Monday, October 15, 2007

Tools o' the Trade

I'm always interested to find out the different ways writers work, particularly the outline process.

One writer friend has a suh-weet office setup with a big freestanding whiteboard, which I covet (I'm looking at you, BooM). Other friends swear by index cards, which don't really work for me as I have no place to put them.

I don't have an office at home, just a corner of the living room, so my system could not be lower-tech: Post-It stickies on a wall. But it works great.

They're super-easy to rearrange when nailing down the flow of scenes, and for me psychologically easier to discard than index cards -- just crumple, toss (into the recycling bin), and rewrite. The small size forces economy and clarity, which admittedly doesn't stop me from cramming more detail than I really need for a preliminary outline into those little paper squares. But I try to limit myself to the location, a quick few words on the content and purpose of the scene, who's in it, maybe a shred of dialogue.

Once I have the outline settled, I take the stickies over to my computer and turn them into sluglines and outliney paragraphs in Final Draft or Screenwriter, then put them back up on the wall to map any changes as stuff shifts around. Which it inevitably does. I haven't yet played much with using different colored stickies to track A, B, and C stories, but I think it'd work well.

The one downside is that the stickies are not particularly transportable, and I haven't found a good digital system. I know a writer who uses cells in a spreadsheet like index cards or my stickie notes -- I may try that next.

The card view in screenwriting programs doesn't work for me because I want to see the whole episode at a glance. It's easy to tell an act is running long when the stickies are close enough to the floor that the cat can pull one off to chew. And outlining programs (or even just Word docs) give a too-linear view and for me suggest too much detail too early.

At work, we use a mix of whiteboarding and corkboard-and-index-cards when breaking a story. The initial ideas, arc beats, etc. go on the whiteboard, and when the scenes are a little more baked we make cards for them and pin them up on the corkboard in act order.

What system the room uses seems to reflect the preference of the showrunner -- we had a change in leadership, and went from all-whiteboard to the whiteboard-then-cards mix.

What's your system?

6 comments:

Josh said...

The writers I work for use the index card system. Multi-colored, but not in any real order unless execs are coming in for a meeting. Then the cards are color-coded by character.

My writing partner and I have tried multi-colored post-its to track characters and/or storylines, but so far seem to be better at using Excel or some other kind of program to separate the different storylines into columns. It's also great because you can set it up visually to show you when two storylines intersect in the same scene and see how the whole episode flows in terms of jumping from one storyline to another.

Muffin MacGuffin said...

I like to just use a word document and list all of the ideas I want to convey, and all of the plot points I can think of. I have one document for the season and one for each episode.
I also have Excel spreadsheets that show how long each scene on the show usually gets. I use these as templates. Then I organize the word documents a little bit, putting all the ideas in order, and feed them into a new spreadsheet, deciding then how long each scene will get. After that, writing the episode is pretty easy (except for the dialsogue).

Damion said...

Re: transportable stickies --

Go to office depot and buy a large 3M pad - it's basically a giant post-it note. Put that on your wall, then put the stickies on it. Makes it easy to pull it off the wall and move it elsewhere if you need to (I use post-its a great deal in game concepting).

Kira said...

Ah, great idea, Damion, thanks!

And I see there are a couple more Excel aficionados out there...

Jane said...

I love to have my system all on the computer, so I can work on it from anywhere. The best thing I've found so far is to use PowerPoint (which admittedly is the devil's software). I treat each slide as a single index card - then can view my whole episode in "Slide Sorter" view. You can just drag and drop the cards around to change the order.

Celtx also has a card sorter view that I've been toying with. You can either view the cards with your notes in them, or the actual script once it's written. But, alas, you can't view the whole script at once.

Kira said...

Oh, PowerPoint... interesting! Thanks for the suggestion, Jane.