(Reprint of article written by Cheryl McKay for Independent Filmmaking in Focus)
Start by giving each project you write a suitably colored binder. (My binder for Never the Bride is purple—my character is obsessed with it. I even wrote my scene notes with purplepen.) Then use color-keyed divider tabs so every note can be filed under the appropriate tab. Tabs can include general brainstorms, scene ideas, character breakdowns, locations/settings, research, synopses or treatments, thematic notes, and meeting notes.
Once you know enough about your story to plot out scene ideas, the real fun begins. Long ago, I used plain (as in bohhh–rring) white index cards to track scene notes. I’d face 100-200 cards that looked exactly alike, overwhelmed about how to order them. I also found them inconvenient to take anywhere to organize—like on a plane or to a coffee shop. (How many times did I drop a whole set I had just ordered? Oops.)
Years ago, I switched to using colored Post-It notes. (I have about 15 color choices.) I make a list of my main plots and subplots, and assign a color to each one.
Example color chart from Never the Bride:
Jessie and God’s storyline—Yellow
Love Interest #1 (Blake)—Green
Love Interest #2 (Clay)—Blue
Best Friend subplot (Nicole)—Lavender
Brooklyn’s subplot (Jessie’s Sister)—Orange
Proposals Business/Work Place—Pink
The Cops (humorous runner)—Purple
This is where the real fun kicks up a notch. Take the appropriate color Post-It for a scene idea and write it down—whether it be a moment of dialogue, a plot twist, an act break, a character action, reaction, a surprise reveal, a humorous gag etc. (If there’s crossover in a particular scene, choose the color from the most dominant part of the story.) Don’t analyze scene order yet; just let your mind play. If I know I’ll just be staying home to work on a particular project, I’ll stick these on poster boards. If I’m traveling, I stick them on blank pieces of white paper that can be filed in my binder under the scene ideas tab. (This is the only time I’ll give you permission to use white paper, so your scene colors stand out.)
Once you’ve written out as many scenes as you can dream up, structure them. First, shift them around by Acts. (You’ll likely have a sense if a scene belongs in Act One, Act Two, or Act Three.) Then, get more meticulous and try to order the notes within each act. (I like to do this in 15-paged blocks at a time. For example, Pg. 31-45 or 46-60.)
When you think you have a rough scene order, this is where colors make what’s going on with your plotlines jump off the page. If you see a long sequence that is completely missingorange, you’ll realize you haven’t serviced that storyline in a while. You can write a new scene idea and insert it, or you can move an orange scene from somewhere else to keep that thread of your story alive and kicking. You’ll also see where your script is getting repetitive by having too many beats in a row of the same color. This is a big benefit ofcolor-coding that hundreds of white note cards just won’t give you. (Plus, remember! White is boring.)
Once you think you have all of your scenes in place, you can “watch” your story progress by reading all your colored Post-Its in order. You can get a sense for how your story is unfolding, and how your main story and subplots interact with each other in living color. Once you’re satisfied with your outline, it’s time to type FADE IN: on the blank white screen. But in your mind’s eye, you’ll always see that color, sparking your creativity throughout the writing process.
(Want to learn how to adapt your screenplay into a novel? Check out this How To book I co-wrote with Rene Gutteridge, who has novelized my scripts for Never the Bride & Greetings from the Flipside. In the book I have a section on how to color-code and organize your job on the novelization before writing begins.)