Posted by: steveonfilm | February 8, 2011

Outlines… Part 2

[DISCLAIMER: This is just the method that works for me. I’ve put it together over the last few years as I’ve studied and experimented with various screenplay theories. I’ll likely continue to change it more as I move on with my screenwriting education. This isn’t the answer for everyone, it’s just a starting point.]

There are a few things that I do before I begin outlining. These serve, in a manner of speaking, as the outline for my outline. The structure for my structure.

Some of these things I’ve only recently started to incorporate into my writing methods. But as I’ve experimented with different theories on screenwriting, I think they’ve added a lot to how I begin to prepare my work.

First, I’ve got to decide on an idea of mine that I’d like to turn into a screenplay. This seems like an obvious first step, but for a lot of people it’s not. They think they can just sit down and start writing. For the purposes of my series of posts on outlining I’m going to use the following example for a script I’ve already written:

“A writer, a computer engineer, and a store owner all lost their son’s in Iraq. Each struggle with the different challenges preventing them from moving on with their lives. After they learn their sons were all killed in the same event, they bond and end up with a deep friendship. This friendship helps them each cope and finally come to terms with their son’s deaths in their own way.”

Notice this is kind of loose and wordy. But you can see it’s a full on concept with somewhat of a recognizable story arc. This is just the idea. Something that can get me started. The end story might not resemble this idea exactly, but it will serve as a starting point to the story.

Second, I try to determine a title. Like the idea, this is by no means set in stone. But it serves a beacon of light for me to look up at. It’s like the tip of a pyramid. For my idea above I decided on the title “One Day At A Time.” To me it just seemed to sum up the overall feeling with how anyone deals with a death in the family. There are never any simple answers. You just deal with it one day at a time. Sometimes the titles come quickly, sometimes they don’t. It’s going to vary by project. But if you can’t come up with a vague idea of a title based on your idea, maybe your idea isn’t strong enough.

Third, and this is a new thing for me, I come up with a log line. I’ve written about this a few weeks ago, but I think Cracking Yarns sums it up best:

What is a logline?

The logline is a single sentence description of your film’s basic story idea in 27* words or less. You might also hear it referred to as the concept or the premise. It’s the concisely written version of what you say when people ask you the question, “So what’s your film about?”.

Putting your concept to this simple, early test can help focus your narrative, gauge potential and save years of wasted effort.

What you’re doing is boiling down your idea into a concise concept/premise for your script. This is the first time you’re going to have to start molding your idea into something you can write a story about. It’s going to force you to start to focus on putting things into a narrative.

There are a bunch of theories on how to put together a proper logline. Each screenwriting theory has a different method. But I think for simplicity’s sake we’ll keep with Cracking Yarn’s formula:

When [flawed hero at start of story] is forced to [call to adventure], he has to [opportunity for emotional growth] or risk [what’s at stake].

So let’s put together a logline for “One Day At A Time.”

The “flawed her at the start of the story” is actually three heros. So we’ll use “three fathers who can’t get over their son’s deaths.”

The “call to adventure” can be “meet in a self help group.”

The “opportunity for emotional growth” could work as “have to learn how to come to terms with death.”

And the “what’s at stake” might be something like “or risk falling deeper into depression.”

So… with what I came up with I’d have something like:

When three fathers who can’t get over their son’s deaths meet in a self help group, they have to learn how to come to terms with death or risk falling deeper into depression.

This is why it can be important to start with a logline, right off the bat I can see a problem. There is a lack of focus, and the call to action and what’s at stake seem a bit ambiguous.

Maybe instead of three fathers, I can concentrate on just one and make him the central character. This way I can wrap the story around him, and use the other fathers as supporting characters. Let’s call him Greg. Already my logline is forcing me to rethink how I’m going to structure things. It’s making me be more concise.

So let’s try this again…

When drug addicted alcoholic Greg is forced into group therapy, he can either come to terms with his son’s death, or risk his life falling to pieces.

That’s a pretty concise summary. It’s less ambiguous. It’s to the point. It’s not the most original spin on this idea. But I think you see how it’s definitely setting me up to tell a story. I’ve now got a central character, and a central source of conflict to play off of.

Now, don’t confuse a logline with a story idea. I don’t have to change my idea. I’m just going to express that idea using my logline as the engine to drive it. There will still be three fathers. There will still be the elements I spoke about in my idea. But Greg is going to be the focus. He’ll be the one that we experience the story with.

These are the first few things I do before starting on a story. When these are done I’m ready to start tackling the outlining process. The cool thing about all this is that as we build on the things we set down with out outline, we’ll learn more and more about whether or not this story is going to work. The idea is to catch problems BEFORE we start actually screenwriting. Each step in the process is supposed to help us identify roadblocks.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steve

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