making FEATURE FILM SCREENWRITING EASIER WITH VISUAL AIDS
As I passed the 30 page mark this weekend on my first feature film screenwriting endeavor, I found myself very, very confused.
"Where did I put that scene?" "Did I delete that scene?" ...."Did I even write that scene?"
It became increasingly difficult to follow character's storylines or repetitive motifs to know how they were developing over time. By page 32, I knew I needed to abandon the free-wheeling ways of my short-film-writer days and follow the advice I hear my 5th-grade teacher fiance always trying to instill in her students:
"USE VISUAL CUES TO WORK THROUGH COMPLEX PROBLEMS."
I decided to take her up on it by investing in some visual representation. Namely, Post-it notes.
Each row represents a scene.
column 1: the SCENE TITLE:
I gave each scene a title and wrote it on the yellow post-it note on the left side of the diagram. The title was based, not just on literally what happens, but also on how the scene contributes to the story's development. It also included an overall tone or point of view to capture the essence of the scene.
column 2, 3, 4: the PRINCIPLE CHARACTERS:
I assigned the three principle characters their own color post-it-notes, so I could track their story-lines by scanning down their columns, see when they interacted, and also make sure their rhythm and screen-time would fit the needs of the story's (and their) arcs. On each note, I wrote the actions they took in the scene [see example below]. In this case, I didn't get creative with metaphorical titles. Instead, I wrote exactly what each present character did.
column 5: ADDITIONAL INFO:
Lastly, In the fifth column, I used more yellow post-it notes (ran out of colors) to include any other additional characters present and their actions, as well as any recurring images, environments, or other factors that play a role in the development of the story or overall theme.
1. scene TITLE: I titled one scene in which a deacon gives a sermon he is uncomfortable with, "Deacon takes the Dive".
This title, at least to me, captured the action that moves the story forward [he does something he's not comfortable with], as well as intimating the potentially dramatic ramifications ['takes the dive'] to signal that this is the inciting action for his story-line and most of the characters in the story. He is doing much more than giving a sermon. He's diving into the murky moral waters of the underworld...
Yes, that's dramatic, but when I see that title, I know exactly what part of the story I'm looking at. This kind of 'suggestive titling' is specific to the writer, but luckily, it doesn't need to mean anything to anyone else.
2. The three principle CHARACTERS--SUIT, WIFE, and DEACON --all received their own color post-it note: SUIT (blue), WIFE (pink), DEACON (green).
3. For the scene, "Deacon takes the Dive," I wrote the following ACTIONS:
-DEACON gives the sermon
-SUIT listens to the sermon.
-WIFE encourages SON to put a check in the collection basket.
While each character feels and says different things during the scene, being able to see their actions in a moments' glance allows me to know how the story is progressing and also jogs my memory about the scene as a whole. It also allows me to look down the character's column and quickly see the order of each character's actions--independent of the rest of the story.
4. I included the other CHARACTERS that were present [MONSIGNOR, JONAH, POLICEMEN], what they're doing [WATCH & LISTEN], and an IMAGE that comes back later in the film [fractured stained glass window].
SO HOW DID ORGANIZING MY SCREENPLAY WITH VISUALS HELP?
Firstly, I discovered that I wasn't practicing enough patience to let characters develop. I was stuck in my short-film writing days, where the story needs to happen ultra-efficiently. But in a feature, it prevented any build from occurring. One of the characters in the script cracks in Act III, and, by running my eyes down his column, it quickly became clear that I wasn't spending enough time establishing his normal way of life and then creating a small triggers and reactions that would lead to the eventual crack.
Similarly, it let me see how to develop certain images and locations over a longer period of time. The development of elements other than character will provide subconscious clues to the audience to influence their sense of anticipation, and they needed similar amounts of attention.
Thirdly, I realized that my supposed protagonist was actually the antagonist. By viewing the actions, frequency, and placement of the two male characters, I realized that I had been writing one character as the protagonist, but the screen time and point of view of the film [and my interest, apparently] was heavily slanted towards the other. This realization allowed me to tweak some elements and recognize how the audience might find their way into the piece.
Fourth, seeing them in order made it much easier to identify transition problems and re-arrange scenes for the plot/story's ideal progression. I could instantly see whether the scene transition was natural and contributed to the build of the piece and when it wasn't. Where a scene didn't fit, I simply pulled its post-it notes off the wall and re-applied them in their new position. Without seeing them laid out, I got lost in the words on the screen and couldn't wrap my head around the movement of the piece as a whole.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, the visual representation ignited my imagination to create so many more story-lines, details, and plot points for ACT II and III. By seeing how certain characters related in action and time, my mind naturally started continuing their story-lines when I wasn't even trying to write. The ideas started flowing, and all of a sudden, what started as an average of 3 pages-a-day turned into 8, 9, or 10. Now, many of these pages were rubbish, but the exploration required by creating them led to many other valuable moments.
If this was helpful or thought provoking, do reach out and let me know on this blog, e-mail, or Instagram. Also, I'd love to hear if anyone has any other methods they use to help them organize their scripts. Cheers!
Location scouting for a Big Brothers Big Sisters spec commercial that I'll be shooting in the coming weeks, "I CAN SEE." Part slam poetry with visuals, part inspirational montage from the perspective of a boy who filters everything he sees through an optimistic lens. The South Bronx is rocking the cinematic locations! Focus on symmetry, art & industry, looking up and looking forward, the inherent contrasts that surround us and the perspective we choose to view the world through.