“The outline’s done! Write the script and we’ll be in production!” declared a director friend I’d been working with. My heart palpitated. As one of my favorite Coen brothers characters says, “Would that t’were so simple.”
We’d worked on the outline for weeks and were happy with the flow. The emotional content was there, as were the external goals and obstacles. It felt like we were going to hit all the right beats and create a compelling story. She was eager to share a script with our production partners. I was too, but I knew this next part of the process would be more involved.
I churned out that first draft and gave it to her. She was by turns excited and alarmed. It had little of the art of our previous collaborations. We started on an edit session. “Um, well, this scene is really on the nose,” she hedged, clearly not wanting to hurt my feelings.
For a moment I panicked: had we lost our excellent collaborative flow? Then it dawned on me; I hadn’t shown her such an early draft in our previous projects. She might have been under the impression that scripts leapt, like Athena, fully formed from the mind of their creator. “Oh gosh! Of course! This is just the barf draft!” I realized I’d never shared the concept with her.
As writers, once we have our solid outline, once we feel like we know the mechanics of the script, we write the first draft. It’s called the barf draft because we are often metaphorically barfing onto the page everything these characters think, feel, want, need, etc. Few of these pages are things you’d want representing your creative genius, but this draft has the important function of keeping us in the flow. We have to get all the ideas out onto the page, where we can organize them and play with them.
I always tell my writers: this is the time to avoid all self-censorship. Yes, “I’m so afraid that if I don’t kiss you now, I’ll lose you forever!” is a ridiculous line, but it will help you get to the right line in the next draft. Write it down! My god, that big fight at the family reunion is melodramatic, but now you know how each character’s emotions arc through those beats. Write it down! The barf draft helps us transition from the outline, which is more conceptual, to the written scene, which is more literal and concrete. It helps us see more clearly the emotional machinations of each scene, and it helps us through the drudgery of blocking the physical movements of the characters and settings.
Only when these vital pieces are complete can we then dig into the next draft, the real first draft, where we can take all this information and elevate our garish ingredients. The next draft is when we begin the true craft of submerging all those emotions into the subtext, making dialog more oblique and natural, cutting scenes and moments we can now see are superfluous. That’s when we should worry about what our characters sound like–after we’ve worked out how they’re feeling and what they’re doing.
“Don’t worry!” I comforted my friend. “We’ve done the barf draft, now we can sit down and create art.” To say the least, she was relieved. I was happy our creative flow was on track.