A screenwriter’s notebook

I carry a little notebook around with me. I jot down things in it as I’m traveling around town.

I work on anywhere from 5 to 20 projects at any given time, so a single book will have all kinds of notes about different projects.

Sometimes I write things down while I’m watching a movie. Sometimes that makes it hard to read later.

Here are a few pages from my current notebook:


Don Q
Angel of Mercy

Who’s our guy?
Middle class
Wife and daughter
One-time athlete — cyclist, speedskater
Rides a motorcycle (dirt bike? casual)
Money from insurance settlement?
Or does he get conned out of that as well?

Fantasy Island
Eden, OK

High Concept

And when will you stop?
When will justice be done?

You won’t end crime, people will still die at the hands of greed

What will you have accomplished?

Let’s Break The Bank
Fantasy Island

Card throws a party to introduce the neighborhood to the concept of Numbskull

HH, it turns out, is Mr. M.

Horse and rider a team, like Master Blaster, twins who must touch to communicate with each other — teamwork, dependence
Cannon — confrontational, combative — big noise (no strategy?) Uni-directional


Rom-com structured like a suspense thriller, w/twists, etc

A child hears grand-dad’s big stories, assumes they’re tall tales, finds out not, they are real

Racecar vs. train — French Conn. — Business types, Gates, Trump

Dad tried to leave the business — they won’t let him — who does he serve? What does he know? How do the kids break H? Kids instead of amnesia

Matt Damon as post-9/11 American spirit — Bourne is trying to remember things that everyone else wants to forget
Allegience to the program, not the goal
American foreign policy


Cowbird + Starling should be on their way to a mission of betrayal (or efficiency?) when they are killed by finches

Family that uses birthday as a method of keeping the kid down

Mortgage Int.
Prop. tax
Spunky receipts
Home office


1 kid is a savant — autistic


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31 Responses to “A screenwriter’s notebook”
  1. themacguffin says:

    love the duct tape on it, it sure has been used… I have a stack of the same ones in black… love ’em

    • Todd says:

      love the duct tape on it, it sure has been used…

      Actually, I haven’t had this one that long, this brand falls apart pretty fast. I’m just lucky it hasn’t been laundered.

  2. toliverchap says:

    Chiaroscuro is an awesome note!

    Cool, I have a few little notebooks like that myself, though I don’t carry them around all the time as I should and I haven’t looked in them lately. From the looks of the kinds of notes you take, I’d say that what I’m writing, usually little quips of dramatic dialogue or ideals for a character, might actually be useful once I read them over and get serious about writing. Thanks again for sharing about your craft.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    I have a hundred or so scraps of paper around my house where I keep notes like this. Lately, I’ve been trying to get them all in one big pile. The notes look a lot like these. (Different concepts and names, of course.)

    I also carry around a notebook where I take notes on my current book club book (in one end) and my current story ideas (in the other end). Someone advised my class when I was about nine to carry a notebook all the time and I’ve tried to do so from time to time. I’ve also taken to storing some of the notes online so at least I know where they are.

    Sometimes, of course, I’ll come across a cryptic note from ten years ago and have no idea what I was thinking.

    Do you have any advice on getting from this stage to an actual draft? (Something more concrete than “just write”?)

    • Todd says:

      Depends on what you’re writing.

      All writing is re-writing. You start with an idea that fits on a scrap of paper: “A guy comes home from college to find out his father is dead and his mother has married his uncle.” Then you work that into a paragraph: “The guy is out of sorts because he knows something is fishy here at home but he can’t quite put his finger on it. He comes up with a brilliant solution for discovering the truth — he will have a team of actors play out what he thinks is the scene of his father’s death, in front of the uncle, and his uncle’s reaction will tell him if he’s on the right track or not. And there’s a younger girl who’s after our guy, but he’s too busy trying to track down his father’s killer.” So forth.

      As ideas develop — “Wait! Our guy is a PRINCE! He’s the PRINCE OF DENMARK! (that’ll raise the stakes!)” you start ordering them, forming them into an outline.

      1. Castle wall — Who’s there? Is it A GHOST?
      2. Girl’s father, pompous windbag, gives advice to son
      3. Guy comes back from college, he’s heard about dad’s death, he’s miserable
      4. Guy gets an idea — he’ll pretend to be crazy! (or IS he crazy?)
      5. Girl approaches guy — establish love story


      Once you’ve got your outline, then you write your treatment: “We open on a frigid castle wall, two lonely guards, end of the shift. One calls to the other: ‘Who’s there?'” (key phrase, nice, innocuous but pregnant with meaning, scholars will be patting me on the back for that one for 400 years) “They talk. Seems a GHOST has been seen atop these castle walls. In armor, with its beaver up no less…”

      Once you’ve got your treatment, then you head into the actual script: “EXT. CASTLE WALL — NIGHT — The sky lowers like dripping pitch upon the damp, mildewed, ancient walls of ELSINOR CASTLE. Lonely footsteps echo through the thick fog; this is not a job for men who crave the warmth of others…”

      Just keep building it and building it and building it. I found out a long time ago that if I sit down and just say “Okay, today I will write a brilliant screenplay,” I couldn’t write anything and was extremely miserable. All writing is rewriting. Learn to love that process.

      Another key thing, which I got from Mamet, is the “nail” concept — don’t write the whole book in every sentence. Each sentence is its own thing, each paragraph is its own thing, each actors role is its own thing (that’s why they call them “parts”), as he puts it, “You’re not building a house, you’re making a nail. A nail doesn’t have to look like a house, it just has to look like a nail.” You make your nails and you make your boards and you make your pipes and you make your lawn and you slowly put it all together, stopping now and then to run pipes and wires and stuff, and then at the end you put on your coat of paint and poof, you’ve got a house and you never once had to say “shit, how am I ever going to build this house?”

      • greyaenigma says:

        Thanks! I’m actually fairly comfortably with re-writing, it’s getting the stuff down in the first place that’s the trouble. Of course, given how radically my outlines and themes change with new ideas, revisiting can also be a hindrance.

        I think a lot of it is my increasing lack of confidence in building believeable characters (and, in that vein, dialog). Of course, I listen to real people and often can’t believe them. I remember feeling a pang of despair reading that Neil Gaiman starts with characters and then writes everything based on what they do; it’s encouraging to see more recommendation of the outline.

        • Todd says:

          I’m sure that works for Gaiman; it’s worked for many writers from time immemorial. Because character is destiny; once you know exactly who your characters are, there’s only one way they’re going to go.

          But it doesn’t work for me and it didn’t work for Shakespeare, who, like me, had no time for making up his own stories, was always adapting someone else’s work.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Well, it sounds like me and this Shakespeare fellow are in some esteemed company. (As is Dave McKean, who Gaiman was contrasting himself with.)

      • dougo says:

        It’s not building a wall, it’s making a brick.

  4. adam_0oo says:

    A pig.
    In a cage.
    On antibotics.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    No graphics? Not even stick figures or topographics or room floor plans?

    • Todd says:

      I can barely write in the dark, there’s no way I can draw. Although my son Sam does occasionally draw in my notebooks.

  6. craigjclark says:

    I’ve been keeping notebooks like that since I was in high school. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve filled up over the years.

    By the way, regarding this idea:

    Horse and rider a team, like Master Blaster, twins who must touch to communicate with each other — teamwork, dependence

    That sounds uncomfortably close to the basic plot of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick (which was made into the perfectly putrid Jerry Lewis-Madeline Khan vehicle Slapstick of Another Kind).

    • Todd says:

      I included that note to show how imperfect a thinker I am, as I jot ideas for movies down on paper while looking at another movie. Master Blaster, from Mad Max 3, were an inseperable team but were the opposite of twins; and yes, the twins who must touch to communicate are a direct lift from Slapstick. I’m just showing here how I string ideas together to develop them for different projects. For that particular project, I need to develop ten different characters who are all engaged in a contest, and I’m trying to think of ten unique archetypes we haven’t seen in movies recently. The note is just to remind me what I was thinking of at that moment of inspiration, not to remind me to rip off both George Miller and Kurt Vonnegut (although they were hardly the first to use that device).

      Don’t tell me you’ve seen Slapstick.

      • craigjclark says:

        I’ve never actually seen the film, but I do remember the commercials from when I was a kid. I also recall seeing it on the shelf at a local video store and feeling bad for Marty Feldman, since it was his last film to get released. (He died while shooting Yellowbeard, but that still managed to beat Slapstick to theaters.)

        I did just finish reading Vonnegut’s novel, though, which is why the example was fresh in my mind.

  7. mcbrennan says:

    Since I rarely leave the house–the house left me, fergodsakes, and I scurried off to a different house like a hermit crab–I mostly use those big flippy legal pads (in various colors) to write down my Extremely Interesting Ideas. But I do have a notebook in the car, and a PDA phone which I use to email myself these little insights. Which I promptly lose. I like your idea better.

    I think you’re right about Bourne. Even though the source material predates 9/11 by a couple of decades. “What it means isn’t what it meant,” as I often mumble to myself when recontexualizing some episode of F-Troop or something. I wonder if the Hekawi indians ever got a casino.

    I am dying to know about the “hyper-realistic tree treatment”. Is this screenwriter jargon I’m just too green to understand, or do you moonlight as an arborist?

    Can I assume one of those items is destined for Feeder Birds?

    • Todd says:

      I think you’re right about Bourne.

      I don’t pretend my insight into Bourne is unique or vital or even interesting — it’s just something that flitted through my mind, probably while I was watching the preview for the new Bourne movie at a screening of yet another movie.

      I haven’t read the Bourne books (although I probably should, seeing as how my wife wants to marry the guy), but I’m told they have relatively little in common with the movies of the same titles.

      F-Troop was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, and I mean when I was my son’s age. I know because I have pictures of myself building Lincoln Log towers, which I could then blow up, just like the watch-tower got blown up in every episode of F-Troop.

      (In those same photos, I’m wearing my favorite outfit, a green turtleneck with black cowboy boots, selected because it matched the outfit of Tony on Time Tunnel. Hey — at least my son’s earliest memories will be higher-class; he’s got Justice League and Star Wars now.)

    • Todd says:

      Can I assume one of those items is destined for Feeder Birds?

      Feeder Birds, like Scarface and White Heat and Public Enemy and Little Caesar, ends with our gangster protagonist alone and being pursued by his many enemies. And as one can see in my so-far drawings for Feeder Birds, my depiction of shrubbery is flat, stylized and noirish. So for the finale I thought it would be cool to render the tree he’s being chased through in as a realistic amount of detail as possible, sort of like the protagonist, at the moment of his death, is finally seeing the world as it really is, not as the gangster’s playground he’s seen it as up ’til then.

  8. teamwak says:

    How do you usually make your daily bread, if you dont mind me asking.

    Do you write a lot of spec scripts and have a good agent, or do you mostly work adapting others stuff in between writing spec scripts?


    • Todd says:

      How do you usually make your daily bread, if you dont mind me asking.

      The short answer is: real estate.

      But more to the discussion at hand, what happens, generally speaking, is I get hired to write somebody else’s movie, I get paid a healthy chunk of change for that, and in between gigs I work on my own projects like The Bentfootes, Feeder Birds, or other future directorial projects.

      The spec script market, alas, is not what it used to be. Studios are making fewer movies than ever (Disney’s schedule for next year, for instance, just dropped from 12 to 8[and, strangely enough, I worked on one of them]), and when they’re looking for projects to do, they are tending more and more to select safer and safer projects, which means re-making older movies that have worked in the past, adapting popular works from other media, or developing in-house originated ideas (meaning, if a studio executive has an idea for a movie and you have an idea for a movie, the executive’s idea is the one that stands a much better chance of being made, simply because it’s closer to the top of the revenue stream).

      • Wow, real estate? Really??? Me too…

        (Don’t mind me. I’m gullible.)

        I love your idea for a rom-com/ thriller. And I think it’s awful brave of you to post some of your notebook on-line. It’s like your ideas — in the nude. (Aaargghh!) *ahem* Anyway, thanks. It gives good insight.

        • Todd says:

          Wow, real estate? Really???

          I was being part-way facetious. I am no realtor. However, the money I’ve made in screenwriting has been hugely supplemented by some wise choices I made in the New York real estate market.

  9. edo_fanatic says:

    A few of these ideas are actually really good. I see a bit of Big Fish. There’s a bit of the classic vengeance script in there too…in fact the last good vengeance flick was Kill Bill….so it’s a good time to get in that genre. How about this, a killer Don Quixote who’s so wrapped up in his visions that he climbs the highest mountain of human flesh. He’s read so much about the problems in the world, he thinks he can solve them all.

    • Todd says:

      see a bit of Big Fish.

      I often get ideas while watching trailers for other movies. I don’t even know the title of the one I was watching when I thought of the Big Fish note — it was a French picture, or German or something.

  10. Anonymous says:

    ol’Shatterhand without Winnetou? Never carry the film. Winnetou is the real star.

    From “Cockroach” (as in lowest social perspective,”step on you like a…” etc.) through “Gulliver” (scaling up, enlarged scale of social satire) Chiaroscuro (adding depth, rules of adding depth to the image); Somnambulist (walking unknown paths, adding the illicit depths of dreaming to the usual, everyday walk) Don Q (activating path into a narrative, involving all the other stuff so far on the list) Shatterhand (the past, through a Foreign perspective on well-worn American path, where the American cowboy West in balance with Indians (Winnetou)) Angel of Mercy (up in the air, away, in one of the oldest stories)

  11. Todd says:

    I would say that, in the main, a spec script might get the attention of a producer or executive as a writing sample, but it would literally have to be the greatest script in the world in order to make the leap to production. And the greatest script in the world is hard to write. Even our greatest screenwriters couldn’t write the greatest script in the world each time out.