Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Screenwriting and Writing it Down

We had a very productive script meeting yesterday.

It got me thinking about the different ways that people work and what tools and methodologies work for different people.

Now, at the end of the day – and this is important to emphasize – it doesn’t matter how you write, in whatever way, with software or longhand… what matters is that you work and you get your material written. What matters is that you have a system of capturing and collecting and keeping track of all of your ideas, and then a way to organize and write the screenplay itself. It’s better for you if you minimize any chaos there might be in the ‘collecting’ part.

Get your material written…

Yesterday, I was working with someone who likes referring to Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. Of course, referencing a screenwriting book does not make you a screenwriter, but there are books, software, and other tools and habits that can help you do what you need to do. My partner is primarily a director who likes to look at Save The Cat because it helps him organize his thoughts when he’s working on a script. That’s something he feels helps him sharpen his points and helps him think in a way he finds helpful, when he needs it. He’s also a gadget guy, so he loves different smart phone apps for note taking. He likes to voice memo ideas when they come to him, because for him it’s faster than writing it down. Eventually, when the workshopping, rehearsals or shooting of a script begins, he likes to write notes on the physical script copy, or in software that allows him to do a longhand electronic equivalent of that using a stylus instead of a pen.

I also have my own preferences, tools and quirks. Generally speaking, the way I write works like this: Something comes to me. I write it down.

Oh the glamour, you’re thinking.

Yes, “stuff” comes to me and I write it down, which is why I like to have writing implements on me at all times. Because I have no control over where or when it comes to me. The “stuff” doesn’t come just because I am sitting at a good work surface with a laptop. It will come to me on public transit, at a café, or walking down the street. If I have something like a pen and notebook with me so I can write it down immediately, great. If I don’t, I have been known to borrow the pen of a waitress and jot it down on a napkin if necessary.

When I haven’t, it has been to my peril. I have learned that “Oh good idea. I’ll write it down later when I’m on my computer” often does not work. It’s just too easy to forget. Yes, you can forget a line or a dialogue exchange that you think is great, or a concept you think is wonderful. Yes you can forget those. Incredible but true.

Of course I’m not suggesting anything precious in this. I don’t mean you have to rush to write it down because it is perfect, that it is something that won’t be edited or rewritten or revised later. Of course it will be. But you have to get it down first.

For example, I do use screenwriting software. For the most part, I try not to be brand specific in this blog when it comes to equipment for a couple reasons; one is, the specific brand is usually not relevant to the point. It might matter that you use a particular kind of equipment, not a specific brand. So I don’t like to muddy the waters by using brand names.

The other reason is, I think naming brands implies advertising. I do not object to paid advertising on a blog – it can mean payment that helps keep a site running – but Ardent has not been courting companies looking for sponsors or advertisers, so I don’t want to suggest that we’re endorsing a brand because we’re being paid to do so.

Certain personality types like to disdain the tools of others. I object to this. “I only use X screenwriting software. It’s the industry standard.”  That is simply not true. If you’re a new or student writer I don’t want to say anything to you that will keep you from writing your script, which you’re probably already nervous about. The software does not matter. What matters is that it is a readable script, in a proper standard format. For the most part, productions in the film industry use one or another of the major screenwriting software packages. You know the brands. I use one, and not the other, as is my preference. Either are used by Production depending on their preference and the ability to connect to other programs for script breakdowns; ie. global costs in budgeting, etc.

But a screenwriter who just needs to get the script written and properly formatted, can use either of the big named software. You can add macros to your word processing program for that matter, to get indents in the right places for character names and descriptive action. You can get a screenwriting format book like the one by Cole/Haag and type it manually. It doesn’t matter if you like to write longhand then type it, as long as it can be read by a director or producer or actor or other relevant personnel for appropriate breakdown or interpretation.

My favorite way of writing long hand is to use index cards. They’re cheap and easy to find at any drugstore, stationers or dollar store. They’re easy to carry around at 4×6, and hold together well with a rubber band. I like a very soft pencil with a good eraser. I love these “Scene” cards because they translate so well to a card a scene. I can fit a few lines of descriptive action and dialogue or the point of a scene on the lined side, and an essential line of dialogue or something else essential about its point to “name it” on the blank side. As a script evolves, I can reorder the cards as scene order changes or get extended. Often I use plain white cards, but I can use a colored card to represent an exterior scene or a night scene, as a quick way to reference if I’m keeping things interesting by alternating types of locations or Day vs Night, etc.

Some writers write the entire story in this way before they type it in script format, arguing that it’s easier to change a card than re write a whole scene. Again, it doesn’t matter if it works for you. Me, I like the cards and I use my favorite software and I move back and forth between the first draft and the cards. A card represents a scene I need to write, so I do that. The act of typing inevitably means I tweak and embellish and make changes as I get it down. But the act of typing a scene might give me an idea for another scene; if it does, at that point I just keep going and write and type the new scene in the moment. Later, I’ll write up a card for it, so I still have a Scene Card to represent it. So I go back and forth in this way. If I have cards on me when an idea hits, even if I’m on public transit I’ll jot it down, but if I don’t I’ll write it on whatever is handy, to be typed later.

“Stuff” comes to me and I write it down, get it? Now stop reading this and write your own “stuff” down.

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READ Other Recent Secrets of Indie Filmmaking Posts:
Prep: Shoot the Movie in your Head First
Story versus Slick
Micro-Budget Cinema: Is Enough Enough?

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