Screenwriting

Planning Your Script: A Feast of Post-Its

Photo by Dyntr

We’ve talked first drafts and the pros and cons of handwriting them, but now we’re going to step backwards into what I do before I pull out the legal pads and pens and chicken scratch the page up in a week-long flurry of manic, over-caffeinated, under-rested fury:

I plan. A lot.

By plan, I don’t mean outline. I don’t outline. I take the Stephen King approach of grabbing two or more people, throwing them into a situation, and record them working themselves out of it. I have a very definite end I want to hit (and in the case of my transmedia work, where I cut off one medium and jump to another), a sketchy midpoint, and a more or less complete beginning (opening scenes are everything to me). All that stuff in between? No clue. I let the characters figure that out.

My walls are filled with Post-It Notes, divided by project (there are six sections of wall dedicated to six projects), and very few of them contain any notes about plot points. The Post-Its are filled with questions for me to answer. “What If?” is my pet phrase. “What if so and so did such and such?”

One by one, as those questions are answered, I commit them to memory (or Evernote (http://www.evernote.com) and/or Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php), remove the Post-Its, and only when that section of wall has gone from overflowing with yellow-papered questions to empty and answered do I begin a first (vomit) draft.

I’m an obsessive researcher, sometimes to the detriment of a project birthed from imagination. My background in documentaries no doubt plays a role in this, as I was (and am) a notorious fact-checker and confirmation nut. Is the volume knob on a radio from 1947 on the left or right? What was the average number of panels per page in a comic book from 1938? What are the ramifications of pulling asbestos down by yourself? (Experiential research).

Not only is “world” research important, but character research is of the utmost import. I build characters as well as I can to the point that I will genuinely be surprised by the moves they make. Again, research is big. What kind of licorice was big in 1947? Was there licorice in 1947? What tools would a caricature artist use back then?

A brief pimp paragraph – the three tools that are absolutely essential to my workflow are Scrivener, Evernote, and a notebook. I use Scrivener for character sheets, saving research, and eventually, the second draft of a story onwards. Evernote is my capture tool for online research (which I then move to Scrivener later to create an archive of the project), and a notebook is where I empty my brain on everything from the current project to future projects to life, cookies, and dog treats.

I look at the research/planning phase as a feast. I consume research and notes, gorging myself on things that work, things that don’t, and things that have no point whatsoever, finally hitting that point that I can’t digest any more ideastuffs, and proceeding to regurgitate all of that into a handwritten first draft all over a yellow legal pad.

So tell me, are you a big researcher? Is it an important part of your process? Or do you just go for it? I look forward to reading what you have to say!

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1 Comment
   Saint said on March 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Great, great post.

Films spend time in pre-production, writers should too. The emphasis of getting words on the page shouldn’t mean draft after draft after draft. Planning can help you put words on the page even before you type FADE IN.

Make notes, timelines, and character profiles. List films which will inspire the tone of your script. Customize Google maps, take a drive around your locations on street view, make notes. Use index cards, post-it notes, or a moleskin. Get tactile. Draw character arcs. Write the same scene from the point of each character. Read and take notes. Thoughts are products.

Whatever you do will create a structure to help you know your script so when problems arise you’ll easily navigate them. Those third act woes will innately be reduced. You’ll relax enough to listen to your script and find genuine places for character development. You’ll write with confidence.

Research, plans, outlines — it doesn’t matter what you call it or what the process is for you. The point is to do it.

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