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20 Things That Helped Me Finish the (Current Draft of the) MANCHILD Screenplay

01.14.13 @ 10:30AM Tags : , , ,

A few months ago I finished the screenplay for my feature MANCHILD (for now, at least). I’ll have more updates on the project soon, but suffice to say there’s been a long rewriting process since I ran my Kickstarter campaign over a year ago. And while this wasn’t the first screenplay I’ve written, it’s certainly the best, and the one on which I’ve worked the longest and hardest. Over the past two years, here are the things that have helped my screenwriting process.


1. Freehanding the first draft

Despite a preponderance of available writing software, I wrote the first draft of MANCHILD by hand in an old-fashioned lined notebook. Why? Because using pen and paper is a great way to force yourself forward. Screenwriting can be a battle of constantly revising the pages you wrote on previous days, rather than pushing onto the next scene; knowing the first draft is going to be imperfect, I just want to get to the end. Turning a page after it’s full of ink is a great way to get through the first draft with momentum intact. You feel a sense of accomplishment, you can look at your story as a whole, and then typing it up is a great way to start your “second first draft.”

2. Pinboard

Pinboard is a great research tool for screenwriters (and well, just about anyone else). It’s a bookmarking solution similar to Delicious, allowing you to save, tag, categorize, and search web pages of interest. Pinboard has a few important differences, however: you can set your bookmarks to private by default (I use bookmarks for my own reference, not to socialize or share), and if you pay $25/year, Pinboard will crawl every webpage you send it and archive it permanently in case the article is later moved or removed. This way you’ll never lose an article. Pinboard has a one-time sign-up fee of $10, but it also allows you to import all of your Delicious bookmarks at once; I did so and have never looked back.

3. Earplugs/headphones

I’ve found sound to be far more distracting for me personally than anything visual. I can sit in a coffee shop window with people walking by constantly and focus completely on the laptop screen when I need to. But if someone’s having a conversation next to me and I can hear every word, there’s just no way. If I’m in a house and the refrigerator is making some irregular kind of buzzing noise, the same applies. So most of the time when I’m writing I’m either listening to a playlist (per the next point), or I’ve got earplugs in. Finding your writing environment too distracting? Maybe it’s not the visuals, it’s the sound.

4. Consistent music playlists

One of the biggest challenges with screenwriting is you really have to live in the world of your screenplay, and very often that world is not the same as your writing environment. So when putting together a project I’m always thinking about music appropriate for the film, either for a soundtrack or music that the characters would listen to themselves. Once I have a solid playlist together, I’ll listen to it often enough that the songs bring me back to the world. I’ve been doing this in iTunes for years, although I’m not entirely convinced iTunes 11 is moving in the right direction; obviously, just about any music program can suffice.

5. Amazon Kindle highlighting

eBooks are wonderful research tools because you can search, highlight, and notate them in ways you never could on paper. I don’t know how iBooks, Nook, and other platforms work, but with the Kindle you’re given your own web site where you can later access all of your highlights and notes, and I find it to be an indispensable research aid. I’m still referencing the highlights I took a year or two ago, and they’re always at your fingertips thanks to living in the cloud.

6. Topical RSS subscriptions

Stay current on your topic. Find the little RSS icons on relevant news feeds/sites and use something like Google Reader to stay up-to-date on the world in which your story takes place (less possible if it’s an imaginary world, ancient history, etc). For example, here’s our NFS RSS feed. Browsing these subscriptions (hint: put them all in a folder and then browse the folder’s feed) can be a good way to start the day in that it can reorient you to the world of your story.

7. Ease into it

I wrote this note when I found myself struggling to engage at the beginning of every screenwriting session. I would be fine after 30-60 minutes of focusing, but during that initial period I would be distracted, irritable, and generally unsatisfied with my thought process and level of focus. So I wrote myself a note:

Realize that it’s going to take you time to get into it, every time. Don’t expect it to come to you right away. Ease into it. Here’s a good way: take a step back and just sketch out the scene/sequence/script. Hand-write an outline or a diagram. It’s not something for posterity, it’s not something you’re going to refer to next week or next month, it’s just an exercise to get you oriented.

8. Split view(s)

Somehow I got through high school and college and never really understood split views in word processing (and now screenwriting). I can view two different sections of the document at once? And then I can turn one view into a scene view (or index card view) and persistently display my outline? Wow, that makes way too much sense. (This section is only here for the 0.1% of people who also somehow missed out on this common function in the “Window” or “View” menu).

9. “But” or “therefore” but not “and then”

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone might not be the first guys you would turn to for pithy screenwriting tips, but you’d be hard pressed to find a handier two-minute video on screenwriting:

There’s a slightly longer version here (not to mention they mention the same approach in the much more thorough documentary The Making of South Park: 6 Days to Air), but this video contains the meat and potatoes. “But” or “therefore” gives you causation between each beat, and that’s a story. Not “and then.” Over the course of dozens or hundreds of drafts it’s easy to forget what you know. A simple rule of thumb like this can go a long way.

10. Beat sheet with multiple indent levels / color-coding

The screenplay is a very sparse format. The page is predominantly empty, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of thoughts on what’s going on — for yourself, for future drafts, for others, etc. Final Draft’s “ScriptNote” feature is ostensibly the way to make such notes within the screenplay doc itself, but in my humble opinion, ScriptNotes suck. They feel like something from the 1990s: there are a bunch of little icons scattered all over your document and if you want to print them out, they all show up in a separate printout detached from the actual script. If Celtx has a better way of making annotations on the script, feel free to share that in the comments.

Instead, I found myself creating and maintaing a separate beat sheet. A beat sheet is a form of outline, and making it color-coded helped me to track different plotlines. I tried a few different text editors, including Evernote, but found that I needed an editor with the bulleted-list features of, say, Microsoft Word, so I could do several different indentation levels: one each for act, sequence, scene, beat. I used Google Docs Drive for persistent online backup and cloud storage, but if you’re an offline writer, Word may be a better choice. Here’s an example of what my beat sheet would look like:

In Google Docs, you can speed the color/formatting process by using Command-Option-C to copy and Command-Option-V to paste formatting only (that’s on a Mac; on a PC, it’s Control-Alt-C to copy and Control-Alt-V to paste just the formatting).

I also found that in the progression of moving from draft to draft, it helped me to highlight changes that I needed to get into the current draft with one color, and potential changes for a future draft with another color. This helped me iterate and actually finish drafts I was comfortable sending to producers, while still keeping track of changes I might want to make at a later date with more time and more readthroughs.

While this approach definitely helped me keep track of my structure and plot lines, the drawback is whenever you make changes in the screenplay itself, the outline becomes out of date… and vice versa. In an ideal world this kind of structuring ability would be tied to the screenplay doc itself, and while I used Scene Cards in Final Draft for a rough approximation of this, going forward I’ll be looking for a way to integrate this kind of outline. I’ve mentioned Movie Draft previously but it doesn’t seem to be updated as often as I’d like.

11. Elevate the conflict within the scene

Two characters each want something different. Does the script escalate these opposing desires over the course of the scene? If the scene seems to be lacking something, this basic configuration can help give the beats a definite structure.

12. Paper printouts

After writing the first draft on paper and doing the next several drafts in the digital domain, I found a few tricky sections that I just couldn’t wrap my head around inside of a screenwriting program. To the printout!

If there’s one thing computers and tablets are still missing, it’s the freedom to quickly draw diagrams and arrows, add notes at odd angles, and cross things out. The iPad is not ideal for styli and most of us don’t have touch screen computers. Even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to look at a dozens pages side by side.

Sometimes the only way to revise a screenplay is to attack the printout out on a big desk w/ multiple pen co http://t.co/i87jPgxr
@ryanbkoo
Ryan Koo

 

Multiple pen co…lors, that is. I still don’t really understand instagram (but you should follow me here anyway?).

13. Different writing locations for different drafts

I don’t know how many drafts I’ve written of MANCHILD simply because, who’s to say what constitutes a “draft?” Every time you make a pass from start to finish? Not every pass covers the entire script. Every time you save a new version? There’s no science to that, some people save a new version several times a day. Every time you send it out for someone to read? You might do dozens of drafts in between those times. However, regardless of your definition of a “draft,” there’s no doubt that there are major milestones in a long writing process. If you don’t have the ability to take some time off between drafts, at least you can set yourself up in a new location (even within your house) so you feel like you’re, quite literally, coming at it from a new angle. It’s a gimmick, but it helped me.

14. Big changes first

This might seem obvious, but as I’m also writing this post for my own benefit — the next time I sit down to write a feature may be a year or more, given making this one’s going to keep me occupied for a bit — I want to remind my future self of this: “the biggest changes are going to have the most significant ripple effects and the highest likelihood of changing/destroying what you’ve already written, so make the big changes first and then worry about the smaller ones… they may already have been nullified or otherwise changed by the time you get to them.”

15. iPad

The perfect screenplay reading device thanks to its paper-sized form factor, the iPad (and theoretically other tablets, though no one has the software/app support yet to really compete) also makes for a surprisingly enjoyable screenplay writing device. The iPad’s form factor makes it, in my opinion, the perfect revision tool. You’re not going to write very quickly on it, and therefore I wouldn’t pen something from scratch on a tablet, but once you’ve got a draft in hand and you want to review it, it’s just much, much nicer to be able to sit in a nice chair or lie on a couch/bed and peruse the script as if it’s a published piece of work… as opposed to scrolling down a laptop screen while sitting a desk. Revising on the iPad (I use Final Draft Writer though there are several alternatives, including Celtx Mobile) feels like a hybrid of reading and writing, and while it wasn’t an option for most of the MANCHILD writing process (the iPad writer app only came out about a month before my last draft was finished), it’s definitely something I’ll be using consistently going forward.

16. Freedom

I wrote about the Mac app Freedom three years ago, and I’ve been using it ever since whenever I need to shut out the outside world and get work done. Basically the app shuts off your internet, and while you might find it ridiculous to pay $10 for such a simple function, plenty of writers swear by it — and if it helps you get work done, the ends more than justify the means. Since then the same developer has launched an app called Anti-Social, which works in a similar manner but keeps your internet connection alive while blocking social networking time wasters like Facebook and Twitter (and any other site you add to the list).

17. Windows management software

The ability to arrange multiple windows simultaneously with a single keystroke (or click of the mouse) is built into the latest versions of Windows (or so I’m told). I’m on a Mac, and the ability to tile/split/arrange multiple applications isn’t built-in, but there are a lot of applications that enable this kind of customization. Oftentimes I’ll want my outline (or research materials) on one half and the script on the other. A good free option to do this on the Mac is Spectacle. I’m not opposed to paying for software by any means, but… this one’s free and it works great. The main reason I could see buying an alternative is if you’re more of a visual drag-and-drop kind of person as opposed to learning a few new keystrokes.

18. David Mamet’s Memo to his writers on ‘The Unit’

There were a few scenes in my script that were bothering me every time I read through them, and I wasn’t sure why. I had a sense — they felt too expository — but no one was giving me any notes on them. Still, something about them was bothering me. I reread this David Mamet memo, and realized it was exactly this: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.”

Pretty much any movie or TV show is going to have two characters talking about a third in some way, in passing at least. But I took Mamet’s point to mean “if the entire scene is only about these two people talking about another thing [person, event, issue], it needs to change.”

19. Character-specific passes

Do entire drafts wherein you only pay attention to one character — their motivations, their complexities, their arc. Create a beat sheet just for them. Turn off ScriptNotes, ignore the rest of the scenes, and pretend the rest of the script doesn’t exist. Don’t worry if you’re messing up things holistically — you’re going to do plenty more passes start-to-finish. This pass is strictly about making one character — and not just your lead — as nuanced, complex, and three-dimensional as possible. Everyone is the protagonist of their world, and their motivations and decisions all need to make sense to them.

20. Use your Good Hours

It’s the beginning of your day. Your to-do list has dozens of items on it, several of which you want to get to today. Plus you have bills to pay and a lot other bullshit to deal with. Which of these things do you tackle first?

I used to try to get the small things done first. Many people think this way — “I’ll just get this out of the way” — but time and time again I found myself tired by the time I got around to what should have been the most important item — in this case, the screenplay. My energy was already depleted. So it wasn’t a stroke of genius to say, “I’ll use my good hours — when I have the most energy and am the freshest — to work on the most important thing first, and then when I’m tired I’ll handle the bullshit.” This seems like a no-brainer, but it took me a while to come around to this approach. It didn’t help that, from years of doing school work late at night, I believed my most creative hours were naturally at night — not (always) true.

No matter how hard-working we are, no matter how motivated, all of us only have a certain number of Good Hours in a day. Use them to work on what matters most!

And now that this post is finished, damn — there went my good hours for today! For more screenwriting “things,” see Chris’s recent post on 6 more — or add your own in the comments. And more on MANCHILD very soon.

Related Posts

  1. When is Your Script Truly Done? 10 Things to Consider Before Locking Down Your Screenplay
  2. 6 Things I'm Doing to Write My Best Screenplay Ever This Year (And You Can Too!)
  3. 17 Writing Tricks to Help Get You Through Your Screenplay

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 41 COMMENTS

  • Great update; I was dying for a Manchild Update. Metabones update + Manchild update= A Good monday

  • What an inspiring read. I really enjoy reading these rare updates on Manchild.

    • Thanks! They’ll be less rare going forward — writing updates on the screenwriting process has been hard (what’s there to say other than “new draft!”), but I’ll be posting about it more frequently going forward.

  • israel Perez on 01.14.13 @ 11:25AM

    Very nice and informative post. It is very helpful to see what worked and what didn’t work for you so that we don’t commit the same errors. Again thanks for sharing Ryan.

  • DIYFilmSchool.net on 01.14.13 @ 11:25AM

    This is all good stuff, but the most relevant points to myself as a creative person (and especially when writing) are points 3, 9 and 19.

  • Thanks for this post Koo, these are the posts I enjoy the most. I’m not into gear THAT much and I’m here mainly for the learning aspect of filmmaking. This post was awesome and I loved the Stone&Parker video. Mamet’s quote was great.

  • Christopher Boone on 01.14.13 @ 11:54AM

    Great post, Koo. So many great tips and tools for screenwriters. One of my biggest takeaways from this post is the overarching point that screenplays take a hell of lot of work to get them right, yet, to many, look deceptively simple to write. Looking forward to future updates on MANCHILD.

    • Agreed, sometimes I think, “it took HOW many drafts to get to this point?” But whether it’s a dozen or a hundred, the end product is worth it!

  • Congrats Koo. You got the rock — take it to the hole!!

  • I’m tryling to get a screenplay for a short together in the next months. This will help a lot. Thanks so much, Koo. Good luck going forward with MANCHILD!

  • john jeffreys on 01.14.13 @ 2:51PM

    There are free alternatives to #16, including self control, and like 1000 browser plugins just google something like “firefox blacklist” or “firefox facebook blocker” etc

  • Thank you Ryan. That was very insightful and practically helpful. Now I just have to figure out how to get my good hours away from the damn day job. All the best with it.

  • Thank you kind sir!

    I’m, at the moment, just planning out my feature film which has taken me months to get to this stage, I guess it’s a matter of what you said about “good hours” but I’m also scared to write it, but you’ve really given me a kick in the face with motivation (in a good way!) so thank you.

    I hope to hear more about manchild soon!

    Thank you again for a sincerely fantastic article.

  • Thanks for the article Ryan, will be bookmarking this for future references.

  • So much stuff…books/internet on screenwriting out there..
    but this manages to compile some good stuff.

    Writing in longhand and use of cards does seem to help.
    Anything to get the script from the theoretical into an
    actual physical object of existence helps the process.

  • VinceGortho on 01.14.13 @ 4:51PM

    These seem to help a lot. Robert Mckee’s Ten Commandments of story writing.

    1. Thou shalt not take the crisis/climax out of the protagonist’s hands. The anti-deus ex machina commandment.

    2. Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. Nothing progresses in a story except through conflict.

    3. Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition’s sake. Dramatize it. Convert exposition to ammunition.

    4. Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise.

    5. Thou shalt respect your audience. The anti-hack commandment.

    6. Thou shalt know your world as God knows this one. The pro-research commandment.

    7. Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better. Don’t multiply the complications on one level. Use all three: Intra-personal, Inter-personal, Extra-personal.

    8. Thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters to the farthest reaches and depth of conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of probability.

    9. Thou shalt not write on the nose. Put a subtext under every text.

    10. Thou shalt rewrite

  • NFS is now officially the most interesting place on the internet! Thanks a lot guys… hell of a job!

  • Thanks Ryan! Inspiring
    NFS is my primary Safari-hangout now days. Great work

  • Hey Ryan, such an inspiring and generous post. Seems like you have already learned so much from the Man Child project. Thanks for taking the time and best of luck going forward.

  • Thanks for a great post Ryan. Took a short break (ahem) from writing and reading the hefty notes on my latest pass… draft… number… ermmm??? So your timing is terrific.

    BUMMED I can’t watch the PArker and STone link though. Searched for 45 minutes trying to find it elsewhere without success. Anyone with a link that will play outside US, be much appreciated.

    Best

    Lliam

  • Another solid and helpful post. Thanks, Ryan!

    Colm

  • Always love the screenwriting posts as everyone has their own techniques and there is no one way to “find your muse”

    Very interesting to see all the different tips writers give and how they compare, many of which you have here definitely go hand in hand with my style and others. Love #1, I do this too and recommend it to everyone as when you go to transfer the draft to digital it forces a solid rewrite out of you.

    4, 9, 12, 13, & 19 are also on point.

    Thanks for continuing to share personal writing posts from your experiences and others, you don’t find that too often out there. Lots of strict “do’s and don’ts”

  • Don’t you think Manchild is taking too long?

  • Used a chunk of today’s ‘good hours’ reading this post, but feeling no guilt whatsoever. Great post. :)

  • Great post! Regarding your troubles keeping your outline and screenplay in synch next time you should give Scrivener a try. It’s the best software I know for that and it exports smoothly to Final Draft when you need it.

    • I actually used Scrivener for a bit but really thought it an ideal tool for writing novels and manuscripts, not screenplays (it does have some basic screenplay formatting functionality and the newer versions may be even better, so maybe I’ll give it another shot.

  • Bryan Krauss on 01.18.13 @ 2:38AM

    Great tips. I sometimes have a tiger eye focus on writing, but not of late. These listed elements where inspiring. A way back to my focus Thank you.

  • Darren Wolff on 01.23.13 @ 7:37AM

    Thanks for the tips Ryan. All very interesting and valid. I shall take onboard and no doubt go back to review this post many times.

  • Thank you so much for this post! It provided me with very useful information!

  • I use my iPad to go over my script and use the good notes app (Free) to take notes on it. I bought a stylus ($5 at the pharmacy) so I can write on it, and you also have the option to type notes. The coolest thing for me is that I can change the colors of the pen you write with. I use one color for my notes, another for my mentor’s, and red to mark scenes that I know are not there yet or could eventually be cut. Then I prop the script up like a stand and apply the edits from my notes into my screenplay via my computer. I love it.

    I also take notes during this read through that are more general. Things that are bothering me about the script. A scene I should add. What’s missing. I do this in the notes app so I can easily email it to myself or other readers to show them my concerns.

    The best part about this vs. printing the script out, is that you can do these edits on the train on your way to work or outside. Having the luxury of reading and taking notes on my script during times when I’d otherwise just be doing nothing is such a huge plus for the iPad.

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