How I Write A Script, Part 6: Outline

February 13th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Today Part 6: Outline

I start by transcribing the content of the cards into a new Word file called Story Outline.I generally will have written down notes and ideas on the cards related to each scene or beat, so that information goes into the outline as well.

[Note: There are many software programs that exist nowadays that are built for outlining.]

The goal here is to create a blueprint with Scene 1, followed by Scene 2, Scene 3, all the way to the last scene and FADE OUT.The hard work here is to make sure as best as I can that the story tracks and handles all the subplots.A final consideration is to think about the transitions, how to make each shift from one scene and sequence to the next is as smooth and seamless as possible.

Apart from locking down the story’s structure, I also think about every scene, asking a series of questions:

* What is the point of the scene?

* What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and Ending?

* What characters should be in the scene and why?

* What is the conflict in the scene?

* How do I enter / exit the scene?

That can change in the actual writing of the script – as well as scene order – but I like thinking through my scenes in advance.

My outlines can be quite long. I just pulled out one from my files that is 32 single-spaced pages. But then, I like to throw in everything I dredge up for each scene: images, bits of dialogue, Internal World dynamics, transitions, and so on.

Okay, now I want you to take a deep breath and realize something: All that — story concept, brainstorming, research, character development, plotting, and outline — and I haven’t written one word of the actual script. I have found doing the hard work up front — prep-writing — gives me more room for creative thinking in my page-writing process.

Let’s me be clear: I am not saying that every writer has to work this way. Each writer has to find the approach that works for them. For example, Neil Simon eschews outlines:

When I started, I got out the yellow legal pads and I outlined the entire play. Then I started to write the play, and the characters started to want to drift off where they wanted to go. So I pushed them back into the outline, and they say, We don’t like it in this outline, we want to get on another yellow pad. This yellow pad stinks. So I just kept trying to force them there, and I realized I couldn’t do that.

At this point, I don’t make outlines at all. I make an outline only in my mind. If I can say two or three sentences about the play, then I have a play.

That’s as much of an outline as I need, because when I write something I want to be as surprised — and this goes for screenwriting too in terms of the original screenplay — I want to be as surprised as the audience is. If I know everything beforehand, it becomes a job. Just let it happen and see where it takes me.

Okay, that’s one extreme. Conversely, there’s writer-director Paul Schrader, who is known to craft such extensive outlines that he can predict within a quarter-page how long each scene is before he writes it. His take:

Question: Do you still outline it in one page?

PS: Yeah. And then re-outline it. On this one I went right from the outline to the script. But usually, if I have any concerns about whether the idea is really going to work, I then go into a sequential breakdown.

All a sequential breakdown is…. let’s say in an average movie there are anywhere 45 – 55 – 60 things happening. That’s your outline, the list of things that happen. That’s not the list of shots, or the list of scenes and drive-ups, just the things that happen. Like, they meet at the Chelsea Hotel, returns to office, make phone calls, whatever.

So you take each one of those items on your outline and make it into a paragraph. So now you’re starting to include dialogue.

Question: 5 – 8 lines?

PS: Yeah. So now, instead of a one page outline, you have about a 15 page, single-spaced breakdown. And if your idea still survives all of that, then there’s a pretty good chance it ll work. I’ve had idea that have worked at an outline stage, but died at the breakdown stage.

And when an idea dies on you it is, in fact, one of the best things that can happen. Because you’ve just saved yourself an enormous amount of time and grief. Some ideas just don’t want to be written. They don t want to be written by you. Some ideas have fooled you into thinking that they have more power than they, in fact, do. If you find that out after writing a first draft, you’ve wasted a lot of time and you’ve also lost faith in yourself because you believed in something and you couldn’t pull it off.

So two extremes. And a writer must find their own approach, there is no “right” or “wrong,” just what works for you.

That said, I do encourage all aspiring screenwriters to try an immersive prep-writing approach, like the one I’ve laid out so far in these 6 posts, at least once. If it works, great. If not, you’re free to track down Neil Simon and kick it free-style with him.

You can read the complete interview with Paul Schrader here.

Tomorrow Part 7: Script Diary.

5 thoughts on “How I Write A Script, Part 6: Outline

  1. If in the middle of a first draft, you find yourself veering in a new direction, because your characters pulled you there, how do you keep yourself from ignoring the outline you put together?

    Do you limit any veering to a scene or two, and then re-putline to get your bearings, or do you just ignore the outline at that point and follow wherever the muse leads?

  2. Neil Simon’s writing style takes real talent.

    Schrader’s takes slightly less talent.

    My process is this: panic

    All of these approaches take serious commitment and will power. After reading this amazing blog for a few weeks now it’s become clear that the one and only key is to finish what you start no matter how the hell you get there.

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