This is my second post since I got back from Singapore. Special thanks to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia for flying me to paradise to meet with your masters writing students. I had a ball, met some great professors and writers and ate some fantastic food. Best of all, I had some great conversations with the other professional writers and professors about the best ways to teach students how to write. It all comes down to fundamentals so I’ll be hammering those with you guys in the coming weeks.
In Part One of this post, I got my rant on about what’s wrong with screenplay formatting. I have a rule about criticism. If you point out a weakness in something, you have to “fill the hole.” In other words, if you point out a weakness, you have to solve the problem you’ve just pointed out. It doesn’t have to be a great solution but it does have to fill the hole you’ve just created so that everybody else in the room has a place to start. So, with that in mind, let’s add some features to screenwriting software that will solve our problems, make writing easier and send us to bed with smiles on our faces!
Here are some things I’d love to see in a new screenplay format and its corresponding software.
1 – “CHARACTER TRACKER”
I like to write colorful characters with healthy handfuls of unique traits. Because I’m probably writing Act One in March, Act Three in May and then handling studio notes in June, there’s always a stack of notecards on my desk with notes to remind me of the specific character traits I’ve sprinkled throughout the script. Notes like: “eye patch, Asian fish tattoo, speaks French, drives a Cobra, pinky ring, boots squeak.” Sympathetic software would allow me to keep that information in a pop-up window on the side. It would look for terms like “He is…” or “Brock has…” and ask me if I want it to put the rest of the sentence on the pop-up card.
2 – “TEMPORARY NAME TRACKER / REPLACER”
That way, if I call somebody “JAKE’S FATHER” all the way through the screenplay, I can replace it when I figure out what his real name should be. I know I can find and replace, but that doesn’t cover the times I call Brad, Bradley or Mr. Cooper as I often do to make the read more fun.
3 – REMEMBER MY FORMATTING WHEN I CLICK “NEW”
I like to work in smaller documents and combine them so it would be good to have software that assumes that the formatting I used yesterday is the same formatting I’ll use today. So, when I open a new document, it opens to the same template I’ve been using all year and not the default. It should also assume that the new scene will have the same characters from yesterday. If the studio gives me 12 weeks to write it, my professional writing software should take that into consideration.
4 – NAME PRIORITIZATION
A way to prioritize names so that, if “Warren” is a character in the scene I’m writing now, it doesn’t assume the “Waitress” from the first scene has just popped in for a line during the Third Act F15 dogfight scene.
5 – A QUICK “WIKI WINDOW”
A quick research window so, if I want a name for a crater on Mars, I don’t have to open a whole other browser window and see that I have 42 Facebook updates on my way to Wikipedia. A right-clickable dictionary wouldn’t hurt either.
6 – A WAY TO PRINT SO I CAN REWRITE
Okay, this is a weird one. When I was just starting out I had a chance to read Ed. Weinberger’s notes on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi”. The words on the page stopped at the centerline so the reader had a full half page to make notes on. How genius! Well, I’d like to be able to do that with screenplays because I practically rewrite every line of dialogue in the margins. I don’t know if the font has to squish horizontally or what but, man, it would be great to not have to write like a Lilliputian. As an alternative, I’d settle for the option to print double-spaced so long as it doesn’t affect the document itself.
7 – SCENE POP OUTS
As I mentioned earlier, I usually work in smaller sections (character introductions, chase scenes, etc.) This is partially because I’ve had chronic crash issues with previous versions of Final Draft and partially because I don’t like my entire screenplay staring me in the face when I just want to spend the day working on a 3-page chunk. When I’m done, I’d like to be able to combine these documents quickly so I can check the page count or just give the script a quick read to see what I’m working with before I break the screenplay back down and start overhauling it again. I currently have a system of naming sequences and then cutting and pasting them into the larger document. Man oh man, is it tedious. I’d like my software to make that a little easier.
8 – A “TBW” REMINDER
A way to remind myself not to print or PDF a document until I’ve revisited my TBWs, “***s” and “XXXs”. Temp names, locations, whatever it is. If I can’t think of it in the moment, I won’t let it slow me down. Normally I’d do a search and replace but, when you work in multiple documents, it gets annoying. An automatic search for “***” or “TK” or “TBW” would help tremendously.
9 – TIME MACHINE FOR JOKES
A way to scan through previous versions of a line or a joke that I’m working on. Sometimes I’ll rewrite a line and then kill myself trying to figure out what the line was before I destroyed it.
Okay, The second part of this exercise is to revise the script formatting that’s overdue for a little freshening up because screenwriters have been using the same darn formatting since the first fish crawled out of the primordial ooze and typed the words “FADE IN:” on a manual typewriter. Here are my suggestions.
10 – CHAPTER HEADINGS
Chapter headings like a book so readers know that I know where I’m going. Like I’ve said before, sometimes the location is the least entertaining thing about the scene. Why am I forced to put it in capital letters at the top of every single scene? Let the director and the location manager join the costume designer and the composer and do their magic after the movie’s sold.
11 – SHORTER ACTION MARGINS
Let’s just say a lot of screenplays are read when people are distracted. As a result, some people skip over or skim the action. Magazines and books rely on narrower margins to make it easier on readers so why do screenwriters bury the most important information in single spaced and coast-to-coast black holes of text? My 7th grade History teacher wouldn’t tolerate coast-to-coast single spacing. If we want people to read us we shouldn’t make reading us hard to do.
12 – BURY THE LOCATIONS
If I’m writing a novel or a short story, I might not mention the location until I’m deep into the narrative. Let me prioritize the emotional conflict in my story and reveal the location when it’s important. Here’s an example, “Jack runs from the LIVING ROOM into the KITCHEN and jumps out of the window into the BACKYARD.” Here’s what that sentence would look like in a standard screenplay–
— and jumps out of the window into the–
EXT. BACKYARD – NIGHT
— and waits an hour for the reader on the Elliptical Rower to re-read this half page of wasted paper until they figure out what’s going on.
Anyway, those are my suggestions (for now). I’m sure smarter minds will have better ways to make screenplays easier to read and write. It’s hard to work with one program every day for 30 years and not see all of its flaws (don’t get me started on the bugs). At the same time, it’s hard to work with movie formatting for 30 years and not see screenplays as the most beautiful thing on earth just the way they are. Having said that, I have a feeling that this entire discussion might end with everything staying the way it’s been since THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), but you never know.
So, you know you’ve given it some thought. Put yourself on the record. What changes would you institute to make screenplays easier to read or write?