Personal Story

Gaining Perspective

There are two major categories of research I believe that writers need to spend time on.

First, the most obvious, is research relating to the story being written.  A lack of understanding and knowledge about the selected era, location, subject matter and characters of a story will quickly show.  For this category, I will dedicate a future post.

The second category is where I want to share insights that I’ve recently gained. The script is merely one of several critical pieces to putting together a great film.  As a writer, you have probably consulted dozens of books, articles and seminars on how to write a great script.  You’ve probably been told that the script is the foundation of film.  The importance of character, conflict and story has been drilled home.  Perhaps you take this at face value and work to make a great script.   But imagine you also explore the other pieces and roles in film making to gain perspective.

This is something I have been doing recently.  I have found it very valuable.

The first thing I did was take an introductory acting course at a local acting studio.  I was fortunate enough to have a Living Social deal come across my Inbox for “Acting for Non-Actors.”  It was a four week course, one 90-minute class each Tuesday night, at the Bay Area Acting Studio in San Jose.  Not really sure what to expect, I was still surprised at the great turn out as well as the diversity of students (age, background, nationality).  Most students were just out to try something new, and a handful were people with previous or current interest in filmmaking roles.  I was the only person self identifying as a hobbyist/aspiring screenwriter.  I soon learned that at least one other student had also shared the interest.  About 2/3 of the class time was spent on games/drills that were pretty fun and effective at bringing up the energy and drawing out the more introverted people of the group.  The other 1/3 of the class was spent on very basic Meisner technique and scene work. I have signed up for the next section called “Acting for Fun” to continue gaining the actor’s perspective.

So far, from just a few classes, the main lessons from this experience, as a writer, were:

1) A speaking character must know who/how/where she or he is focusing their attention and energy. Be clear in your writing.

2) The character really must be unique enough that an actor can channel and use the particular relatable parts of themselves.

3) The dialogue must not get in the way.  Keep it simple.  An actor can do a lot with a few words.  Trust them to communicate the ‘real story.’ Do not write out dialogue that really should come from subtext.

4) If you are doing a good job with the characters and story, you will also reduce or eliminate the need to direct from the page.  That is, fewer movement action lines and parentheticals will feel necessary.

5) Make your characters such that actors *want* to play them.  Boring (e.g. no personality, no voice) or vague characters (e.g. no real conflict or struggle) will not be educational, pivotal, defining or motivating – they won’t be exciting to study and portray.

I would love to hear from any readers that also took acting class and what you found helpful from the experience…

The second step I have taken, is to enroll in the Intro to Film class at local DeAnza Community College.  DeAnza is especially recognized in California for its Film/TV program.  The tuition is affordable, and the schedule provided several options, including the evening section that I selected.   While only a couple of weeks into the class, I have already developed greater appreciation of a great foundational script. Casting, location selection, props, scene framing, camera work, actor positioning – all of this can help tell the story.  But the characters and story have to be strong enough and clear enough to allow these important pieces to do so.

If you haven’t already educated yourself about these aspects of filmmaking, I encourage you to do so.  There are a couple of books on my shelf that are great references, and also, one of my course references is the publicly available Yale site on Film Analysis. The textbook for my class is Looking at Movies.

I assure you will watch your favorite (and despised) films with a new perspective in what makes them great or miss the mark.  It will challenge you to look at your writing with a critical eye for what is needed to turn your story into reality.

What other steps have you taken to gain perspective about the other roles in filmmaking and the importance of the script outside of the writer’s view?

Using Scene Cards

One nice feature of screenwriting software is how it can aid in tracking scenes – allowing scene-specific text, providing scene reports and even providing the option to print scene cards.  Scene cards allow you to look at the flow of the story, reorder, remove and find gaps.  I have typically used hand-written index cards because sometimes the scene information that is automatically included in the software card isn’t clear enough (and usually I didn’t manually enter enough information to be helpful). I’m sure that all roles involved in film rely on the scene cards a lot, but I am focusing on the writer.  This writing tool would likely be useful for playwrights and novelists, as well.

Recently, I started using this tool again for my current rewrite.   First, I ran through my script and marked all of the scenes and numbered them.  Second, I made a card for each scene, then grouped them by storyline. This was hard at times because most of my storylines are fairly intertwined.

Scene Cards

Next, I marked each with a ‘-‘ or ‘+’ for the change in the main character (of the storyline) energy/emotion charge of the scene.  If there wasn’t one, I marked an ‘o’ – knowing I’d probably need to remove, change or replace the scene.

Later, I took advantage of the large tables at the community center, where my daughter is taking a class, to lay out the storyline cards. I made storyline “header” cards, in green.  I then faked a timeline, and spaced the cards according to time passing.


This exercise helped locate several issues and opportunities for different flow.  As I walked through the sequence, I started eliminating cards, marking some for edits, and putting in new placeholder cards (yellow). To preserve the timeline, I made purple cards to demarcate time (Day 1, Day 2, Week later, etc), and then stacked the whole story up in the new order.  On the back, I noted the new order number.

Today, I’m now using the cards to make modifications in Final Draft.  Some scenes are just placeholders, to be written after the restructuring. After I do the writing edits, I’ll do an overall analysis and check the state of the rewrite.

I recommend this exercise, it’s been very useful.

Rewriting Update

Once I sit down and get situated back into my story, I can easily stay lost in its  world for a couple of hours.  Getting started can often be the toughest part.  I’ve allowed the rewrite to take residence on part of the dining table. Note the lack of a computer here. I’m living in my story in hardcopy and pencils.


I had already done three full scrubs on the scenes/sequences and dialogue, based on coverage I received in the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition.  I also revisited the outline I had assembled in completing the first draft, to look for holes after deciding to somewhat majorly change the ending.

Now, I’m doing a couple of things at once.  I am able to find tweaks to make to the dialogue with every read, so I’m doing that, again.  I am also indexing the scenes manually – I realize I could do this from Final Draft, but I am comfortable with using purple index cards for sequencing, capturing thoughts, checking attributes, etc. I want to actually draw small story board pictures on the back and try to visualize the full story, end-to-end, on my table or wall. The comfort with physical cards comes from my project management background where we use them for feature lists and breakdown, prioritizing, etc.  I’m also writing down little “ah-ha”s on the green sticky notes; these are thoughts that tie back to the seminar content where I didn’t have an answer for my story, or, where the story might be missing something.

Funny note on the purple index cards: despite having stacks of white index cards at home – given my obsession with them – I went out and bought colored cards.  I refused to use white after McKee scolded everyone writing on white paper!

I mentioned last post that I have driving factors.  I have three dates close together, by which to finish it by, but I’m trying not to rush too much in this process.  I like that I have about 3 weeks to get it to a full version 2.0.  One, I owe an update from version 1, to a producer that is possibly interested; two, I want it ready for the Great American Pitchfest; and 3, the Final Draft contest deadlines are approaching and I’m considering submitting if nothing comes through 1 or 2!

And so it began…

My interest in screenwriting, is, logically, rooted in the love of the feature film.  I have known the power of a good film since I was young: the emotions it can take you through, the escapism it provides, the characters that become a part of your life.  Knowing I would write this post, I have been trying to think about the first movie memory that I have.  I originally believed it was a movie called Rollercoaster in 1977.  I don’t remember much about the movie, except the thrill of the first person view of riding coasters and the speakers vibrating my seat and the floor of the theater.  I vaguely remember the facade of that theater, which was still standing when I moved away from Colorado Springs in 1989.  Searching the Internet I don’t immediately find an image or name that sounds right, but I will ask around to see if I can find and add that info here.  I also remember, at that same theater, waiting in line with my family for a much more recognizable title – Star Wars.  Rollercoaster was out just a few weeks later, so it must have been Star Wars that was my first memorable theater visit.  And reminiscing brought up many other memories of movies while I was growing up.

The next year, my first memory of a drive-in theater was made.  I recall my sister and I trying to go to sleep in the back seat of a car, while my parents watched FM.  Another vivid memory is that of being introduced to my Dad’s cousin’s awesome theater room – they had an amazing sound system, projector TV and a Laser Disc player.  We watched Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).

The Shining (1980) can’t be skipped; it was the first scary movie I ever watched and I was brilliant enough to watch it at home, alone, at night, when I was 12.  I don’t think I slept for a week.  That would pretty much be the story for the rest of my life – I can’t do horror flicks. I’m so impressionable, that the little black subway ghosts from Ghost (1990) gave me nightmares for weeks!!  The only movie I’ve brought myself to watch – for reasons that escape me – was the Blair Witch Project (1999).  I can’t even stand previews of scary movies or TV drama.  I have to close my eyes and plug my ears.

Flash forward to 1983, past Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Slap Shot (1977), Caddy Shack (1980), another chapter in the Star Wars story (1980), and ET (1982).  War Games – this movie really captured my attention.  I felt like I was David (I wasn’t even close).  I had my own computer (Vic20) and peripherals (tape disk drive, four-color plotter/printer) that I had saved for and purchased on my own. I had the little programming magazines and would type in programs.  I felt different and smarter than others and knew I loved working with computers.  I still recall going to some career fair and coming home clutching a Broderbund brochure.  Very few movies hold a permanent place in my heart, and this is a big one!

After my Dad finally created his own home theater in our family room, with a big screen TV and a Laser Disc player, anyone that came to our house would be required to sit through a demo of the really loud parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – I have the scene with the mailboxes shaking permanently burned into my brain) – and the hockey scene from Strange Brew (1983).  I remember my parents also really loving the Woody Allen film, Sleeper (1973), but I never really understood it, and in fact, I have just never been a big Woody Allen fan.

The Right Stuff (1983), Space Camp and Top Gun (both of 1986) would be the biggest memories after that. My love of the space program was in place from the start of the shuttle program, and was far from dampened by the shuttle tragedy; and, well, how could a 15-year-old girl not fall in love with Maverick and Ice Man. Volleyball, anyone?

Into the 90s, I favored drama and romance flicks.  I would readily purchase VHS tapes, and later DVDs, of movies I wanted to watch over and over again.  I’ll highlight those in an upcoming post. I remember being really moved by Forrest Gump (1994) and other dramas around the time. I also loved the asynchronous Pulp Fiction (1994). By now, I have become fairly partial to romantic comedies.  I love laughing, I love happily-ever-afters, and if I’m going to escape the drama of my own life, I want to laugh and dream of how-it-could-be.

Ocean's Eleven Script
Ocean’s Eleven Script

And while romantic comedies are my favorite genre, it was my fascination with the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that drew me to screenplays.  A little comic book shop in the Pike Place Market stocks printed copies of screen plays, and one day in 2003, after thumbing through the selections, there was no question that I would purchase the script for Ocean’s Eleven.  I wanted to see how the story weaved together in print.

That is without a doubt when my love affair with scripts began! I loved the format, the focus on dialogue, the scene intros – everything.  Over the next few years that followed, I purchased a half dozen more from that same shop. I found others in book format and many in digital format. In a future post I’ll detail those that I’ve really read and analyzed, as well as what motivated to write one on my own.

– April