The Technology and Psychology of Screenwriting Tools

By David Konow

Over time writers develop certain ways of working that become their process, and usually they have specific tools they like to use when creating. Does it really make writing any easier, or are writers only following superstitions and quirks that grow out of neurosis they only think helps the creative process?

Recently, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story I found very amusing. It was about a pencil, but not just any pencil, a Blackwing 602. This is a pencil that Vladimir Nabokov used when he wrote a draft of the Lolita screenplay. John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, and animators at Disney also love the 602.

In addition, the Blackwing 602 has been seen as a retro prop on Mad Men, and that’s because the Blackwing has been discontinued for years, which sent many creative types into a panic. I certainly freaked when my favorite pencils disappeared from Staples, and thankfully I can still order them online.

Over time writers develop certain ways of working that become their process, and usually they have specific tools they like to use when creating. Does it really make writing any easier, or are writers only following superstitions and quirks that grow out of neurosis they only think helps the creative process?

It can be out of neurosis, it can be out of superstition, but writers often develop rituals they hope will bring them good creative luck. “One of the really great things about being a writer is it give you complete license to have rituals,” said Quentin Tarantino during a press junket for Kill Bill Vol. 1. “I’m not superstitious in my normal life, but I get kind of superstitious about methods of writing. And I know it’s all bullshit, it’s just the way I started doing it, so it becomes the way.

“My ritual is I don’t use a typewriter or a computer, I write by hand,” Tarantino continued. “What I do, it’s a ceremony actually, I go to a stationary store and I buy a notebook, the Mead notebooks, one of the red or yellow ones. You can rip out the pages but it’s still got the three holes in it. I’ll buy that notebook and I won’t buy ten of them, I’ll buy one. ‘I’ll just fill this one up and I’ll get another one.’ And I’ll buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black felt pens, and these are the ones I’m going to write Kill Bill with. And when that happens, then it’s literally taking that fuckin’ notebook everywhere, pens are always in the pocket. Every day I got up, I had my little notebook, I walked around New York. It was exactly like when I was writing Pulp Fiction in Amsterdam. I don’t go to an office, I can’t do that.”

Countless screenwriters love to work writing long hand, and for some it removed a major stumbling block out of the way. As Brian DePalma told Rolling Stone, his “major breakthrough” was when he “discovered the pencil! It took me days to type a page, by the time I corrected all the mistakes.” Once he broke out a legal pad, “I wrote like a lunatic. I can writer ten pages in a day.”

“People ask me what’s the best word processor,” says Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale. “It’s still a pencil and paper. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it goes anywhere.”

John Milius, the legendary screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, also told Creative Screenwriting he writes in longhand because “it’s too easy to change things on the computer. You don’t have to hand fit it, and basically, this is hand work. There is no way to make precision parts and put them together. Every screenplay is different so it must be made by hand.”

Larry Cohen, the veteran screenwriter of such B classics as It’s Alive and Hell Up in Harlem, didn’t try writing longhand until he wrote the screenplay Phone Booth, and he loved the experience. “There’s a wonderful feeling of connection to what you’re writing that way,” says Cohen. “You feel the dialog running down your arm and onto the page. It’s a delightful little experience.”

Besides recently discovering the joys of the pen, Larry Cohen also dictates his scripts into a tape recorder, inventing the story as he paces around the house, acting out the characters, speaking in their voices. Rod Serling and Oliver Stone are two other writers who’ve enjoyed dictating their scripts as well. “I’m going over it alone in a room into a machine, and I often retape and retape,” Stone says. “I try to act it out. I think I’m more focused, and you also get into characters. Now that I’ve been around actors a lot of my life, I do some of the acting myself. It makes you work a lot harder at externalizing. You gotta step up, you’re in the arena. You’re an actor now, you’re no longer a guy hiding in the shadows on the sidelines.”

Photo credit: Flickr user jsome1 via Creative Commons

Long before the days of word processors and computers, the manual Underwood typewriter was the standard for writers. Then came electrics and as Carl Gottlieb, the screenwriter of Jaws, recalls, “People switched to electrics always did so with a bit of reluctance because once you switched there was no going back to a manual. The muscles you needed in your fingers and wrists to operate a manual typewriter went slack because you didn’t have to hit a carriage return, you didn’t have to press the keys to make the key strike and leave an impression. But the technology was still similar and understandable. You could change a ribbon, then they created white-out ribbons to correct mistakes. IBM was really at the forefront of all that. And you used carbon paper to make copies because Xerox machines were expensive and they weren’t everywhere like today.”

The next step up in technology, the early personal home computers, were of course quite primitive compared to what’s available today. Bob Gale got his first computer in 1980, which was an Atari 800 hooked up to a black and white television, one of the only home computers you could buy at the time, other than a Radio Shack TRS 80, nicknamed the “Trash 80.” “The idea of buying high technology from Radio Shack just didn’t cross my mind!,” he says. (Gale had previously written his scripts with Bob Zemeckis on a $35 manual typewriter.)

Photo credit: Flickr user mwichary via Creative Commons

“I got my computer, a K-Pro 2X in my sophomore year in college,” says Scott Alexander, who along with his writing partner Larry Karaszewski wrote the screenplays for Ed Wood, and 1408. “I was really on the cutting edge there! This was like 1983-84, and it was like a giant metal box, looked like a piece of army equipment.”

Further down the road came Macintosh and Microsoft Word. “I wrote my first real script, or at least my first attempt at a script, on Microsoft Word on a Macintosh SE30,” says John August, screenwriter of Go and Big Fish. “This was probably 1991. I don’t know if there was even screenwriting software like Final Draft at that point. I wrote everything up through Go on Word, then made the switch.”

In the age of the typewriter, rewrites were usually done by literally cutting and pasting the pieces of the script you redid, then replacing them over your mistakes with scotch tape. “To me it was aggravating,” says Gale. “Sometimes you wanted to say, ‘I don’t feel like rewriting all of this,’ so you did some lazy things because you didn’t want to do all the manual labor. I couldn’t wait to get a good word processor because of rewriting.”

"It became almost too easy to rewrite. You could write down anything, and a computer would make it a finished product, although it wasn’t."

But to some writers, this definitely came with drawbacks. “With computers and word processors, rewriting became became effortless,” says Gottlieb. “If you didn’t like something, you’d delete it, start a new file and start again. You didn’t have to mechanically preserve your pages, or crumple them in a ball, throw them out and start again. So it became almost too easy to rewrite. You could write down anything, and a computer would make it look as if it were formatted perfectly and it would look like a finished product, although it wasn’t. The finished product in the old days, in the pre-computer era, was the result of a lot of polishing, a lot of handwritten notes, a lot of cutting and pasting, a lot of manipulation of paper and ink. When you didn’t have to physically manipulate paper and ink, you could rewrite at will and unless you had a heightened sense of discipline, the quality of writing would decrease because you didn’t have the thought.”

The environment where screenwriters work can also be important to creativity. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski both work together at an office separate from their homes. “In the early days we’d trade off,” says Karaszewski. “A couple of days at Scott’s house, a couple of days at my house.” But once they started families, they found it hard to go into full-work mode at home. “We worked at our houses until our kids chased us out!,” says Alexander.

Keeping your work separate from your home life is healthier. If you have a frustrating day writing, you can leave it behind at the office instead of having it linger around the house. Working away from the house is very helpful with disciplining yourself to write. “Having to coordinate your activities with another person makes it much more official,” says Karaszewski. “When you’re writing alone, you can sort of let inspiration hit you.” But having to work with another person and having to coordinate what time you have to write and where, “we have to learn to turn it on, turn it off a little bit.”

While a lot of writers don’t feel comfortable with anyone else in the room, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriting team behind Alias and the JJ Abrams' Star Trek films, have written together in the same room, across the table from each other, working on every line together.

“Since we started working professionally, we’ve always had a partner’s desk,” Kurtzman says. “When you work with a partner, you don’t have any room for writer’s block. Someone is always generating an idea. It’s a rare day when someone comes in and has nothing to say. It’s also like an instant re-write in the room. If I can’t get an idea past Roberto, it will never make it to the page and vice versa. I think by the time we have a first draft, it’s kind of a second draft already. We tend to pick a scene, look at it, analyze it pretty fast, know what we have to do with it, and rewrite the scene in an hour or two. When you’re in production on a movie, that’s pretty critical.”

"For all the fancy software and books about it, on a fundamental level, writing only requires focus and something to write on."

Other writers seek out different environments to work in. “A lot of times when I’m first starting a project, I’ll go away for myself for a few days,” John August says. “To Vegas, San Diego, Hawaii, whatever. But I won’t take a computer. Instead I’ll just take a bunch of notepads. I’ll write scenes longhand, then once a day fax them back to Los Angeles. My assistant then types them up and faxes them back. It’s a good system for me, because it keeps me from editing the work too early in the process. Working this way, I can write 17 pages in a day. It’s exhausting, but very helpful to achieve that critical mass in such a short period.”

If you have a set way of doing things when you write that makes you comfortable, and it inspires your creativity, like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Yet August continues, “I strongly believe in not having a set routine or rituals, because they often become excuses for not working: ‘I would write, but I have to have a brand-new blue pen and natural sunlight streaming through that window over there.’ For all the fancy software and books about it, on a fundamental level, writing only requires focus and something to write on.”