Part Two – The Unending Question: Which Screenwriting Software to Use?

In an earlier post, we talked about outlining software you can (or not) use. As I mentioned, I stick with the old tried and true method of Microsoft Word, mainly because it’s easy to use, easy to edit, and no one is going to see it really except for you.

When it comes to writing your actual script, however, that’s a much different story. There’s a lot of alternatives out there, some free, some fairly pricey. And the software you use may or may not leave a lasting impression on a potential producer or reader of your script.

First of all, let’s start with what you should not use, and that’s Microsoft Word.  While it’s fine for outlining, you should not use it for writing your script.  Why?  Because if you somehow got someone to read it, you’ll never get a producer to utilize a Word version for a feature (you might get lucky on a short).  Producers, directors are going to want to work with the writer on the script, adding in their own notes, action lines, and dialogue, and they won’t be able to do it if you’re working strictly out of Word.  And the one thing you don’t want to do as a writer is to make the job more difficult for the producer and director.  If the paginations and the margins aren’t standard, it doesn’t put you in a good light.

Using a software program designed specifically for screenwriting is obviously your best option, both stylistically and professionally.  I have used Final Draft (I’m now at Version 10) for about seven years, and before that, Movie Magic Screenwriter (currently version 6).  I have still have both programs, but tend to write strictly in Final Draft (as does my writing partner Rick).

Final Draft is the gold standard for film producers and directors. It’s used by a great majority of the top screenwriters in Hollywood (and the rest of the US, for that matter).Final Draft image Overseas, the standards tend to more varied as to the acceptance of screenplays, so it’s market share is much less in the European market, for example, and so you see differing options (some of them free), like Celtx being used.

For some screenwriters, the cost is a non-starter.  For example, at The Writer’s Store,  Final Draft 11 (the most current version) is $169.99, OR, if you’re still a student, you can get it for $99.99.  My opinion is that you’re making an investment in your career is this is something you really want to do, and do it well.  On the other hand, if you’re without a job, or you’re making minimum wage, this is a significant amount of money to be putting up for something you may never make a dime off of.  You’ll need to weigh your choices and determine whether this works for your budget, and in another post we’ll look at free software you can use as well.

Final Draft is available on both the Mac and Windows platform, and if you’re like me, who has both a Windows desktop and a Mac laptop, the good news is that you can download the program on both with the purchase of just one license.  Final Draft 10 is compatible with Mac OS X 10.9 or later and Windows 7 or later.

What I like most about Final Draft is that I really don’t have to think much about the process.  Everything is pre-formatted to industry standards, and you’re given various templates to work off of (screenplay, TV three-camera comedy, TV drama, etc.).  You also have a beat board for knocking out your story and a timeline for how your beats are working in terms of minutes consumed.  If you work closely with another writer, you can actually work (in Final Draft 10 or 11) in the script at the same time with the other writer in Collaboration mode.  You might find that there’s a little bit of lag time depending on your network speed, which can be a little frustrating at times.

You also have a great Title Sheet page to create title pages, and it converts your script easily into PDF or, if you want to convert to another program like Movie Magic Screenwriter, you can export to an RTF file and then import in to the new program (not a perfect option, and you’ll have to do some cleanup, but it’s better than most alternatives).

If you want to get more information on all the features of Final Draft, you can go to this review to get a more in-depth look at what you can (and can’t) do with Final Draft.  The bottom line for me is that I feel like if I’m going to make it as a professional screenwriter, then I need to have a professional screenwriting program to assist me in that endeavor, and for me, Final Draft checks all the boxes.

We’ll look at other screenwriting programs in a later post, and coming soon, we should have our outline completed (finally!) and we’ll be ready to move into the writing stage.

The Outline To Date

I thought it might be good, since I’ve been on vacation in Canada the past few days (all work and no play, right?), to bring everyone up to speed on the outline.  Rick and I made some changes, and as I mentioned in our last post, we’ve given Jinx a change to his character to give him a little more depth and provide more of an explanation of why he wants to leave the small town of Titan, Texas (we’ve come up with a town name – or at least I have. Rick may not agree with it!).

Below is our outline to date.  You may think we outline too much.  I think it’s just enough to provide a guideline for us to get from Point A to Point Z while allowing us flexibility to make changes as we see the story develop.  We don’t want to be hemmed in to a story that isn’t working, and if we need to zig rather than zag because we find ourselves going in a new direction, we’re free to do that and still be fairly true to the outline.  The beauty of an outline is that you can always edit it. You don’t have to be locked in to your first draft.

As a reminder, here is our logline:

A Texas high school senior involved in an accident that caused the death of a popular student struggles to cope with the emotional fallout at a lake house graduation party, and at the same time escape ‘the secret’ he’s been keeping while cutting ties with the small town he desperately wants to leave behind.

And our outline:


SEQUENCE 1 – Status Quo & Inciting Incident

i.  Jimmy ‘Jinx’ McCarthy, 18, rides with his friends, Ellie and Tate, along a country road. They discuss their graduation from earlier that evening and the party they are now traveling to. Jinx is anxious about the party as he looks at the passing woods.

ii. There’s a reveal that, toward the end of the party, they’ll be an opportunity for everyone to share something or stage something for everyone to remember them by. A skit, lip sync, video, anything. Individually or as a group – to commemorate their time together.

iii.  There’s a playful disagreement — the joking kind but a nerve is touched in Jinx. Tate hints at revealing to Ellie how Jimmy got the nickname ‘Jinx.’ Jimmy silences Tate. It’s learned that Tate’s got nothing for the show. Ellie plans a mock cheer for the jocks and cheerleaders that she’s butted heads with for four years. Jinx hints that he has ‘something’ but is unsure if he’ll go with it.

iv.  They arrive at a house with a great view overlooking a lake. The party is in full swing. Jimmy is self-conscious, partially because of Tate’s comment. Ellie reminds him that this is a night to ‘celebrate’ and encourages him to relax. Tate seconds that and declares that he needs to find something to do for the show.

v.   Most of the students ignore Jinx as he arrives, but he steers clear of engaging in games or groups of people — He feels like everyone is either staring at him or judging him. Ellie leaves Jinx and Tate, and talks with some friends, including Lucas, one of the school’s jocks. She explains that she’s going to do this mock cheer and she’d really appreciate his support.

vi.  Jinx looks despondent, and reveals to Tate that he wishes things could be ‘different.’ Thinking that he means with Ellie, Tate questions why he doesn’t go for it.  Jinx ignores the question and lets him know that he’s leaving town soon for college and never looking back. He’s turning a page that should have been turned a while ago. This surprises Tate, who asks why he’s leaving, and Jinx says he has to leave the life he had here. People will always think of him as the one. He hints, “maybe you’ll understand later. Maybe you won’t. I’m still not sure that I do, but I have to be true to myself.”

vii.  Jimmy sees some kids looking at him. He thinks they’re laughing, but in reality, they’re not. There’s another mention, like back in the car, about how ‘Jinx’ got his nickname. Logan, the kid who’s always loud and obnoxious at parties, asks Jinx if he brought his friend, ‘Lucky’ to the party. Logan plans a song parody that he claims will go viral after tonight. The jab at Jinx firmly establishes that Jimmy’s got things in his past that are sensitive and known to these kids but there’s also something Jinx is struggling with. He fumbles with a flash drive. Maybe it’s for the show? Whatever is on it – it’s clearly heavy on Jinx’s mind. Jinx is brought back to reality by Tate, pointing out a beautiful girl, Cassandra, the class flirt.

SEQUENCE 2 – Predicament and Lock-In

viii. Jinx and Tate get drinks and encounter Maggie, a hot cheerleader. Maggie is surprised to see Jinx, and says he shouldn’t be there. Not with anger – just caution. But Jinx takes it as anger and stares at the ground, troubled. Maggie’s boyfriend, Hunter, threatens Jinx. If he doesn’t leave, he’s going to get the crap beat out of him. Jinx is happy to leave, but Ellie confronts Hunter and counters that this isn’t the football field and Jinx isn’t going anywhere. Jinx is happy that Ellie has his back, but tells everyone the truth. He really does want to leave – forever. Hunter tells Jinx: “Great idea. You’ve ruined enough lives here.”

ix.  Hunter proclaims they’ve drawn up a special play to be debuted at the show and says to Jinx: “We thought we could use your help with it but you’d probably ruin it like you do everything else.”

x. The tense situation is broken up by some students throwing water balloons into the crowd. Tate captures it on his phone and is suddenly inspired to build around it and make a short, ‘Sharknado-like’ video to show as part of the festivities. He sets out to build around the footage.

xi.  Hunter fumes after being hit by the balloon, but just as we think that he’s going to charge at Jinx, he takes off after the person who threw it. Crisis averted for the moment.

xii. Ellie pulls Jinx aside. “What’s this about you leaving forever?” They argue. Ellie states that he has obligations to family here, and maybe to friends as well. Jinx counters that staying here will never allow him to do what he really wants to do, be who he wants to be and move on with his life. He’ll always be ‘that guy.’ The one people whisper about. Ellie calls Jinx a coward and storms away. Again, he fumbles with the flash drive, finds a computer inside to test it. He only gets as far as the opening image – Him in front of his parent’s store addressing the camera on a tri-pod. Even the image of it unsettles him and he yanks it free from the computer.

xiii. Jinx walks to the lake and sits on the dock. A few students are there as well, but leave him alone. Tate comes by and sits with him. They talk about the lake — it was their “happy” place. They spent their summers fishing, camping out and water skiing here. Now, Jinx looks at it, and all he can see is regret. Frustrated, Tate gets up. He tells Jinx “it wasn’t your fault. But if you can’t let it go, you might as well jump in your damn lake of regret and stay there.” Jinx calls after Tate – “Don’t go shooting off your mouth if you don’t know something. You’re like those catfish under the water. Can’t see nothing until it’s too late.”

xiv.  Several girls run past Jinx and jump in the water. One of the girls is Cass, who looks back to Jinx and encourages him with a look to join them. Jinx ignores her, and she swims away to join the others in the water.

xv. Hunter talks to other students about Jinx. How it’s time to set things right. It’s apparent that revenge is on their minds. Maybe they will use him for that special ‘play’ they’ve drawn up for the show.


SEQUENCE 3 – First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes

i.   Jinx goes back to look for Tate, ready to leave the party. Tate is dashing around, grabbing footage and staging things to add to his video. Not seeing Tate, Jinx ventures about. People are enjoying themselves.

ii.  One girl, a cute, girl-next-door type, Savannah, stops Jinx, asks him where he’s going to college. Texas, he says. Me, too, she responds. She’s excited because she’ll be able to get help on her freshman history classes. “You saved my ass on a half dozen exams junior year.” Another student with her pipes in. “Saved me too.” Jinx isn’t sure how to respond, but before he can figure it out, the girls are off to chat with someone else.

iii.  Jinx stops in front of a mantle above the fireplace, where there are various framed pictures. Several of them are of Lucas and Maggie, some with Lucas’ parents. It’s obvious the house belongs to Lucas’ family. We land on one important picture: It happens to be Jinx with four other people: one is Lucas. The others are Ellie, Maggie and a guy we haven’t seen yet (Nick). They look happy in the picture. Not a care in the world. Jinx is transfixed by the picture.

iv.  From behind Jinx a voice arises: “Remember where that pic was taken?.” Jinx turns, and it’s Lucas. Lucas sees that Jinx is troubled by the picture. “San Antonio,” says Jinx. “I remember you were surprised by how small the Alamo actually was.” Jinx agrees. “I imagined it being larger than life.” Lucas: “We always tend to imagine things to be bigger than they really are.” Lucas follows up with: “I miss hanging out with you. Let’s get together this summer, okay?” Jinx mumbles a half-hearted, “sure.”

v.  Lucas leaves the house and runs into Hunter and his goons. There’s an argument. Hunter wants to know if Lucas is going to be ‘in’ on the play for the show. Lucas makes it clear that he’s not participating. His football life is done. Hunter mentions to his guys to watch out for Lucas. He might get in the way of their plans.

vi. Music is playing and students are dancing. Logan boasts that the song parody will become a party staple for decades to come. Lucas asks Ellie to dance and she agrees. As they dance, Jinx watches them from the house through a window. It’s a reflection and Jinx sees his own as well. Once again, he feels like he’s on the outside looking in. He takes out the flash drive and is about to throw it away but he’s interrupted by Cass, who walks past, sits on a couch and beckons Jinx. He goes over and sits down, ever the polite guy.

SEQUENCE 4 – First Culmination/Midpoint

viii. After the dance is over, Lucas tells Ellie about the picture. Elly says that was the trip where Nick almost got ticketed for underage drinking and Jinx talked the cop out of it. As they talk, Ellie folds a napkin, making a flower out of it. She attaches it to a straw and sticks it in Lucas’ drink. “What’s this?” asks Lucas. Ellie isn’t even aware she was doing it. “Oh, that. It’s a flower for your drink. Jinx used to always be annoyed that the Mexican restaurant that didn’t put a flower or umbrella in my virgin pina coladas and so he would make me one out of a napkin. Guess I just picked up on it.”

ix. Back in the house, Cass makes small talk with Jinx. When the small talk stalls, she gets more direct: If you’re not going to make the first move, I guess it’s up to me. This night’s about making memories. Maybe you ought to create a new memory of me that you can take with you,” and slides her hand over to his leg. Jinx is uncomfortable.

x. Hunter watches Cass and Jinx from across the room. Cass and Hunter’s eyes meet, and they share a conspiratorial smile. Hunter slips away, and as Cass slides in closer to Jinx, he extricates himself from the situation, embarrassed.

xi. Hunter makes his way outside and finds Ellie. “There’s talk you’re going to make the football team look bad at the show. Hope it’s just talk.” Ellie protests – “Get over yourself, Hunter. There’s no Varsity in life. You’ll be drinking your minimum wage every Friday night with your besties.” But inwardly she fumes. Who told him?

xii. In the house, Jinx asks someone where the restroom is. Someone tells him, “down the hall on the left”. There are several doors on the left, and Jinx picks one. Unfortunately, it’s not the bathroom, but a spare room in the lake house where Lucas’ dad, Paul, is running on a treadmill. Jinx is embarrassed by the interruption, but Jeremy waves him in eagerly. Paul stops the treadmill, and Jinx apologizes for the intrusion. Paul says he needed to stop anyway. Jokes that he can run and run, but he never gets anywhere. Jinx speaks to Paul in double entendres about how he feels like he’s been ‘running’ for years – and ‘you get so tired, you just want to stop.’

xiii.  Paul reminds Jinx about how Jinx helped Lucas get a job with his parents’ business. Kept him away from some bad people at a time in his life when Lucas really needed it. Jinx says he just wanted someone fun to work with during the summer. Maybe it worked out for both of them.  Paul asks about his parents’ business and Jinx fidgets for a response. “I get it. Not your thing.” Jinx is surprised. “So what are you doing instead?” “Going to college,” Jinx replies. “And?” “We’ll see.” Paul reminds Jinx that no matter where he goes, he needs to remember where he came from, because it’s made him who he is.  Still, Paul continues, “This place is a black hole. Unless you get far enough away from it, you’re sucked in permanently.”

xix.  After their discussion, Jinx heads outside, and sees Hunter and his gang grab Tate, who struggles mightily, but they take him to the dock and throw him far out in the water.  Jinx rushes down to the dock as he sees what is happening, and jumps in after Tate, who has sunk under water. After a tense couple of moments, Jinx emerges with Tate.  After he’s helped from the water, Jinx toes up with Hunter.  “What the hell is wrong with you?  He can’t swim.” Hunter looks confused at first. Jinx follows up: “You could’ve killed him.” “I guess you know all about killing people,” Hunter retorts. Things are about to get physical between them but the rest of the jocks turn – Logan is on the mic and the crowd is invited to gather round – the senior show is about to start.

After I put all this together, Rick and I exchanged emails about a new dynamic to this outline — these are the things that happen when you’re writing with a partner.  Rick will generate an idea, and throw it at me after we’ve gotten to this point, and I’ll counter with something and throw another idea back at him.  Consequently, we keep generating new ideas and new obstacles for our characters, and thus the outline will continue to evolve.  If you have any thoughts on how the outline is going, please let us know!

Coming Up With Another Character Device

So Rick and I went back and forth about what else could be driving Jinx to leave this small town (and I know, I need to come up with a name for the town).  We agreed that the accident along, while compelling, wouldn’t be enough of a hook.  And so we went looking for other reasons to get him moving in another direction.

What we landed on may or may not be the direction a lot of writers would take, especially when you’re trying to do a movie in the tone of “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine” (i.e., a comedy drama, or dramedy).  But at the end of the day, I think Rick and I are deft enough at writing that we can still tackle a serious subject but also bring comedic overtones to the whole piece.

We decided that Jinx is going to come out at the party as gay.  This will, of course, cause us to change some of our previous outline (and we’ll post an update soon with the entire outline to date).  There will also be a senior show involved which we think will allow us to wrap everything up nicely and provide for an emotional impact.  But our thinking on this is that being in this small town, Jinx feels like he can’t be who he truly wants to be, and the only way to move beyond that is to move beyond this town.

In our next post, we’ll provide the latest update to the outline (in essence the entire outline to date, as well as new sequences).  Let us know if you have any comments or thoughts on whether you agree with this change to Jinx’s character.


Shoving Forward, and Moving Back

Rick and I got back into the outline business, albeit on a superficial level, as I’m in the Pacific Northwest on vacation (I love Houston, but when it’s 95 degrees in September, it’s time to get the hell outta hell for a week to cooler climates).  But as I mentioned in our last post, I felt like we needed to give a little boost to our main protagonist’s decision to leave town on a permanent basis.

Now, for the moment, I’m not going to reveal what my suggestion to change was. Suffice to say, it was a very significant change to the character.  Rick’s was hesitant to make the change, as he thought that it would necessitate going back to the beginning and completely redoing the outline draft, and in addition, that it might change the tone of the movie from a dramedy in the vein of “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine” to a straight drama.

My argument was that the character change would already be known to the other characters, so it would only result in minor changes to the outline, and there was no need to change the tone of the film, because a film like “Juno” dealt with tough subject (abortion and teen pregnancy) while still making it an uplifting and, in many cases, a wildly funny film.

The bottom line is that we’re both wanting a film in the tone of “Juno” and we’re going to ponder this character turn and see where it leads us.  If we decide to make the change you’ll be the first to know.

So back to the outline as it’s currently situated: when we last left the outline, Jinx was in the house and Cass asked him to come over and sit on the couch with him while Hunter watches.  Hunter and Cass share a conspiratorial smile and then Hunter goes outside and find Ellie, and tells her that “her boyfriend Jinx is putting the moves on Cass”.

Ellie dismisses it — “he’s not my boyfriend” — but we can see that she’s fuming over this news.  More conflict created!

Back inside, Jinx has extricated himself from the situation and is going down the hallway looking for a restroom.  He accidentally opens the doorway to a spare room in the lake house where Lucas’ dad, Paul, is running on a treadmill. Jinx is embarrassed by the interruption, but Paul waves him in eagerly.  He stops the treadmill, and Jinx apologizes for the intrusion. Paul says he needed to stop anyway.  Can run and run all he wants on it, but never gets anywhere.  A little bit of subtext towards Jinx, who is intending to run away from this small town at the first chance he gets, but will he really get anywhere if he does?

Paul shows Jinx a picture on the wall.  It’s of Jinx and Lucas working at the hardware store.  Paul reminds Jinx that Jinx helped Lucas get a job with his parents’ business.  Kept him away from some bad people (like Hunter) at a time in his life when Lucas really needed it.  Jinx says he just wanted someone fun to work with during the summer.  Maybe it worked out for both of them.

And now we go on in for a reinforcement of why Jinx wants to leave.  Paul asks about Jinx taking over the parents’ business someday and Jinx fidgits for a response. “I get it. Not your thing.” Jinx is surprised at that reaction.

“So what are you doing instead?”
“Going to college,” Jinx replies.
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
“Well, that’ll be further than a lot of the kids in this town. This place is a black hole. Unless you get far enough away from it, you’re sucked in permanently.”

We’ve now established that even the adults in this town know that if you stay here, you’re stuck here, and that Jinx needs to go.

We’ll keep you updated on what we’re going to do with Jinx’ character, and I’ll be updating the post on screenwriting software soon!


Trying to Shake up the Outline

We’ll provide the second part regarding our overview of screenwriting programs soon, but our outline still beckons and I’m having some hesitation with where it is going at the moment.  I felt like it would have a different feel to it; Rick and I wanted a high school version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a feel-good story that could be easily made.

Right now it has taken on a darker tone and there’s a little bit of drift going on. From the one-pager we originally wrote for the premise, I think we have Acts I and III pretty much figured out, but Act II is getting to be a little bit of a struggle.

Here’s the dilemma. Our main character, Jinx, is determined to get out — forever — from the small town he’s lived all his life.  He was involved in an accident that killed his friend Nick, a popular student at school, and he feels like he’s always going to be “that guy” — and that he’ll never be forgiven for what he’s done.  Plus, he has bigger dreams than just running the family hardware business for the rest of his life and living amongst all these same people who do the same things every day.

small town.jpg

The trick, of course, is how do you show that? You can’t just have him talk about it for an hour and a half. That would be utterly boring and no producer would want to make it.  So we have to come up with devices to show his frustration, his dismay.  I think you can show it in pictures; for example, in the opening I envision Jinx, Ellie and Tate driving through the small town on the way to the party and the visuals show it as a drab, lifeless place.  And the way he sees it is the way we see it as well, so that we can empathize with him

ND high school dance

Maybe at the party we show the students as all acting alike, or thinking alike.  Or, like in “Napoleon Dynamite” (one of my all-time favorite movies), when they show up for the dance, the decorations and the way the students dress scream out “small town”. The same could be done here.  You can’t completely spell what the art direction for a movie — that’s the Art Director and Costume Designer’s jobs — but you can drop clues as to what the tone and look and feel is.  For example, when describing the town they’re driving through, it’s enough to say that “it feels as if they’re driving through a town stuck in the 1960’s,” or “mom and pop shops line the deserted main street.”  No need to over describe here.

Of course, at some point Jinx will have to verbally express his emotions at times — but expositional dialogue in a movie is boring to listen to.  So what he says needs to have impact in a way that we’ll feel it with him and that we’re not just listening to an actor recite some lines.  I have an idea that I need to share with Rick — I’m currently writing this 30,000 feet in the air flying to Seattle from Houston — and it might be a game changer.  Will see if I can convince Rick to buy in on this — stay tuned!

Part One – The Unending Question: Which Screenwriting Software to Use?

Celtx Final Draft image MMSW

Writer Duet     Fade In  Trelby

I’ve been asked what software I use for writing and for outlining, and what would I suggest for new writers who want to get into screenwriting but either can’t afford the top-end programs or don’t want to spend money on something that they may not get a lot of use from.

This is an endless debate that goes on and on and you will never find anyone that will give you the definitive answer on what program to use.  There will be people out there who tell you that you can do just fine with free software or web-based writing tools, like WriterDuet or Celtx, and others that tell you that if you have any hope of working with industry professionals, you’ll need professional software like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Let’s start with the easy proposition, which is: outlining.  You do NOT need any professional software to outline.  You can handwrite on a legal pad, use note cards, or my preference, writing in Microsoft Word.  Of course, Word is not a free software, put if you have an iPad, you probably have “Pages”, which is fairly close.  I use Word because I can type and type and type my garbage draft outline, edit things easily, copy and paste, and use their pre-formatted outlining tool.  I can also easily send a copy of my draft to my writing partner, Rick, and he can edit it and add his own notes.  Can’t do that with a legal pad or Post It Notes!   It is a convenient tool and I highly recommend it.


But what about outlining software, you might ask?  Software that helps you develop your outline and characters?  I’ve looked at them and even tried a couple just to see what they were about.  Some of the ones out there that you may have heard of are Plot Control, Contour, Dramatica,  and Outline 4D.

These Plot Controlprograms are designed to help you along in the outlining process by asking you questions.  For example, Plot Control will prompt you to answer questions like “What is the unique or significant event that is happening to the main character?” or “What is the main character’s personal goal and what obstacles are preventing the character from achieving it?”  Answering these questions will supposedly help you propel the narrative forward and essentially get you a completed outline.  I’ve tried it and found that while the prompts help with explaining different stages of the story, like the “inciting incident,” and is somewhat easy in use, the layout is a little boring and is not great with providing many examples to help in the use.

Contour prompts you along on each of the plot points and sets up a series of “Yes/No” situations to create drama and conflicts for the characters.  Contour is good in that it can help in creating hurdles for your protagonist, and it provides a lot of examples to explain each question prompt (as well aContours provide a lot of completed storylines from actual movies so you can observe what the outline should look like).  The downside I have with it is that it seems to force you into a given scenario or type of film.  For example, every main character seems to have to be faced with either a literal or metaphorical “death” to propel the story along.  It’s a bit overdone, especially if you’re trying to write a comedy or lighter indie-film.

DramaticaDramatica is the most highly detailed of all and incredibly difficult to use.  It’s gets into a lot of minutia for something that should be a fairly short process.   You have to define your characters, get into a ton of options for what the character’s journey is, and then start building in the supporting characters and their journey.  You could have literally hundreds of different options at your disposal, which is great, but it is so confusing and frustrating to use that you’ll likely give up on it after an hour of use.  They do have videos explanations on how to use the software, but honestly, if you have to watch hours of explanations to write out your outline, then maybe this software isn’t for you.  Listen, they have a lot of people that swear by it, so maybe you just have to try their free trial version for yourself to see.  Note that the Windows and Mac versions are radically different – the Mac version is the more souped-up one.

If you just want a straightforward outlining program, then perhaps you can try Outline 4d.  It has a dual way of outlining, either in timeline version or a more standard outline. The timeline Outline 4dversion has the ability to show you, theoretically, how you’re progressing in terms of minutes into the movie with the various stages of your outline.  Thus, you can see whether your Act I is running forty minutes long (that’s too long!).  It’s a little distracting with the visuals in timeline.  The standard outline is more what you’re likely used to and you can type away to your heart’s delight.  The outline is pre-formatted so you don’t have to think, really, just type.  They also have several examples, like “Thelma and Louise,” that they have pre-populated in the program to show what your outline should ultimately look like.  It does not provide you any prompts or explain what certain elements of the story are, so it’s not very useful from that standpoint.

I should point out here that several of the screenwriting programs, like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, have developed ways for you to create story notes and index cards within their program, so you don’t necessarily need an outlining program if you just prefer jotting notes down as you go.

For me the bottom line on all these programs is that these programs might be helpful in prompting questions you may not have been thinking of, but ultimately, you have to understand that they don’t write the story for you.  They can only provide the prompt, and if you need a program to ask you questions about a story you should already know, then maybe the problem is your story and your whole creative thinking process.  Your brain is the most important software you need, and if you can’t creatively craft a story without prompting from a piece of software, you’re never going to be able to get that story into a quality script.

My suggestion is you spend time with however you write, whether on a laptop, on a legal pad, or what have you, and begin with your idea.  Think about how you want it to begin and how you want it to end.   If it helps, write down your beginning on one side of a piece of paper, and the ending on the other side of the paper, and draw a line from that beginning to the end.  Now draw about 5 or 6 up and down lines through that line.  These will represent roadblocks for your characters (every main character needs roadblocks to hinder his journey) and it’s up to you to figure out how to get your character around these roadblocks.  This is a simple process and can help you more clearly define your story and build your outline!

In addition, spend some time writing two or three line descriptions about your main characters.  Once you’ve done that, go back and re-read them critically.  Do they all look like the same character?  Do they all have the same traits?  One helpful trick on this is to ask yourself the question:  What if this movie was about them, rather than the main character?  How would it be different?  How would they react in the same situations? Shining a light on the supporting characters and their unique roles can provide you with a richer, fuller, more dynamic movie.

In Part Two of this post, we’ll talk about screenwriting software programs and which ones we prefer.

Reaching the Midpoint of the Outline

We’re still balancing work life and family life and writing life in trying to finish our outline.  I’m sure this is never an issue for you (ducks as you hurl projectiles at my head), but it’s constantly something we all need to juggle as we try to conjure up things creatively.

I’m a big believer that a well-balanced life makes for a well-balanced writer.   If all you know if your work life or family life, that’s going to be reflected in your writing, as your world experience tends to color your writing style.  Maybe you’re the exception, maybe you can handle 14 hour work days and 6 hours of sleep, trying to cram in a couple of hours of writing in between fast food meals.  But what will that writing look like?

If you have an unbalanced life, take a look at some of your writing and see if it’s not having an effect. Better yet, have someone you trust to read it and give you an honest assessment of what’s in there. If it’s off in any way, take some time to go out and doing something enjoyable.  Hike.  Go to a baseball game.  Binge watch “Ozark”.  Drink some beers with friends.  Once your head is cleared of all the unhealthy crap, then you can be more productive.

So back to the outline.  When we last left our friends, Lucas and Hunter were having a little disagreement over whose side Lucas was on.  After Lucas sides with Jinx, Hunter tells his guys to be wary of him because he could get in the way.

Time to create some more complications for Jinx.

Music is playing and students are dancing.  Lucas asks Ellie to dance and she agrees. As they dance, Jinx watches them from the house through a window.  He thinks Lucas has feelings for Ellie.  He’s distracted as Cass walks behind him.  She sits on a couch and beckons Jinx.  He gives in to the temptation, goes over and sits down.

After the dance is over, Lucas tells Ellie about the picture on the mantle.  Ellie says that was the trip where Nick almost got ticketed for underage drinking and Jinx talked the cop out of it.  As they talk, Ellie folds a napkin, making a flower out of it.  She attaches it to a straw and sticks it in Lucas’ drink.  “What’s this?” asks Lucas.  Ellie isn’t even aware she was doing it. “Oh, that.  It’s a flower for your drink. Jinx used to always be annoyed that the Mexican restaurant that didn’t put a flower or umbrella in my virgin pina coladas and so he would make me one out of a napkin.  Guess I just picked up on it.” Lucas is a bit put off that everything is becoming about Jinx.

Back in the house, Cass makes small talk with Jinx.  When the small talk stalls, she gets more direct: “What’s the deal with you and Ellie?” Jinx is nothing if not honest, and tells her that at one time, he thought she might be the one, but now he’s basically resigned to just moving on – he’s leaving everything behind here, including her.  “Well,” Cass replies, “Maybe you ought to create a new memory you can take with you,” and slides her hand over to his leg.  Jinx is uncomfortable.

Hunter watches Cass and Jinx from across the room. Cass and Hunter’s eyes meet, and they share a conspiratorial smile.  Jinx sees Hunter, and as Cass slides in closer to Jinx, he extricates himself from the situation, embarrassed.

We’re now creating several scenarios where things could go wrong.  Hunter and Jinx, Lucas butting heads with Hunter, Cass interfering potentially between Jinx and Ellie, and whether Jinx and Ellie can truly express their feelings before it’s too late.

As we head into the second half of Act II, we’ll continue ramping up these tensions.  If you have any comments about how it’s going so far we’d love to hear them!