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Building Your
Screenwriter's Toolbox

by Gina Vanname

Every profession needs tools. You can't build a house without the basic hammer and nails. You can't trade stocks without a broker. Basketball players need hoops and a ball, skiers need skis and snow, artists need brushes and paint... you get the picture...

Your Screenwriter's Toolbox

So what tools does a screenwriter need in his or her toolbox?

A pen and some paper? A dependable computer? Yes, an excellent start. But if you're going to write screenplays, professionally or as a hobby, you will need to start building and customizing your own toolbox.

  • Since screenwriting is physical you will need a typewriter or a computer with writing software and lots of reference books.
  • Since Screenwriting is a craft you will need education, training, and lots, and lots, and lots of practice.
  • Since screenwriting is an art you will need every experience you've ever had, every story you've ever seen or read, everything thing you've ever heard, and everything you feel passionate or emotional about... all these personal experiences need to go into your toolbox.

Intangible Tools

"I wrote my first screenplay when I was five, won my first Oscar at twelve, my second at fifteen," said the busy kid. "What can you possibly write about at your age?" asked the stranger. "Life," said the kid. "But you haven't experienced enough life," the stranger said. "Oh, but I have," said the kid, "You see, I can remember all of my past lives."

Intangible tools are your personal experiences and observations. Obviously, this is not something you could physically buy and stick into your imaginary toolbox, but it is a very important necessity for all stories. The more you know, see, hear and feel, the more you can draw from as you write. But don't be scared off, it takes years to accumulate these types of tools.

The best way to further develop these types of tools is to listen to EVERYTHING, absorb and process. The most evil or vilest person in the world has a point of view. As a writer, you will need to understand different perspectives that may contradict your values and beliefs. The more open you are to understanding other people, the deeper your characters will be. There is no right and wrong in character development - just point of view. This is why most writers are born analysts.

It has been said, "Write what you know." As your personal experiences and knowledge base grows (unfortunately, with age), you will begin to expand your intangible tools and reach new levels of writing.

(See Reference List for more info)

Crafting Tools

"I could write a better movie than that one. I've seen hundreds of movies, it's easy," said the avid movie-goer. "Okay, go ahead," said his friend. Months later... "Are you done with your great screenplay?" said the friend. "Almost, I'm still working on page one."

Crafting tools are developed through your screenwriting education or training and practice. If you don't have a college degree in screenwriting (and most don't) workshops and self-teaching through screenwriting books are the next best thing.

I recommend that beginners take at least a couple of classes in screenwriting, preferably, a workshop type of environment, where you can read and discuss other people's work. You can learn an immense amount of stuff from reading and discussing other writers' under-developed screenplays. It is much easier to see why other screenwriter's are doing it badly, then to see your own mistakes.

Equally important to learning the fundamentals of screenwriting are the fundamentals of universal story structure. Original story structure comes from folk tales, fables, and myths. If you can take a class that teaches these things, you will be way ahead of the game.

Part of your screenwriting education will come from books, and boy, there is no poverty on this subject. I would recommend reading at least two books on each story and character development and one on structure.

(See Reference List below.)

Another crafting tool is lots and lots of practice. Rewrite, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. The more you practice the better you become. Screenwriting IS a craft, and as any other craft, practice makes perfect.

Physical Tools

Ah, the easiest of the bunch to accumulate. Physical tools include something to write with (duh), a computer if you have one (with writing software) and good reference material. Don't skimp when building your reference collection. Yes, you will need to buy most of these books. Some don't come cheap. Start slowly, one book a month. You need to have these books at your disposal at all writing sessions.

(See Reference List below.)



For Intangible Tools

My advice... go out and live a little (and bring a tiny, little note pad with you). And when you come back -- write about it!

Have a relationship, get divorced, go on a trip, snuggle up with a book on profiles of serial killers or journals on a safari to Africa, whatever you need to know how to deepen your characters and generate ideas.

For Crafting Tools

Here are some books I recommend that will narrow your search through the plethora of screenwriting book titles. Character and story are always intertwined, but I've listed (in parenthesis) what I believe is the stronger focus of the book.

  • The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri - This is not for everyone. The book was written in 1946, specifically for playwriting, but I highly recommend it for screenwriting. Its depth of information converts over well for the screenplay format. (Character Development, Story Structure)
  • Aristotle's Poetics - Aristotle IS the master. He was the very first to research and analyze story structure. The fundamentals haven't changed. (Story Structure)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell - This book is not the easiest read, but explains the hero's journey by using the classic myth structure. (Story Structure, Character Development)
  • The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler - This is like the "Cliff Notes" version of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Its content is taken directly from it, sifting out a lot, and focusing on myth structure for screenwriters. But like "Cliff Notes" it waters down the intricate details. (Story Structure)
  • Stealing Fire from the Gods, by James Bonnet - Also based on Campbell's research on mythic structure, but it also examines the structure of fables and fairly tales. It will help you apply these golden forms to you own writing and give you a new insight into story development. (Story Structure, Story Development)
  • Screenwriting From the Heart, by James Ryan - A unique approach that will help to write a character-driven screenplay. (Character Development)
  • Screenplay, by Syd Field - Known for converting plot points to page numbers. It is a good basis to begin learning screenplay structure, but WARNING -- be careful about plopping your plot points onto pre-established page numbers. This rigid form of writing makes formulaic and wooden screenplays. (Screenplay Structure)

For Physical Tools

The American Heritage Dictionary

Ah, how I love my thesaurus. Your writing software may have a thesaurus, but you won't be sorry spending the cash on a good thesaurus when you realize it IS your little helper. I recommend two:

Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus - Comes in paperback and has a section they call Concept Index, which can come in handy when seeking words.
The Synonym Finder by Rodale - I have to admit since I bought this, it's the thesaurus I've been grabbing first.

Word Finder
This fabulous compliment to your toolbox will give that thesaurus an extra edge. I recommend:

Random House's Word Menu - It's organized by subject matter and has juicy sections that list terms for Verbs of Speech and Expressions, Character and Behavior, and specific words for describing specific professions and fields. And has a thesaurus on terminology and jargon.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style - This is the classic of grammar books.
Action Grammar, Fast, No-Hassle Answers on Everyday Usage and Punctuation, by Joanne Feierman - An easy reference handbook.
The Chicago Manual of Style

Baby Names
You'll never again be at a loss for choosing character names, nor will you be unaware of the name's genesis. There are books with last names as well. How else can you know that your character Kendrick is of Anglo-Saxon descendants and has "royal ruler" attributes?

Also books on myth names and encyclopedia's of God/esses. Especially useful for Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers. *Added by Rachael Cailliach (eclectic writer)

There are plenty of books on slang, some are specialized slang: street slang, hospital slang, sexual slang phrases, as well as general slang. Slang books are 'dope' for dialogue.

While you don't need a library of other writer's scripts, it comes in handy to reference them. Sometimes, you just have to read how they wrote it on the page.

Formatting Software
Each screenwriter swears by the software they use. I've used Final Draft for years. All you really need in a software program are: Formatting options and a good spell check. The formatting options saves time on typing indented margins for your characters and dialogue. It makes it super-easy to insert character names, locations and make global changes to your margins, characters, or even change your page count with a couple of clicks.

If you don't have the money for a good software package, use any word software and program your macros (and Styles) according to standard screenplay format.

Formatting Book (for those without software)
The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats (Part 1: The Screenplay), by Cole/Haag - This book tells you how to set up your margins. It also goes into what fonts to use, how to write scene headings (sluglines), title page margins, etc.



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