Sketching in Screenwriting

Screenwriting is a bit of an outlier when it comes to my investigation of sketching and the performing arts. After all, a screenplay by itself isn’t a performance. But it has a lot to teach us about sketching and the structural aspects of service.

Practically all the techniques I’ve outlined in this series have focused on sketching at the level of a service encounter. Moment concepts. Localized interactions. What I love about screenwriting is that it focuses on holistic narratives. Screenwriting is one of the best avenues I’ve discovered for learning how to sketch the arc of a customer journey at the macro-level.

Beat sheets are probably the most important technique to understand when it comes to sketching the structure and cadence of a narrative. A “beat” is the smallest unit of story telling in a screenplay. It describes a particular development. Taken together, all the beats in a story form a beat sheet.

From a service design perspective, you might think of the customer journey as unfolding like the narrative in a screenplay. Each service encounter is a beat; each moment of truth is an individual step in the arc of the story.

The point of writing a beat sheet is to get a clear sense for how the story will flow. You’re not trying to sell the story to an outsider; you’re just trying to grasp the story all at once. That’s why I see beat sheets as a form of sketching. They’re not about showing, telling, explaining or convincing. Beat sheets support exploration into the structure of the narrative.

You really need to see a few examples before the technique makes sense. A website called Beat Sheet Central serves as a hub for prototypical beat sheets and step outlines from popular films. They’re mostly written after the fact as a learning exercise but it’s a good way to understand the basic approach.

Stepping back a little further we can map out the structure of an entire collection of self-contained narratives.

The image at the beginning of this post is from the short-lived television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It’s a picture of the “show board” at a sketch comedy program modeled off of Saturday Night Live. Each week they start with a blank slate and as the skits develop the head writer uses the board as a tool to visualize the overall structure of the program.

Each index card represents a particular comedy sketch, with color codes for particular writers and structural cues for commercial breaks. It’s something that shouldn’t be too foreign to designers. Just substitute Post-it notes and you’re set.

This type of sketching persists in analog form rather than digital (even in fields outside of design) because it supports collective inquiry and exploration. Marc Rettig speaks to this in his 2004 presentation Atoms are Better than Bits [PDF 1.7MB].

To give you an idea about how this might apply to service design consider the checkout encounter at a retail store.

Traditionally cash wrap is separate from shopping. If you were mapping it, checkout would probably be one of the last index cards on the wall. It’s a terrible location. But being able to grasp the entire journey at once might inspire the team to ask, “what if we tried moving that card around?”

It’s a painless way to experiment with the structure. And who knows? It might lead to instant checkout.

Of course screenwriting isn’t only about the structural perspective. I love watching the DVD featurettes for my favorite television programs because they sometimes give a glimpse into the creative process.

For example, the second season of Deadwood on HBO shows a typical writing session with David Milch. The rest of the writers are gathered around and he’s lounging on the floor vocalizing lines of dialog. Someone is transcribing his stream of consciousness on an HDTV and it’s clearly a sketching process. As quickly as he can experiment with different versions of the performance the unseen transcriptionist is able to update the dialog onscreen. It’s amazing to see the words jump around with such fluidity.

That type of parallel note-taking is something that I’ve written about before in the context of choreography and film but this is different because the notes feed back in real time and influence the sketching. It’s a little like graphic facilitation.

The final concept I want to explore deals with sequential art. Comicboarding [PDF 352k] is a technique by Microsoft Research for co-creating narratives with children. The research team developed several variations of comic boards that presented a simple narrative with blank frames so that participants could complete the story with their own details.

The researchers tried a few different approaches. Some consisted of comics with original artwork and blank word balloons. Others began with a few frames of an existing comic before transitioning to blank pages. The most successful example used the beginning and ending of an existing comic to constrain the narrative with a series of blank frames in the middle.

I wonder whether a similar type of scaffolding approach might work for co-creation sessions within service design.

With comicboarding the idea is to give the participants something to start with in order to overcome the “tyranny of the blank page.” The comic serves as a point of departure. But there are many ways to do this. Photographs or a short film could help set the stage or even a brief skit. Urban planners sometimes begin co-creation sessions by leading a group tour of the community. Something to spark a collective appreciation of the domain.

Ultimately screenwriting is most valuable for service designers as a way to think about how to sketch the structure of an encounter at a scale beyond the individual touchpoint.

It’s widely held within the screenwriting community that good screenplays are all about structure. William Goldman explores this thesis in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. In many ways service design follows the same pattern. Good service design isn’t really about the design of touchpoints, it’s about the relationship between touchpoints. It revolves around structure.

Screenwriting offers a compelling way to question and explore that structure while inventing new relationships.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Choreography
Sketching in Music
Sketching in Film
• Sketching in Theater


  1. Enric

    For those interested in the movie side of screenwriting, I would highly recommend Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast http://www.creativescreenwriting.com/podcasts/main.html. He does a fantastic job at interviewing the scriptwriters behind the best Hollywood movies, drilling down on their process for writing, ways to improve the stories through iteration, team dynamics when there is more than one scriptwriter, etc..

  2. Jeff

    Hi Enric, thanks for the link. I’ll definitely check it out.

  3. Your post reminded me of a section in Erin Malone’s fascinating keynote she gave at an Information Architecture conference recently:

    http://www.emdezine.com/deziningInteractions/2010/05/14/the-future-is-already-here-three-trends-in-ia/

    Brenda Laurel, an early experience design practitioner, who studied theater as well as computers, uses improv and acting to show designers and engineers how to think about the people that use their products and services. She shows them how to use enactment and acting to inform design.

    There are at least two reasons, Laurel writes, for considering theatre as a possible foundation for thinking about and designing experiences:

    “First, there is significant overlap in the fundamental objective of the two domains — that is, representing actions with multiple agents. Second, theatre suggests a basis for a model of human-computer activity that is familiar, comprehensible, and evocative.”

    While the actor uses empathy to perform dramatic characters in scripted situations, the designer uses empathy to perform design solutions that are drawn from deep identification with real, individual people in specific situated contexts in the real world. Brenda Laurel, Design Improvisation essay in Design Research Methods and Perspectives, 2003

    Techniques like body storming, scenarios and storytelling are tools we already have to act out these new experiences.




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