Monday, December 18, 2006

Screenwriting Essentials

I once overheard an Irish guy say that the essentials in life were “sugar and tay” (sugar and tea), which makes me chuckle every time I think of it, and I can no longer say ‘sugar and tea’ without reverting to the strong Irish accent/stereotype. The reason I’m telling you this is because James Newton, friend of the blog, got in touch to ask about “screenwriting essentials”.

First, “do you use any database software to track your scripts / contacts / letters / follow ups etc? Personally, I haven't been able to find anything out there that does this so I've ended up customising Microsoft Access. I'm just looking to see if there are any killer features I should/could incorporate into mine.”

Next, screenwriting essentials themselves: “we all know that you really only need a pen and paper but as you progress you find that these are never enough. If you are thinking about carving out a career in scriptwriting what would you deem to be the essentials that you couldn't live without?”

In response to the first query: I don’t know, or know of, a database software to track your scripts. It sounds good but I find my memory serves me well, as does the ‘Sent Items’ folder in Outlook, and my various files on Microsoft Word. And agents usually have a file of where everything’s been or has been sent out, so need need to worry there.

Unfortunately, I’m still stuck in the 20th century when it comes to the latest software and computer technology so while using Microsoft Access sounds inviting, maybe someone else could provide the right kind of pointers in the comments section below.

Now, onto the main event. Sharing your ‘Screenwriting Essentials’. This is a good idea. Here’s a list of James’s:

1. Final Draft.
2. Broadband Internet - for research and watching films online.
3. A never ending supply of Black and Red books for meetings etc.
4. A whiteboard for listing current projects and stages of development. A constant visual reminder away from the PC.
5. A spare printer toner at all times.
6. Subscriptions to Screen International, Sight and Sound, & industry blogs.
7. Visual Thesaurus.
8. A large pile of index cards and a board to stick them on.
9. A USB memory stick to backup scripts.
10. My new contacts database.
11. Time, procrastination and caffeine.

That’s a great list, and offers interesting practical suggestions for any screenwriter’s routine. I didn’t know of Visual Thesaurus before, and I always curse myself for not having that spare printer toner to hand when I need it.

My list is more basic:

1. A computer with broadband access, and a printer (backing up files a MUST).
2. Screenwriting books that you actually value for their inspiration and insight.
3. Ditto with your favourite screenwriting magazines.
4. Screenplays, printed out, to read for inspiration, entertainment or procrastination.
5. Final Draft

Er, that’s it. Everything else is dealt with as they crop up or whatever’s needed at the time. I don’t think Final Draft is necessary an “essential” but it has become extremely useful for the convenience it affords in immediately formatting scripts. The tools and features are good but I don’t really use them. While I would rather not do without my Final Draft, it’s not indispensable, and you can simply use the right font and margins in MS Word instead (and for a lot cheaper too!).

I have a corkboard to outline story, and a smaller whiteboard to remind me what projects are on the go, but again, I don’t consider it as an ‘essential’ as I vary the process from script to script. My office seems to be in a continuous state of disarray and momentum, so I don’t feel the need to be overly tidy or anal in my organisational habits.

But it’s good to get people’s takes on what screenwriting essentials are needed to either establish a good routine, or to get ahead with your career. Feel free to share your list, it’d be great to get a peek at what everyone does or does not do…


Anonymous said...

Omigod the visual thesaurus thing is fantastic! I want one.
Are you a rep now ?

Anonymous said...

I can help on the tracking software front - James could try ‘Power Tracker’. It's excellent and will do just what he wants. It can keep track of all activities as well as contacts and expenses. You can download a trial version first.

I've seen the software online for anything from 49-99 US dollars, however, have it at a sale price of 29.95 dollars (15 pounds), an absolute gift. As a comparison, at it costs 39.95 pounds for the download version and 49.95 pounds for a copy on disc.

Both the full or trial versions are available from

Anonymous said...

hear hear!

Phill Barron said...

My essentials:

1) Computer/broadband/printer
2) Final Draft (or equivalent)
3) Tea
4) Chocolate biscuits
5) A comfy chair
6) More chocolate biscuits
7) Laptop so I can bugger off when necessary
8) Even more chocolate biscuits

Dominic Carver said...

Mine are as follows:

1) Final Draft.
2) Dramatic Pro - if I want to work an idea through.
3) Comfy chair.
4) 2lt bottle of water.
5) Glass to drink it from.
6) My phone, so if it rings I can answer it.
7) Blank peice of paper and a pen to write stuff down on.
8) CD-RW x 5, one to back up my work for each working day of the week.
9) A window to stare out of from time to time.
10) Rubic's Cube to play with when I'm thinking stuff through.
11) Laptop so I can move about if I have to.
12) Wall calender to chart my progress.

Dominic Carver said...

Ooh, I almost forgot Sky News, because I like to be kept up to date with what's going on in the real world.

Paul Campbell said...

1. PC etc.
2. Word (don't bother with Final Draft these days).
3. Paper and pen.
4. A friendly and supportive agent.
5. A loving and supportive wife.
6. A well-paid day job which I can do part-time.

Lucy V said...

I usually have the baby literally under the desk as she likes to pull everything out of the shelves - keeps her occupied for hours while I'm reading. Can't imagine her not being there now.

Given I don't take sugar in my "tay", does that make me a bad screenwriter? Is THAT why none of my specs have been optioned???

Dan said...

The essential tome that every writer should have on their bookshelf is: 'Plagiarism - What can I get away with?'

Piers said...

1. Computer / Broadband - Because you need it to write with. And email with. And procrastinate with.
2. Final Draft - I could live without it, but I don't have to.
3. Laser Printer - Anyone that's still on an InkJet, just STOP IT! Over its lifetime, a laser printer works out cheaper because it lasts longer and toner is cheaper (again, relative to how long a cartridge will last you). And the printing looks nicer, and happens five times faster. Definitely an essential.
4. Spare Toner, together with at least 3 reams of plain white paper - to put in the aforementioned Laser Printer. Don't run out of either of these, it will make you sad.
5. Pilot black 0.7 pen - I can live without this, but it's my favourite for marking up scripts. Just glides over the paper. The 0.5 gives little scratchy notes and the 1.0 is big fat scrawls. The 0.7, on the other hand, is Goldilocks' Porridge. Anal, me? Oh yes.
6. Corkboard and Index Cards - O, plotting is so much nicer since I discovered the joy of the corkboard.
7. Selection of screenwriting books - for inspiration.
8. Bed - when I'm turning ideas over in my head to try and figure something out, I find lying down and staring at the ceiling helps. I don't know why. A bed makes this a much more comfortable process.
9. Window - Take ten minutes away from your computer every hour or you will get RSI and be in horrible pain for the rest of your life. If you use this time to look out of the window, your eyes will also get the chance to focus on something in the distance rather than a foot in front of them. Which stops them feeling as if they're going to melt out of your head and dribble onto the floor.
10. Some kind of backup facility - I'm using CD-Rs at the moment. Something automated would be better, but I keep failing to organise myself.
11. Tea-making facilities - for tea-making. Coffee is effective, but tea is less harsh. And with sugar, most definitely.
12. Music - sometimes I like to write to music. Sometimes I prefer silence. I find the best way of dealing with this is to have an MP3 player which I can set to random play when I feel like it.

Ooh, a round dozen.

Danny Stack said...

Cool, guys, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I use Final Draft like most.

But if I hadn't already bought it I might have gone for the free option, the open source CeltX, which seems to be coming along in great strides.

Besides FD (essential) I find these useful:
- Dramatica Pro (makes me go through rigorous process)
- Wiki (tagging scriptnotes etc): local one on my powerbook which is project specific (Instiki) and remote one (Stikipad) which is more general inspiration
- (bookmarking research online)


ViK[RuM] said...

well, i have been involved in screen writing and scripting and my essentials essentially are, time should be after 10:00pm when no body is around to disturb me, my pack of ciggy's, my laptop (yup thats the most essential thing), and if there is no disturbance i can continue for 7-8 hours straight.

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