Question from MichaelSWaters:
I was interested in how long you (or others) think an outline (or treatment) should be before starting a first draft?
Michael, the fact you are asking that question is a good sign about your instincts as a writer. While some writers may not need to do much in the way of prep work, preferring to find the story after they type FADE IN or the first line of their novel, most professional screenwriters I know personally, have interviewed, or have read or heard talking about the craft embrace the idea of ‘breaking the story’ in advance of the actual page-writing part of the process. In fact, working up an outline before going to script is as innate to TV writing as is the snack table.
As to your specific question, there are no rules about minimum page count for an outline or treatment. Every writer is different. Every story is different. If it’s a writing assignment, the needs of the studio or production company will vary. I’ve never had to submit a treatment, beat sheet or outline, always gone in with a detailed take on the material, a pitch-conversation, then gone to draft. That said, I think it’s increasingly common for writers on assignment to work up something on paper and that can often involve multiple drafts going back and forth for comments and revisions.
However I think your question is aimed more at a writer working on a spec project, essentially asking, How can we tell we know our story well enough to type FADE IN?
There’s no set answer to that. For example, screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) says this:
Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper. I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there’s going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it’s like a matrix. I don’t work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts, I page budget. I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that’s appropriate. And I’m rarely more than ten pages off.
That sounds more like a beat sheet approach. Compare to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver):
I know exactly where I’m going beforehand. I know to the half page if I’m on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages.
That looks more like an extensive scene-by-scene outline. In fact, here is an image of one outline page from a script Schrader wrote, Raging Bull:
Some writers, like Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), prefer a more literary approach to prep, working up a treatment:
It [a treatment] is about twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages normally, in paragraph outline, and it has a very conventional three-act structure and it’s my attempt to describe the movie scene-by-scene. If it’s an important movie, I’ll go into some detail about what happens and why. There’s virtually no dialogue in it unless it’s really important to the scene–it’s suggested but I don’t want anybody to pin me down on that. And if it’s a small scene or a sequence of them I might just say “And now there’s a montage” without going into too much detail. But it’s pretty specific; act one, scene one, two, three…
There are even scriptments, long treatments with some script elements, primarily dialogue. You can go here to download the James Cameron scriptment for Avatar.
If you want a ballpark number, Tally’s take on a treatment, “twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages,” is generally where my outlines land: 25-35 pages. Unlike Schrader, I put everything I think is important for each scene into that document: B-M-E (Beginning, Middle, End), Point (What’s the point of the scene, how does it tie into the Plotline and Themeline, moving the story forward), Type (What type of scene it is), Characters (Who are the characters, why are they in that scene, what are their respective goals in that scene), even bits of scene description and dialogue that may have emerged in my prep work, then often a Notes section to remind me of the scene’s function within the broader arc of the narrative, theme, and so forth.
But again, there are no rules. You may be a writer who only needs a beat sheet. Or you may be someone who prefers to work out a scriptment. Find what works for you… and do that.
Two final thoughts.
First, while there may be no specific page count etched in stone to determine when your outline or treatment is ready to take you to draft, you do have this: Your gut. If you check in with your instincts and you can honestly say you are pumped to write the story, not just weary of the prep phase, but really feel like you know it enough to see that story universe and hear those characters, then go for it no matter what you’ve come up with in terms of a prep document.
Second, no matter how much prep work you do, once you type FADE IN, you have to be willing to follow the story where it goes. I call the first draft a ‘journey of discovery’ because even with as much as you have learned about your story through prep, there are things that can only emerge in the actual page-writing part of the process.
That is why it is critical when you finally do type FADE IN, commit yourself to one goal: Get the damn thing done! No stopping. No turning back. Just pound out those pages and get to FADE OUT. Even if what you’re writing feels like utter crap, heed the words of screenwriter Chris Sparling:
No matter what you write, good or bad, it’s an improvement to a blank page.
Readers, how about you? How do you know you’ve developed your story enough to type FADE IN? What type of prep work do you do: Beat sheet, treatment, outline, scriptment?
BTW, I created a 1-week Craft class called Story Summaries which covers Logline, Synopsis, Breakdown, Treatment, Scriptment, and Beat Sheet, not only what they are and how to write them, but also how each can be a valuable tool in your story development process. I’ll be teaching that again sometime 2015. You can access that content immediately as part of the Craft Package.