Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing and Software wars

So it's begun, I have started writing Ghostkeeper 2. Well, sort of writing; I'm doing what is called a beat sheet, which means establishing the beats to the story. In simpler terms, it's a version of index cards which have been used in the film business probably since silent movie days.

Of course today we have the software version of index cards, software that even asks you questions. There are several out there, but my favorite is Power Structure, which I've been using for at least 10 years, maybe even more.  It was created by the people who created ScripThing, the first real screenwriting software that went beyond a Word stylesheet called Scriptor, first used in the mid 1980's.

*A note here;  There often occurs a debate as to which software is better. In my mind there are only two standards, Screenwriter and Final Draft. Yes there are others, some even free, but those two are the standards, like it or not. Does this mean your screenplay won't sell if it's not one of the two? Of course not, you can write your script on stone tablets if you want, just as long as someone can read it.

I used Screenwriter as it originally was ScripThing but I also keep a copy of Final Draft just in case someone wants me to rewrite a screenplay in that format. I don't particularly like FD as I feel it's just a Microsoft Word template. And Screenwriter software support is free while FD charges. But also because of the politics of The Writer's Store who always suggest that FD is "the professional's choice".

This feud goes back years, the Writer's Store never really liked ScripThing because it had a sense of humor in it's program. There was a cute little monster icon and I remember that if you left ScripThing for ten minutes or so and came back, an icon would pop up and say "I've been looking at your screenplay and I think you need more character development". It's a joke, of course but apparently some writers and the store didn't think professional writers should have funny software.

However I did, and so did others. When I taught UCLA screenwriting I always suggested Screenwriter because I thought it was easier to use and more intuitive towards screenwriting. But in at least 2 examples, the Writer's Store told my students that they really should have FD as it was "the professional's choice".

So I called Jesse at Writer's Store and told him that it wasn't fair to do that, being that his people had promised not to change buyer's minds anymore, something I was told by Screenwriter staffers, suggesting that the Writer's Store did it more than I even knew. In the end, the Writer's Store exchanged FD for the students who preferred Screenwriter.

Both softwares are used by professionals, some writers still use typewriters, others use a writing pad and pencil and ultimately it doesn't matter what you use, as long as the screenplay is good. But that's another blog.

Back to Power Structure; what it does is help me figure out the beats to the screenplay, as in simple sentences like: 

"Riva arrives at the hotel"

 "Murray sees a stranger"

"A dark figure watches them"

"Evening around the camp fire". 

I do maybe 30-40 of these "beats" and then go back and expand them into more, sort of like this:

"Riva arrives at the hotel-- finds it empty -- cell phone doesn't work -- notices figure in hallway that walks away - her room has been rummaged." 

Slowly and carefully I keep adding to the beats, sometimes deleting a beat or phrase, sometimes adding a whole paragraph.

Remember that thing I said about the software asking questions? It does that too, it will ask me what the backstory is for any particular character, or what is the purpose of that character, what is their greatest success or greatest failure. And it asks questions about the story; what has to happen in this act, how is the story moved forward, what's the ticking clock, and much more.  Like my own development executive but cheaper.

It sounds strange, but by filling in the pieces of character by answering those questions, you get a more detailed person. You can even chart the conflicts between characters, I never really got that part of the software, but it's handy to have around.

And as always, is this software essential? Of course not, neither is a computer for that matter. But it sure helps me. And I am a professional. At least sometimes.

So today and Friday I will continue expanding my beat sheet, filling in details and answering questions until it's ready to go to screenplay. With this my job is at least 50% over, the second 50% is the fun part where the characters come to life.

(Mon: Start)