by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
I recently had the opportunity to test drive a new outlining tool for screenwriters called Prewrite. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty great.
(Full disclosure: I am not being paid for this review and I don’t get any sort of kickbacks if you sign up. I was, however, given a free lifetime membership in exchange for checking Prewrite out, providing feedback on the features, and giving my unbiased review.)
Going into this review, I was skeptical. I’ve written more than a dozen feature screenplays at this point, and I’ve got my own way of doing things. Once I’m ready to start planning out a story, I begin with a free-writing doc where I just let every idea that comes to me spill onto the page. Then I start making choices and refining until I have a five- to seven-page beat sheet. I copy and paste my beats right into my writing program and then, as I write each scene, I delete the beats. That way my screenplay is at least five pages long before I’ve written a single scene, which feels nice, and I always know what’s next, because the outline is right there in my script.
So when I opened up Prewrite, I didn’t like the idea that this program was going to force me into it’s way of outlining. But that’s not what it did. Instead, it turned out that Prewrite worked very well with my style of outlining, allowing me to work the way I like while offering additional tools to supplement my outlining and organization process.
How Prewrite Works
The first thing Prewrite asks you to do when starting an outline is create a new Story. The only thing you have to choose at the start is your title. Beyond that, you can input your story’s logline, genre, and themes. You can also select a picture to serve as the main image of your story – your poster of sorts – and you don’t have to select something from your computer (but you can if you want to). Prewrite is connected to a free photo website called Unsplash, so you can do a search directly in Prewrite for an appropriate photo and make that your featured image. Easy peasy.
Next you can start adding characters. Again, the only thing you have to choose is a character name, but you can also add their gender and age, you can pick an archetype for that character, and you can search a database of actor photos powered by The Movie Database – again, directly in Prewrite – to give your character a clear look and voice (or upload your own photos). You can also include details about what your character wants and what they need – all very helpful things to figure out during the outlining phase.
Once you’ve got your characters set – a step you can skip, if you choose – you can start outlining. To do that, you simply click on the Timeline button and start creating scene cards. Again, all you need to input is the most basic of basics – the slugline. But you can also include what happens in the scene, your notes on the scene, which characters are in it, any plot threads that come up in the scene, and the emotional value of the scene.
I particularly enjoyed that last feature and used it to track how my main character was feeling at the end of each scene. By the end, I had a clear chart of when he was up and when he was down and could better visualize his internal journey.
When adding plot details, you even have the option to change the formatting from “action” to “character” or “dialogue,” among other options. This means that if you have a bit of dialogue you know you want in there, you can add it to your outline and it will show up appropriately formatted when you export to Final Draft. In theory, you could write your whole script in Prewrite, but that’s definitely not recommended, as it would be a cumbersome process.
You can also add an image from Unsplash for each scene, giving you a sort of linear mood board of your entire script, if you’d like.
And if there are any features you don’t want to use when creating scenes, you can hide them, giving yourself only the information you find helpful. This feature is key, because if you input all the information that you can possibly input in Prewrite, you’re almost certainly going to end up putting off actually writing your script longer than you need to. So the flexibility to only use the features you find truly useful is excellent.
Once I created a new scene card for each of my beats, I could look at my story in the horizontal timeline mode or see it as index cards or in a vertical page view. You can also head over to your story’s stats page and see which of your characters gets the most scenes, your character gender breakdown, how many scenes are in each of your acts, and other useful visualizations.
And when you’ve got your story all figured out and ready to write, you can export your outline as a Final Draft file. This is currently the only way to export Prewrite outlines, but if you don’t use Final Draft, that shouldn’t actually be a problem, because basically every other screenwriting software allows you to import Final Draft files. I was able to take my exported Final Draft file from Prewrite and import it into Fade In. The result was a beat sheet with sluglines exactly like I normally use. Only now I also had all the extra character information and images in Prewrite to refer back to, as well.
Not Just for Outlining
Prewrite is a new service and still evolving, and new features are showing up all the time. In fact, they may need to rename the service, because one new feature makes Prewrite an excellent tool for rewriting, too.
This new feature lets you upload a Final Draft file or a PDF of an exiting screenplay and parse it into outline form. When you upload the script, Prewrite will break it down and go through it with you, scene by scene, asking the same story questions that it does when you’re making your scene cards – what story beats does this scene cover? what characters are in this scene? what is the emotional value of the scene?
You end up with a breakdown of your script that makes it much easier to spot where a plot thread disappears, when the pacing is off, when a character goes unchallenged for too long, et cetera, et cetera.
Definitely Worth a Try
All in all, I’m a big fan of Prewrite and will continue to use it as I plot out new ideas and as I rewrite existing scripts.
The one thing I don’t love about it is the pricing model. I wish it was available for a flat fee instead of a monthly or annual payment. But the good thing is that you can create your first outline (with limited features) with a free account. Prewrite also offers a 15-day no questions asked money back guarantee.
It’s absolutely worth trying, whether you’re writing your first feature or your seventeenth pilot. To learn more and to sign up, visit prewrite.com.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.