Get a “God’s-Eye View” of Your Story

I know what you’re thinking and the answer is no, I don’t get a kickback from Microsoft! I just happen to like using Word and Excel for my screenwriting. And I know what you’re thinking now, too. What the hell could he possibly use Excel for in his screenwriting?


by Jeffrey Scott

I could actually write an entire blog post on the uses of Excel for just about anything. I actually use it more than any other program. I use it for my daily to do list, production chart, prospective deal list, bills list, invoice list, invoices, production & income statistics, series production charts, promotion and on and on.

I don’t use all the complex formula calculations. Honestly, I don’t know how. But I know enough to do what I need to. I only use simple formulas like SUM in just a few of my worksheets (a file in Excel is called a worksheet).

What’s great about Excel is that one file can have virtually unlimited pages which are easily accessed by tabs at the bottom of the worksheet. So I can just click on a tab and I’m instantly into one of the above items; no need to change programs, get on the net, or anything else. They’re all right there.

But enough about how cool Excel is for organizing your life. Let me show you how I use it to organize screenplay structure. Here’s a screenshot of my Scene Breakdown page:

Scott Picture 1

The reason I use Excel is based on a writing principle I discovered years ago. I call it getting a God’s-Eye View of the story. I realized that by typing out my outline beats in a normal word processing program it took screen after screen to go through my scenes. So while I was looking at one portion of my story the rest of the story was totally out of sight. And as they say, “Out of sight, out of mind”. But when I write I want all of my story in my mind, or at least as much as possible.

This concept is used in the military as well. If you only have a narrow view of the battlefield (such as through binoculars) you can’t get a good picture of what’s going on, nor make as effective of a decision. But if you can see it all (with, say, a satellite) you can make much more effective decisions because you have more of a “God’s-Eye View”.

I initially solved this problem in Word by typing out my scenes on a single line in small type. But then I discovered how much easier and customizable it is in Excel.

Let me describe what you’re seeing in the above screenshot. This is a scene breakdown of the film Independence Day. I’m using this just as an example to show you how a familiar film might be broken down.

Each narrow row is a scene. And I keep the rows as narrow as I can so that as many as possible appear on one screen. This is generally done by reducing the font size, which automatically resizes the row height. But you can also right-click on any row number (on the left side of the window) and then click on “Row Height” to adjust it.

Column A is just a simple act number breakdown. In a three-act structure I like to number my acts 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 3A and 3B. This gives me smaller and easier units to work with. I color code the left column black and gray only to visually separate the act sections.

Scott Picture 2

Column B contains page length estimates. It helps to know how long your script is going to be, and I always make page estimates before I start writing. This tells me if I need more scenes, or if my story is running long. Note that the page numbers above are not estimates, they are the actual page lengths from the Independence Day script. Normally I make my estimates in half-page increments. Estimating a scene to be 3.75 pages is a bit presumptuous.

Scott Picture 3

At the very bottom of Column B is a number. This is the total page estimate. You get this total by clicking on the cell and then clicking on FORMULA, then AUTOSUM (∑), then ENTER. If you have a page estimate number in each cell above, this will automatically highlight and add them. If it doesn’t add them, or the number appears wrong, it probably means you omitted a number in a cell or mistyped a number, such as adding two decimal points.

You’ll notice that Column A also has small numbers just above the act numbers. These are the subtotals that show how many pages are in that particular act section. These numbers give a better view of which sections may be running long or short. The act section lengths are somewhat arbitrary and they don’t have to be equal. To get these subtotals, again just click in the cell where you want the subtotal, then click on FORMULA and AUTOSUM (∑). But because you’re not adding an entire row you have to select the page estimates to add. So after clicking FORMULA + AUTOSUM just click and hold on the first cell you want to add, then drag the selection down to cover the remaining cells. Then let go and hit ENTER and it should add them up.

Column C is a brief description of the scene in as few words as possible—just enough to remind you what the scene is about. You should be able to read down Column C and very quickly get a feel for where your story is going.

Column D is simply a list of your slug lines. It tells you WHERE you are at a glance, and whether it’s day or night. I took these slugs directly from the Independence Day script. I generally keep my slugs in this column much shorter, such as Int. Press Room. I leave off the days and nights expect where there is a change.

Column E is a description of the scene. You can write as much here as you want. Just make sure that “word wrap” is not turned on so that it only takes up one line. You can read it all by simply double-clicking on a line. This opens up a drop-down box with everything you’ve written inside it.

Finally, I color code each row according to the character who leads the scene. In the case of Independence Day there are several scenes which have two or more lead characters in them. In this case, if these characters will be together in subsequent scenes, I code them with a new color.

To color code a row you use the “fill” command. Highlight the entire row by clicking on its number (on the left side of the Excel window), or any part of a row by highlighting one or more adjacent cells. Then right-click the highlighted row or cells and click on the little paint bucket icon. This will fill your cell with the indicated color. To change the color click on the little down arrow to the right of the bucket.

Scott Picture 4

The last thing I add to the sheet is a CHARACTER KEY. I add my character names and format them in the color to match their corresponding row color. To create a floating text box like this just click INSERT and then TEXT BOX. You can format the text boxes to be as pretty as you like, but I’m not going to waste your time with that here.

The beauty of setting up your scenes with Excel in this way is that you can get a much broader view of your story and can glance about the sheet to see what’s coming or what’s already happened. And with a short scroll you can see the whole shebang very quickly. You can easily move scenes by just highlighting a row, pressing the SHIFT key, and dragging it wherever you want it. And the color coding lets you see at a glance if you’re neglecting a character or not advancing certain plot elements fast enough. Again, it’s that God’s-Eye View that’s so important.

Scott Picture 5

As I mentioned above, at the bottom of the Excel sheet are tabs. So for developing a screenplay you can have one tab for your Scene Breakdown, another for Characters, Journey Stages, Outtakes, Notes, etc.

If you’re not a whiz with Excel don’t worry about it. You only need to know a few parts of the program, most of which are pretty intuitive. And to make it even easier for you I’ve attached a copy of the above Independence Day file, exactly as you see it, with all the pretty formatting. If you want a copy just click here.

So if you have Microsoft Excel in your computer and never got around to using it, I urge you to check it out. You won’t regret it.

Next week, how Microsoft Outlook can improve your dialog…just kidding.

-Jeffrey Scott

 

Jeffrey Scott
Jeffrey Scott has written over 700 animated and live-action TV and film scripts for Sony, Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Paramount, Columbia, PBS, Sesame Workshop, Marvel, Hanna-Barbera and others. His writing has been honored with three Emmys and the Humanitas Prize. He is author of the acclaimed book, How to Write for Animation and blog. To learn more about his craft and credits visit his website at www.JeffreyScott.tv.

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, Jeffrey Scott

4 Comments

  1. Phillip Gruneich January 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    True, Excel is a wonderful tool. However OmniOutliner does a superb job here and i’ve been using it lately. It’s funny how people use color: everyone has a very specific way. I use to illustrate the emotional focus of the scene, red is the climax, for example. This is nice to remind me when i need a comic relief, for example. I like to use OmniOutliner because it is smaller and allows you to build inside a scene. I always attach notes with dialogue ideas, as those are not good to go away whenever you get a nice one.

    And i always recommend after viewing the story as a whole to expand it horizontally. This is the horizontal outline i’ve done for a short film last year: http://cl.ly/image/3n0o1B2e0t2q. It is in portuguese, but first row is act, second is timeline, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th are scene elements (i had to control 4 characters in most scenes, so this gave me track on what each of them were doing), you may include as many as you want. 7th is a general color scene tag, to preview it dramatically. 8th row is for the scene number.

    Why going horizontal? You read horizontally. Not only the words, but everything. You watch a movie left-to-right. So after jolting down all your ideas in vertical to see all of it, i strongly recommend going horizontal. This is the stage in which i’d include Page Estimates, because i use the previous stage to simply get the story out of my head.

  2. Paul Clarke January 10, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

    Great advice. It’s impossible to hold 110 pages of screenplay in your consciousness at once and make sense of it.

    Take a step back, work on it in parts.

    Thanks for the tip.

  3. Adriano Ferrari January 15, 2013 at 4:44 am #

    Very well said. It’s impossible to keep a whole story in your head. There is a tool that’s designed to solve exactly this problem.
    http://www.gingkoapp.com

    It’s a tree-structure tool that lets you see the big picture and the details at the same time, and quickly navigate your story.

  4. Rafael Andrés Becerra February 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    Thanks!!!!! Amazing and very useful, I was wondering how I could use Excel for my writing!!!!
    …Just realize you wrote some of the most precious moments of my childhood!!! Greetings from Colombia!!!!

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