PRIMETIME: Really… Do I HAVE to Outline?

Today’s question comes from Aneasha, a young writer who’s busy working on spec scripts as she tries to break into the industry.  Aneasha writes…

I’m better at writing an actual script than developing an outline.  My outlines don’t always come though like I want them to read, but I have it in my head for the script.  So, does an outline always have to be written?  Do I need to learn to write my outline more detailed?  Do you have to stick closely to that outline when you write that script?  I find I do best if I make a rough sketch of an outline when I write, but I deviate from it whenever I feel the need.  It’s never detailed and I see it as a base that can grow and change during the process.  Do I need a different attitude when it comes to writing TV scripts?

First of all, Aneasha, here’s the good news…

You’re not alone.

Outlining can be a confusing, frustrating, and—let’s be honest—often boring process for many writers.  After all, the actual writing is the fun part—letting your characters live, breathe, speak, conflict, fight, love; that’s what every writer lives for… especially when characters and stories come to life and start behaving in their own exciting, unexpected ways.

Now, here’s the bad news…

About 90 percent of script-writing is outlining.

(Actually, I take that back… I’m gonna say about 60 percent is outlining… 30 percent is rewriting… and 10 percent– or less– is actual “writing.”)

House blueprint pencil drafting outline

You wouldn't begin building a house without an infallible blueprint... so why begin a script?

Not only do most professional writers spend much more time writing outlines than writing scripts, but this is how most showrunners run their writers rooms.  You might spend days or even weeks breaking a certain episode (outlining it), then have only a couple days to write the actual script.

Thus, outlines on TV shows tend to be INCREDIBLY detailed.

I’m currently writing a half-hour comedy pilot for 20th Century Fox; the script, when finished, will be between 30 and 40 pages.  Yesterday, however, I turned in the third draft of my outline—which was 13 pages… almost half of the script’s eventual total length.  It contains bits of dialogue, jokes, detailed stage directions, step-by-step action moments…basically, whatever it takes to convey to the studio execs precisely what to expect in the script.

Of course, when writing a pilot, you don’t usually have a team of professional writers to help beat everything out.  But when you’re on staff, writing an actual episode, you have an army of pros at your side… and they won’t let you go off and write until that outline is ROCK-SOLID.  Some are almost full scripts, including nearly every line of dialogue, and the writer’s job is simply to type it into Final Draft and smooth it out.

Also—once you’re off and writing, you can not usually deviate from the outline.  At least—not without consulting your showrunner (assuming you’re on staff).  Remember—you’re not writing on a TV show to tell stories you want to tell; you’re writing on a TV show to tell stories the showrunner, or the series creator, wants you to tell.  Especially as a low-level staff writer, your job is to push where told to push, pull when told to pull.  Staff writers who don’t do this end up fired pretty quickly.

Also–

Outlines go through an extensive approval process before you begin writing.

I've never worked on "Cougar Town." But I'd bet my kid's college fund Bill Lawrence is a great outliner.

I've never worked on "Cougar Town." But I'd bet my kid's college fund Bill Lawrence is a great outliner.

Let’s say you write on “Cougar Town,” and the staff has just finished beating out, or outlining, the episode you’ve been assigned to write.  Before you begin writing, that outline is sent to the production company, who will undoubtedly have notes, suggestions, and changes for you and the showrunner.  Once you implement those notes and the production company approves the outline, it will be sent to the TV studio in charge of the project.  They’ll have their own notes and changes.  Once you’ve implemented those, the outline goes to the network which airs the show.  They’ll have their own notes and changes, possibly even contradicting the studio and production company.  Once you make their changes, and the outline is approved, then you can begin writing.  At this point, you may only have a couple days to write the entire script.

When writing a pilot, you may not report to a showrunner, but you certainly report to network and studio executives.  Because you’re  theoretically the show creator, you have a little more flexibility in deviating from your outline… but if you’re making big changes—altering the plot, adding or eliminating major characters—you should definitely consult your execs first.  The last thing you want to do is blind-side them with a revamped story they’re not expecting.

Of course, after you turn in your “Writers Draft,” the first draft of a script, it will go through many, many rewrites.  If you’re writing on a show, these rewrites may be done by you alone, or they may be done by the staff or showrunner.  Some showrunners, like David Kelley and Aaron Sorkin, or notorious for rewriting every word their writers turn in.  This is not a slap in the face or a comment on the script’s original writer, it’s just the way these showrunners work; they’re the visionaries of their shows, and they like to rewrite everything that comes to them.

If you’re writing a pilot, you’ll probably do most of your rewrites yourself.  Sometimes, however, other writers are brought on board.  When I was an exec, we occasionally hired writers to do page-one rewrites of someone else’s pilot.  (This was rare, but it happened.)  And often, especially with comedies, writers hold “punch up sessions,” organizing ad hoc writers rooms to rewrite, tighten, and improve a script before shooting the actual pilot.  The professional, highly experienced writers who participate work for free, usually in hopes of landing a permanent staff gig if the project goes to series.

Anyway, Aneasha, I hope this helps… without discouraging you.  But the truth is: while outlining may not be “fun,” I think you’ll find that if you commit the time and energy to preparing a really solid outline, your writing and storytelling will grow exponentially.

Thanks for the question… keep reading (and writing)… and for anyone else with thoughts or questions, please send them to chad@chadgervich.com!

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