Insights I gained from writing my next short film

I am currently in the process of writing my next short film, and as you know… it is hard. It has been a long time since I last wrote a film, and this project is by far the biggest of all. As a result, I am learning a lot writing this 30-page script.

I thought I would share here what helped me and hopefully you will get something out of this post.

Tools

Writer

I only use a few tools. I know there is a ton of apps out there to write, prepare the film, collaborate and everything. But I like to keep it simple and suited to my needs. I use LibreOffice, but any other word processing software would work.

I created my own styles to structure the screenplay and to create an overall look that I like. I am not a fan of the typewriter style of most screenwriting apps. Plus, my theme differentiates each type of content. An app like Celtx will display an action, the name of a character and a line of dialogue with the same font. My theme makes it very easy to spot the dialogs, the action or the characters.

What I particularly like with the styles in LibreOffice is that you can specify the next style. That means, if you create a Character style and you add the Dialog style as next style, when you will hit enter in Character style, you will start the next paragraph with the Dialog style. That saves a lot of time. You can also assign a shortcut to each style.

You can find how to create your own styles on LibreOffice here.

I know some people love minimalist editors, such as FocusWriter or ZenWriter. I really like the minimalist design, but I don’t find it appropriate to write a film. I agree with them; I use a mere 10% of the displayed buttons in LibreOffice. But I constantly need to go backward and forward to check the content of various scenes. The minimalist editors really isolate the text you are currently writing from the rest of the screenplay, and make it hard to get some context. And you would need to create a system to stylize your text in another app.

An editor with custom styles, context and a minimalist approach would be the perfect tool for me. Maybe the styles could be added with a simple shortcut to keep the uncluttered interface. Or with a real-time markdown-based code. Markdown could be used for its simplicity, and the tags would be crafted for screenwriting; instead of h2, we would have a scene, and so on.

Storybuilder

In addition to LibreOffice Writer, I use Amazon Storybuilder. It is a virtual corkboard on which you can add sticky notes and arrange them. It is very similar to Trello. You can also use a real corkboard, but a virtual one has a few advantages. Obviously, you can have it with you anywhere. You can also change the color of the cards, which is very helpful, and with a simple zoom out, you can have all the story synthesized.

I use columns to materialize the acts of my story. The title of a card is a 2-3 words description of the scene and the body contains the key takeaways. This skeleton is the information I need to build the rest of the story.

It is of course very important to keep Writer and Storybuilder updated. If you remove a scene on one side, immediately do the same on the other side. Otherwise, the whole point of having an overall grasp on your story is ruined.

During the beginning of the writing process, I matched the colors in Story builder and Writer. I applied a background color to each scene in Writer and the same color to each card in Storybuilder. The colors were determined by the focus of the scene. For example, let’s say your film is about a man who falls in love, struggles to pay his rent and plays basketball. You can label each card about his love story in pink, his rent problem in red and his basketball passion in green.

It helps to quickly find a scene, since you know what subject it tackles. Moreover, you can see in the blink of an eye whether or not your story is balanced. The color code might reveal that the different subjects of focus are distributed in big sections instead of being evenly alternated. I highly suggest you use a color code during the beginning of your writing process, as it will help you with the structure of your story. The way you assign colors really depends on your script. If you are writing a film with several strong characters, it might be more appropriate to give each character a color.

To Kome

There is a last thing I use. It is not a real tool, but it is so helpful that I consider it as such. It is actually two letters. Tk. It means “To Come”. Why a “K” instead of a “C” ? Because these two letters can’t be found in any English word. This trick is commonly used by authors and bloggers; when you are writing and need some information, instead of breaking the flow you are in, you can simply use “tk”. For example : “This is a very popular tool. Indeed, there are tk users worldwide.”

That way, you can continue writing, and when you finish your writing session, a simple page search with the two letters “tk” will give you all the holes you need to fill. Often, you will look for an information you need on the internet and end up spending way too much time online. This simple technique will help you finish your work first.

I find it is even more interesting for screenwriters. Indeed, when you start writing, you will have a lot of incomplete scenes. You often write a scene that rely on one of those incomplete scenes. For example, your character sells an object he previously found, but you don’t know what it is yet. Instead of blocking on that detail, you can type a simple “tk” and continue writing.

State of mind

Dive in

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that you will write crap. This is not even good to know, you must believe it strongly. If you start trying to write a good scene right away, you will still be writing it in three months. As writers, our work must be iterative. A story is too complex to lay it out in our minds before writing it. So, we have to write a first draft, from beginning to end, look at it, and accept it is terrible. But the sooner we get that draft on paper, the sooner we can start rewriting it. And, draft after draft, it gets better.

The main reason why we can’t make it good right away is because we need a shit load of time to work on the connections between the scenes. That needs to be refined, we need to work on the contradictions, … So, be patient, and do not blame yourself if it is terrible compared to what you initially had in mind.

Focus

Once I realized that I needed to dive in right away and accept to refine my screenplay over time, I started to progress much faster… For some time. After several weeks, I noticed that my goal was so big and so far in the future that my daily writing was disconnected from it. And I had started writing little details when big parts of the story were still a simple sentence. There was no real meaning when I was writing, and my motivation started to fade away.

In overall, I realized that I was not working smart. I was not prioritizing the right tasks, I was not writing the keystones that would produce the biggest results… I decided overnight to start considering this project I was doing on the side just as important as my paid gigs. I made it clear to myself that I was not writing everyday to feel good about myself, but because I actually wanted to get this script finished. I became proactive and got rewarded by tangible, frequent results.

Split

Another thing that helped me to focus on the right tasks was to divide this huge project into small chunks. Since I am always scared of regretting a modification, I create a new version of the script every time I will make a big change. To go along with these versions, I created a log file in which I simply put a list like this one :

  • v0.7 : develop rough scenes
  • v0.8 : write dialogues
  • v0.9 : synthesize all the scenes
  • v1 : add some style to the dialogues

This practice brought two advantages. First, the whole project got much easier to tackle, since I am always working on a 2-7 days project. Then, I always know what to focus on.

Before keeping a log file, I would sometimes read the script until I found something to improve. This was not efficient at all.

I chose not to plan later than the next big version. In the example above, I would not prepare tasks for the v2 or v3. It stops on v1, which should be a clean, comprehensive version of the story. At that point, I will show it to a group of friends and mentors and I know that their input will give me a lot to work on.

Put aside

Of course, every time I write or read a scene, I get an idea; I need to precise this, a scene is missing there, we don’t understand this point, … I have learned that rushing to implement these modifications will lead to zero work done. Instead, it will make the script more complex, with a vast majority of rough scenes. Plus, an idea like those will often become obsolete two weeks later.

What I do instead is save them all in a separate file that I will review when I will have made all the changes in my log file. When I get to the v1, I read this file, sort out the ideas, and implement the good ones. Sometimes, it is as broad as “What does the film mean for a basketball player ?” (By the way, I am not writing a film about basketball).

How to print

When I am developing the scenes, I often feel the need to print the story. Indeed, having to scroll through all the script to find a scene is really painful. Storybuilder helps with the structure, but I always need to know where the characters were in a specific scene, what they talked about, etc.

I first got the idea to print a single scene per page, recto only. That way, I would have enough room to rewrite the scene directly under the printed version and I would be able to spread all the scene on a table. I ended up with about 40 pages and it was a mess.

I then decided to make it as small as possible; as much scenes as possible per page, printed on both sides. It was a poor idea too. I had too much trouble finding a scene and spent my time turning the pages.

So, I ended up with my best idea; a regular print. Several scenes on each page, recto only. And I stapled the sheets by acts. That way, it is not messy and I can quickly find a specific scene with the acts symbolized by several piles.

Now, I would love to know what you think. Did you learn something from this post ? Do you have other writing tips ? Please, share your thoughts in the comments !

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