BALLS OF STEEL: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition and PAGE Awards TV Pilot Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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On a recent Scriptchat, Corey Mandell was our guest. When the subject of outlining came up, Corey chimed in that of the three specs he sold, one he outlined, the other two he didn’t. He believes writers should develop the critical conceptual and intuitive skills to be able to explore different writing approaches to see what works best for them. A friendly debate about whether to outline or not quickly began amongst the participants. Apparently, we’re all pretty opinionated and defensive about our outlining processes.

I actually found myself feeling I needed to apologize to the writers for being an outliner.

tips for outliningLet’s start this post off with a bit more honesty, shall we? A confession, so to speak. Sure, why not? I’ll go first…

While I love the value of an outline, I loathe starting new projects.

I have dozens of amazing ideas I’m bursting to write, but the thought of starting something from scratch, knowing it’s going to take months to get the first draft down, revs up every procrastination mechanism I know, and some I’ve never thought of before, but by damn, they work too.

I’ll pay lip service to a new project for months before I actually start. I need to digest it, mull it over, jot notes on little pads, big pads, on my iPhone, and in my laptop. I’m a note hoarder.

It usually takes some form of public humiliation to make me plug my nose and dive into the vomit pile of scribblings I’ve created and find the story that is buried inside. Last week, I did it to myself in Balls of Steel: Screenwriting Career Outlook and the Happiness Meter, by declaring a goal with Brad Johnson to finish the outlines of our new stories by July 12th.

I hate you Brad.

I said I was going to start that day. I lied. I didn’t start the next day either. I started on Saturday. Or was it Sunday? Whatever. All that matters is I did start! WOOHOO!

Then I stopped.

What is my problem, you ask? With close to 20 pages of research and notes, I was simply overwhelmed. I also set the bar too high on what I could accomplish in one day. Yep. Once I put my mind on a task, I can be a bit OCD.

Then it hit me. I can do this. A mere 20 pages in a Word doc was nothing compared to the 400+ pages in the Slavery by Another Name book I had to sort through while writing its narrative adaptation.

I got this!

My normal process is logline, synopsis, outline, new logline, draft one, new synopsis, rewrite, feedback, rewrite, rewrite, feedback, rewrite…

I’m suddenly seeing why I hate starting scripts… the beginning of the endless writing process. If I was going to get my head in the game, I needed a new way to look at this beast of a task. I needed to make it fun.

Pulling up my notes, I restarted my new story by jotting a quick logline to get me focused. Then I did a stream of consciousness word vomit of how I envisioned the protagonist’s journey. I forgot how much fun it is to unleash your mind of the bridles and run free.

Time to outline.

Over the years I took advice from varying screenwriting experts and created an outlining grid to help me find plot points and merge them with character development (note: you can download a free copy of what I use here). But this story has so many layers, I needed a fresh way to approach it. I needed to rip it down to an even more basic level and add layers one at a time.

I need the simplicity of 3×5 index cards.

When I was working on SBAN rewrite at Doug Richardson’s, he had me use index cards on a board to restructure the script. I had never done that before. I liked it… a lot. No time like the present to pluck them off my wall and toss up a fresh set for the new, shiny story.

Armed with a stack of clean cards, and too-few thumbtacks, I pulled up my Word doc and just started jotting down notes on cards, putting them in a stack. Some were detailed, others were vague. If I didn’t have a specific plot point in mind, I noted, “Write something really cool here for her to get out of this jam,” and I moved on to the next.

The point is, don’t get stuck on having to be detailed. Just get something on the page/index card. Something to feel forward movement. Give yourself permission to not have all the answers at this stage.

I haven’t made it through the 20 pages yet, but the story is starting to come together. I’ve even taken a few of those cards and tossed them in a “most likely will delete” pile because they weighed the story down.

Once I get through the pages of notes I have, I’ll post the cards on the board, tossing those that are compelling, adding more to fill in the holes, and switching up the order when the pace demands. That’s the plan anyway. It may change, as it should.

The most important part about outlining is not getting stuck in it. Just like you need to know when a script is finished, you need to know when to stop playing in outline land and write the damn thing.

One lesson I have learned over the years is no two scripts are written with the same process. At least not for me. Each time you write a new script, you learn something new about the craft and about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Be flexible.

Maybe even throw out the outline all together. I know plenty of novelists who never outline. They let their characters decide their fate. Granted, novelists have a lot more freedom than screenwriters do, as they can crawl in their characters’ heads and write their thoughts with no page limitations.

Since I love to experiment in my writing, I wanted to see what it felt like to craft a story with no roadmap, or at least a very minimal one. So, a few years ago, I took on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I learned a hell of a lot about my characters by setting them free.

But the reality is, as screenwriters, we do have some rules we can’t break, and the page count is one of them. Staying on track with an outline really does help your script from turning into a novel; at least it does for me.

My gut is, for most artists, outlining feels like shackles, so we resist. But outlines don’t have to stifle your creativity.

That’s why I do the stream of consciousness writing at varying stages of outlining. It’s a lot easier to whip out a Word doc and let my thoughts ramble for 30 minutes to find my way in my story than it is to write 30 pages of script, only to toss it after. I just write wild, serving my inner rebel, continually asking “what if?” until I come up with something that jazzes me, giving me goosebumps. Then back to the outline I go.

Another reality is you may not come up with the right idea for a scene or a turning point while you’re in the outline mode. Why? Because you don’t know your story and characters the way you will a few months from now when you’re writing the hell out of those scenes.

So at some point, you need to stop outlining and write.

Bottom-line, come up with a system that works for you. Don’t let someone make you feel you have to do it one way or another. But be flexible. Try a new way. With each story you start, implement a system you haven’t tried before.

For example, Brad Johnson wrote about sequencing in yesterday’s Specs & The City. Over the next four weeks he’s going to take us through the sequences of Toy Story. Believe me, I’m taking notes and will try applying some of his techniques into this outline.

I don’t hate you anymore, Brad.

Some seasoned writers are so intuitive they can do mental outlining, crafting an outline while driving, marketing, eating, running, etc. They have no need to formally write it down, they can simply pull up their software and start. I can guarantee you I will never be that kind of writer. My memory left my body when I birthed my kids. You mom writers know what I’m talking about. Placentas are memory snatchers.

Every writer is different. But one thing remains the same for all of us – if we don’t start a story, it will never get written. Do what you have to do to get your story out, even if it’s vomit. Break it. Give yourself a roadmap. But don’t be afraid to go off road. Get dirty. What’s the worst that happens? You throw the scenes or index cards away, or tuck them into a nice file on your laptop to use in another story.

I’m mixing up my system in hopes of finding one that makes starting a new script fun for me. That’s the only way I’ll get over my procrastination of beginning projects. I’ll let you know what process I ended up using once I have the outline done.

In the meantime, toss me some ideas of how you start your stories. Do you outline? Do you run wild? What gets you into the zone?

The reason Brad and I chose July 12th as our deadline date is because we both work full time. We set a realistic goal for ourselves. Why not join us? Maybe we’ll even set public goals for first drafts along the way too.

Hmm, I spy a potential ScriptMag writers’ group in formation. Maybe I’ll make a Facebook group, or a hashtag, or… see how easy it is for me to find ways to procrastinate?

Back to outlining!

400x400_10steps_mediumGet outlining tips in our On Demand Webinar
10 Steps to a Bullet-Proof Outline… Before You Start Writing Script Pages

8 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script

  1. Steele_Bob

    Hi Jeanne, I’m a relatively new writer, especially regarding screenplays. As such, I am very much a work in progress. I enjoyed a long and progressively successful career as a technologist (systems, computer & electrical engineering) and eventually as the CEO of several hi-tech companies. I spent 20+ years working for U.S. Government Agencies (NASA, NOAA) and the Departments of State (DOS) and Defense (DOD). Essentially, my career evolved around designing and implementing real-time, mission critical systems. Rigorous adherence to safety and operational procedures was engrained in my academic and professional training. Mistakes had the potential to cause the loss of millions (even hundreds of millions) of dollars, or worse yet, loss of life. Comprehensive (at times exhaustive) research and thorough documentation was standard operating practice. Like the saying goes in the Gov’t, you can’t take a shit without a plan.

    I was able to evolve from hands-on engineering positions to engineering management and executive level management as a result of my ability to write plans and present briefings to the top brass. I wrote thousands of pages of technology, operations, and strategic planning reports, as well as proposal responses to RFPs. For example, while working for Boeing, I became the “Technical Volume” manager for a multibillion dollar Mission Operations proposal for NASA. We had more than 100 program management and engineering personnel writing sections of the tech volume. The process took more than 18 months. The Tech Vol was limited to a maximum of 250 pages, which we duly submitted. However, we also submitted more than 3,000 pages of appendices. How’s that for a workaround.

    By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why the hell I’m telling you all of this. Here’s the point, we would never have been able to develop that proposal without heavy reliance on storyboards and outlining. The Tech Vol and all of the appendices were developed through very detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) outlines.

    By the way, we used to have a daily “stand up” 10 minute limited status meetings every morning at 8:00 AM with 50 – 100 people. The Boeing Senior VP who was the overall proposal manager held the meeting in a large room with no chairs. The walls were lined with color coded storyboard pages describing each proposal subsection. [He had the doors locked at the start of the meetings and tardy folks were not let in regardless of position. It led to some pretty embarrassing mornings for some of the senior managers and VPs.]

    It was one hell of a learning experience. I/we had to take a week long proposal writing class before being allowed to work on a proposal management team. In the final six months, we routinely worked 7-day/12-hour schedules. Ah, the good ole days!

    I started working on my current “high concept” sci-fi/drama/suspense/action script last year. In February, I quit my day job and declared myself officially retired from business so that I could write full-time. I used Excel spreadsheets to capture detailed storyline elements and character profiles. I had ~ 30 pages of hand written notes and 20 pages of Word document notes. This was before I started writing my first draft last week. I expect to complete a solid first draft in the next 5 weeks. For this script, I have also started developing index cards via Movie Magic Screenwriter. It’s not a smooth (efficient) process yet, but I should have it down by the time I complete my next script (spy thriller/action story from a novel I worked on many years ago).

    Sorry about the lengthy diatribe. Can’t seem to help myself. Writers write, right?

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Fantastic! I would definitely have been one of those locked out of the room. 😉 Love that idea though (not the locking but the standing up). It’s great that you’re taking your business lessons into your creative process. Bravo!

  2. Larry the sci-fi writer guy

    My scripts are 90-95 page first drafts that have won, placed or been top finalists in 18 screenwriting contests, all based in LA. I never rewrite. How does a first draft win a contest? I think and plan, plan, plan, before I write Fade In. I outline by drawing 90 little boxes in a row across 2 pieces of paper. Each box represents I page of the script. I notate what happens on each page. At key moments I name the corresponding page with the emotion I want the audience to feel, i.e. fear, outrage, suspense, etc. This method works for me, so I’m sticking with it.

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    1. mrbedford28

      I have adult ADD and so my sense of structure is a little bit skewed from what I’d say is considered the norm (but what’s the norm anyway?). I very much have to get in there and throw the concept around in final draft. I don’t really outline extensively, but I do take extensive handwritten notes as I’m getting that first draft down. It’s part of my ADD, but I have to be completely unrestricted and be able to follow those random thoughts that pop up. It can be exhausting this way though, and results in lots of time staring at blank pages when the juices just aren’t flowing. And does result in a lot of fully written scenes that end up getting binned. But like the piece says, everyone swears by their process!

  5. Nicholas Coates

    I usually start my stories with a few key scenes. Usually, that’s the ending, maybe the opening, and a few big moments (outer or inner). Initially, I use a legal pad since it gives me the freedom to write dialogue, or go off on tangents, as new ideas interrupt before the prior one is finished. If I want to get into it, I continue in free form on a large white pad, maybe 16×20 or even 24×36. I can start and stop between multiple ideas and use arrows to connect. Circles with a note to go back to it later. “what if” or “alternate,” scenarios. Seeing it all on one huge page makes it more immersive in the early/amorphous stages. It’s very effective for my production and getting me “into” the story. With enough major scenes, I continue to the outline/3×5 stage (a combined step for me). These multicolored scenes/cards will have large gaps, but there’s a beginning and an end. Then I think about which characters will experience these scenes/events and what happened to them in-between. Multicolored 3x5s help me visualize/track individual character arcs, character time spent overall, and the story’s overall momentum, (based on where each character is emotionally, in a point in time). It also helps me visualize crosscutting during action sequences. Keeping the 3×5 full size or cutting it to say, 4 lines in depth, can give an impression of scene length and if they are an efficient length maintaining the viewers interest, as well as hitting structured plot points

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