Day 24 with Cheryl McKay: Plotting is Better in Color

September 13, 2011 by  
Filed under /Editorials, /Film Schooled

by Cheryl McKay

My organizationally-challenged, creative friends think I’m maddeningly structured.  (Sorry, friends!) Perhaps I am.  But I’d love to share a method that gets my creative juices flowing when organizing, plotting and planning to write a screenplay.  While there is no one “right way” to plot, I’ve found that nothing stimulates my imagination in the stark blandness of script plotting like the use of color.

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 a purple pen.) 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 BOR-ring) 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?  Grr.)

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 Frien Subplot (Nicole) – Lavendar

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 travelling,  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-page 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 missing orange, 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 of color-coding that hundreds of white note cards just won’t give you.  (Plue, 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.

Good luck!


Cheryl McKay is the screenwriter for the award-winning film The Ultimate Gift.  Her screenplay for Never the Bride was adapted into a novel and published by RandomHouse Publishers (with Rene Gutteridge).

She also wrote an episode of Gigi: God’s Little Princess, based on the book by Sheila Walsh, and Taylor’s Wall, a drama about high-school violence.  She’s beenwriting since the tender age of five, when she penned her first play.  Cheryl is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Los Angeles.



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