Posted by: steveonfilm | February 25, 2010

On Outlines…

As I’ve progressed as a writer, I’ve learned to take different bits and pieces of the several techniques I’ve read about and make them my own. A painter isn’t born with the knowledge of how chiaroscuro works, they study the masters, copy their techniques, and eventually change them into their own. Writing is no different.

One area that I’ve found myself concentrating on significantly over my last screenplay (Served Cold) and my current screenplay (Pride is Forever) is the outline. For some people, using simple notes cards with a high level concept is enough to go on. They can outline an entire act in fourteen sentences, and then start writing. For others, significantly more details is needed to prepare themselves. Sometimes pages and pages of notes before they can begin writing. I’m somewhere in the middle.

Maybe it’s because I do a lot of project management in my real world job, maybe it’s because I’m an abstract thinker due to my significant arts background, regardless of the reason, I start with high level ideas and then drill down to detailed ideas. It’s not until I’ve been able to accomplish both that I can then shift into producing mode (be it writing a specification document at work, or a screenplay at home).

I’ve found, through trial and error, I’m most effective once I shift into screenwriting mode (meaning I’m actively writing the screenplay) when I’ve already brainstormed through scenes and sequences at the detail level. I don’t like to be faced with having to come up with how a scene or sequence plays out while I’m staring at a blank page. I like to know what I’m going to write before I start typing. Once I begin typing, I will go with what feels like it’s working, even if that means varying from what I had sketched out. But I still need that anchor, that base, that detail that I’ve already developed for myself before I start writing.

Here is an example of what I’m referring to. In Act Two B the following beat occurs right in the middle:

8. Doug confronts Victoria. Gives her the book. She agrees to see him.

Now, for some people this is enough to start writing. For me it’s not. I have to think about it. Play with it in my head. Get down some exploratory dialog. Maybe some action description. Whatever. I need to keep playing around until I’m confident that I’ve grasped the overall picture of what the scene or sequence needs to be. This isn’t what everyone needs to do, it’s just what I need to do.

Here is the same beat with my detailed outline notes after it:

8. Doug confronts Victoria. Gives her the book. She agrees to see him.

That night Doug rolls up to the “Wood Grove” apartment complex. He gets out and walks up to the apartment and knocks. Victoria yells through the door, “Who is it?” “It’s Doug.”

She opens the door, but keeps the chain lock on. She asks, “How did you find me?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m here to to say goodbye.”

Victoria doesn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what happened between us. Why you couldn’t talk to me. Why you just left without saying anything. You’re all I can think about. Every time I cross that finish line I look into the stands hoping to see you there. And it crushes me every time you aren’t.”

“Doug I–”

“Stop. There’s nothing to talk about. If this is what you need to do, then I’ve just got to respect that and move on. I realized that on my way here. There was never an us. There was just a you, and a me. And I was stupid to think otherwise. Here.”

Doug gives her the book.

“Just because you’ve got to keep moving, doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up on your dreams. If we don’t have our dreams, what else is there. Goodbye.”

Doug turns and walks away, Victoria shuts the door. A moment later she opens it and runs out, leaping into his arms. They kiss passionately.

Now, is this the exact way the scene will go? No. Is this the dialog that will make it into the script? No. Is this the general concept for how the scene will go? Yes. And that’s the goal. I can tinker with things now, before I start writing the screenplay, and modify them much faster, and much more efficiently. In addition, I’m not as intimidated to practice and explore an idea or concept as I would if I was actually writing. In other words, I’ve found I’m much more likely to play it safe once I’ve already started writing than while I’m still working on the outline.

An outline is just a tool that gives the writer whatever they need to start working on their screenplay. There are no rules or specifications that an outline must meet. It’s just a tool for the screenwriter. Do with it as you may.

Until next time, keep writing!


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