Over the last few years, I’ve touched on screenwriting rather infrequently. I’ve discussed theme, how to write a simple pitch treatment, and analyzed other people’s stories, but most of the time, I’ve focused on color grading, computer gear, and cameras. It’s a little unbalanced, because post-production is such a small part of what makes films great.
If you haven’t read my article on Three-Act Structure yet, you should. This post will make more sense if you do, and so will the three books on screenwriting that I recommend.
I’m a big fan of Syd Field and his gamechanging book Screenplay, which was published in 1979. Prior to that, there wasn’t that much material on how to write movies, and what there was hadn’t been too specific on details. Field is the one who really nailed down the concept of plot points being part of a three act storyline.
Other authors quickly jumped on this concept of structured plot and pacing, but it also had plenty of detractors. Field’s paradigm has been rephrased and tweaked by every solid story specialist in Hollywood, but the best of them have stuck close to his formula. The most notable of these successors is probably Bob McKee, who after years of teaching screenwriting published the 1997 book Story.
Then, in 2005, the late, great Blake Snyder published his advice in the extremely practical Save The Cat. The book is subtitled “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need,” and I think that’s actually a fair claim, especially if you’ve previously read anything by Syd Field or Bob McKee. Save the Cat fills in a lot of the blanks that those authors may have left, emphasizes their main points, and is a get-your-hands-dirty approach to the nitty gritty aspects of writing movies.
For example, Blake Snyder was the first writer I’ve come across who really described how to make the proper use of The Board, even though it’s a tool that virtually every screenwriter depends on. For example, here’s The Board for one of my projects:
It’s a giant piece of paper, divided into four horizontal sections. The top is Act I, the next two are the two halves of Act II, and the bottom is Act III. Written on the paper in the appropriate spots are the immovable Things That Must Happen* in any movie, and pinned in top are my story beats – all the main events, scenes, and ideas that tell the story.
It’s an easy matter to add, subtract, and rearrange these story points to get the beats of the story really hammered into shape, and it’s a great way to visualize where the story drags or is too rushed. This Board is in an early stage; it hasn’t been color-coded and there are no arcs on it, but soon a single glance will explain where specific events occur in space, in time, and in relation to all the other points in the film.
The only downside to this system is that it’s difficult to share with long-distance collaborators, and it’s not very portable. Of course, The Board can be altered and shrunk. I’ve seen rolled-up posters plastered with post-it notes, and folding whiteboards, and those are pretty good solutions, but I still tried my hand at making a digital one.
Oh sure, there are plenty of online corkboard programs, professional screenwriting packages like Final Draft offer some neat index card tools, and Blake Snyder’s site even offers a nifty iPhone app for creating beat sheets, but my option is very basic.
It’s just a simple Microsoft Word document, with four vertical pages representing the horizontal strips of The Board. I’ve also added the 40 beats that Snyder recommends writers limit themselves to, and I’ve labeled the immovably* required ones as per the suggestions of the three authors listed above. It’s cramped and not as tactile as a physical Board, but it has a few advantages.
Color-coding is faster, it’s easier to save revisions, you can track changes, and the entire board can be emailed back and forth easily. It’s also very portable; on a 15” or 17” widescreen laptop, all four pages are simultaneously viewable. Besides, once you have a bunch of beats written in Word, it’s easy to print them out, cut them up, and pin them to a real corkboard anyway. So what are you waiting for? Try it out!
In addition to the first four pages, there are a few other things that you might find useful, like dialogue and cast lists. If anyone has any suggestions on improvements to the file, send them in. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to get Word to print the pages side by side on a single sheet automatically, but if you cut your regular 8.5×11 printer paper in half before printing, it works great.
*I’ve been referring to certain beats as immovable, but this isn’t strictly true. You can always slide them around a bit, but not that much, and the order really can’t change. The hero’s debate always follows the inciting incident, for example, and he can’t break into Act III until after his lowest point, etc.