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