photo by Darya Sannikova (Pexels)