A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
I know you.
You have a new idea. You’re excited.
You’re serious about your career. You’ve followed the rules, heeded the advice of the gurus, and outlined your script. Now you’re ready to write. Right?
I know you, because I mentor students and clients like you all the time. “Enough already with the outlining!” The urge to “get writing” is powerful.
Like so many others proffering advice, you’ve heard me beg writers to outline before they start.
But we may be doing you a disservice.
In our eagerness to convince you to outline, whether we portray it as a cure-all, urge you to respect the centuries-old fundamentals of structure, or offer a specific method, we are falling short. We are failing you.
Caught up in beseeching you to outline, the real point may be lost entirely. Because far too often, advice on outlining focuses on creating a structure. While this is hugely significant – getting from “A” to “B to “Fade Out” is essential – it overlooks the true purpose and potential of outlining.
Outlining is about understanding.
Dutifully outlining your project is not enough:
No matter what system you are using – from index cards to computer apps – you may be missing the point of outlining.
No matter how many beats you have created – from each sequence to every single scene – your outline may still fall short.
No matter how much time you’ve devoted to outlining, you may be losing sight of highest potential of outlining.
Outlining has the potential to enable you to become a truly compelling storyteller.
No more trying to convince you to eat your veggies. Let’s move beyond the idea of outlining, “because I said so,” or “it’s good for you.” It’s time to get specific – to explore the how and why of outlining.
As with everything worth doing well, it’s not merely about getting it done, it’s about creating something of quality.
An outline can be a dozen pages – even two-dozen pages – and still not fulfill its true function.
You may feel pleased to have put in all this work and generated so many pages of outline before starting to write, but don’t fool yourself into thinking size matters.
Quantity is not the benchmark of success in outlining.
More is not only not better; often it’s worse. Overlong outlines are often not a sign of strength, but a red flag that indicates a lack of focus and understanding of the story on its fundamental levels.
I urge all my students to work in my outline template, which is designed to emphasize story fundamentals – first, last and always. It encourages brevity. And I don’t let them write until they truly understand the key dynamics of their story. Even if it means that they are so filled with frustration, my picture is on their dartboard.
In fact, I’d be happy to be in that place of honor. Not because I’m eager to incur their wrath, but because the outline is the foundation of the story.
Shaky foundation = weak story.
Dig Down Deep Before You Build Up
A strong foundation is focused on what matters. It has to be, because it’s holding up the entire damn story.
We often refer to outlines as road maps. That does seem to be their highest purpose, right? To focus on plot. To figure out what happens, where it happens, and when it happens.
While a great map is important, the true power of the outlining lies in going beyond what, where and when to who, how and why. Good old journalism’s Five W’s and an H can build a solid foundation from the ground up.
Who is driving the story? Hopefully, your hero. The questions to be answered are: What drives them? That’s digging into the “who” part of the equation. What must we know about your hero to grasp what makes them tick? Know their flaw – their internal conflict that drives the external conflict. Where they are at the beginning of the story, and how they change over the course of the story. Who they are after experiencing the events of the story, which illustrates the arc of the hero. You need to understand your supporting characters as well, as they can contribute to the message of the story.
How does the story unfold? Now we are talking about tone, genre expectations, juxtaposition of events, escalation of conflict, tension, suspense and twists. Establishing tone, grasping and fulfilling genre expectations, examining the impact one scene has on another, along with the ramifications of their placement in relation to adjacent scenes. Ensuring that one of the fundamental laws of story – conflict drives story – is fulfilled by constantly checking for escalation. Employing tension and suspense, as well as twists and reveals, to create engaging storytelling.
Why does the story unfold the way it does? This one goes straight to the heart of the story – theme. What the story is about. No, not the logline. Not a short pitch. Not a lengthy pitch. The point of the story. The message. What the story has to say about life and being human. The reason we will pay attention. The point made by the arc of the hero. Being able to articulate the heart of the story enables you to make meaningful decisions at every juncture, to create a compelling story.
Focusing on plot is also an opportunity to dig deeper. Do moments push one to the next? Do beats both advance the plot and reveal character? What is the purpose of the scene within the overall story? How is the scene integral to the story? Would the piece still work without this scene?
I find many eager outliners are adding detail but they aren’t adding depth. That requires meaningful detail, not decorative detail. It’s not about just outlining, it’s about using the process to gain a deeper understanding of your story, your genre, your characters, and your theme.
Insignificant detail does not tie directly into the fundamentals of the story. Essential detail stems directly from character and theme. This is what makes storytelling powerful.
Understanding the focus, the function, and the meaning of the building blocks of your story is more important than the sheer number of beats you’ve created.
Don’t give me more. Give me the essentials.
Your Dream House
Let’s try this hypothetical.
I’m going to give you money to build your “Dream House” – not unlimited funds, but let’s say a lot. Enough to build a damn nice house. But there are a few catches. Of course there has to be a catch or two, right?
- You can spend as much time as you like planning the house, even consulting with top experts, but once you have the finalized blueprints, no major changes can be made.
- You have to live in the house. For the rest of your life.
So now let’s think about how much time you would like to devote to the planning phase before construction begins. Figuring out every significant detail: The location, the layout, The placement of walls, doors, and windows. The function of each room. I’m willing to bet you’d spend a lot of time working on those plans.
That’s a lot to envision. You will probably want to consult with some experts in architecture and construction.
Seems like a good idea to do some research. Check out some other houses that you like, perhaps ones that are similar to what you are imagining. See their intriguing elements, their pitfalls, and explore your options. Get some ideas for what you like, what works well, what you might not have thought of.
Figure out how to meet building codes so your house doesn’t fall apart, fall down, or slide down a hill.
Decide which materials you will use. They need to work together, have the strength to hold up the roof, and enhance your home to make it distinctive.
Discover the most functional layout, so there is flow from one part of the house to the next, making it livable.
Know the purpose of each room so it can serve its function effectively.
Plan the windows to create the view you want to show.
Ensure that the house reflects who you are and how you want to live.
Because you’re going to live there forever.
Thanks for playing along.
Because, every script you write is your Dream House.
You are the architect, the builder, the construction worker. You’re going to spend a lot of time and energy on it. And you will be living there for the rest of your career.
Building Your Dream Script
Let’s see how the Dream House Exercise translates to the Dream Script:
Curb Appeal – Any good realtor knows the power of curb appeal. Potential buyers may cruise by and decide not to even stop in, based on a glance. Curb appeal is the strength of your idea to intrigue us. Your unique concept. The hook that draws us in. While your story won’t appeal to all of the potential buyers all of the time, compelling concepts grab industry attention. In your Dream Script, rushing forward without ensuring you have Curb Appeal will lead to being stuck on the marketplace with no sale.
Other Houses – There is lots to be gleaned from the work of others that can save you from learning through painful trial and error. Read other scripts in your genre. See how professional writers handle exposition, build tension, set up reveals, and more. Find prototype films. Watch films in your genre. Learn genre expectations in order to deliver on them in a way that is satisfying to your audience and unique to your story.
Structure – What the gurus have been laying out for centuries. They are the experts who know the necessary architecture to make a story work. Of course, you should study their work, as failure to learn from them could make your Dream House tumble like a house of cards.
Who lives there? Discover your characters so your story fits them and they fit the story. They are inextricably interwoven. You need to know them and how they enhance your story and theme. Their “rooms” should meet their needs and reflect who they are. Or they don’t belong in your story.
The Blueprint – Once you have done your initial homework, you are ready to become the architect of your story. This outline begins with the big beats of structure and progressively adds more steal beams to your foundation. Build from the ground up.
Layout – Rooms = scenes. You need a layout that flows from room to room with scenes that are placed according to their function. Each scene needs to serve a need. Better yet – serve a dual purpose. Each scene must support those on either side of it.
Materials – You will want to use the best materials at every junction: The best dialogue, description, action and subtext to convey your story in a unique and effective manner. Poor materials lead to shoddy workmanship.
Outlets – As your blueprint becomes more detailed, it’s time to consider smaller but highly significant elements. Think about placement of the power outlets in each room. Because: electricity. You’ve got to power each room or you will be showering in the dark and making your morning coffee and toast over an open fire. How will you keep your story charged? Where are the stakes, escalation, twists, reveals? What is the subtext? They power your story forward and keep it charged.
The View – View = point of view. What you are hoping to show us with your story? Therefore, placement of windows counts in the planning phase. What is the focus of the scene? Where are you directing our attention? What is it you want us to see? What’s the subtext? Remember, it’s the placement of the windows, not the curtains. This is big picture thinking, because it stems from knowing what your story is about and what matters in each scene/room. If you’re honing in on the drapery, you are missing the point of the blueprint. You’re being an interior decorator. Time for that later, after you’ve finished building.
You’re going to live there for the rest of you life. – This story should be a unique reflection of who you are, your style, your beliefs. You and only you could have built this story. Who you are and how you want to live = what you want to say. This not only makes your story stand out from the crowd, but when it is a reflection of you, then you’re on your way to becoming a writer with a voice. The industry’s most sought after characteristic. And it makes your piece unique. Story that comes directly from your point of view is distinctive to you and makes your work stand out.
Interior design and landscaping come later. These are the small touches that enhance the whole. They don’t work as an effective starting place in constructing your story. Decorative touches should be the last thing on your mind. They may be very pretty, but they won’t help you make sure the walls hold up the roof rather than letting it crash down on your head.
Have you done all the work necessary to create a script you can spend the rest of your life living with? Once your script goes out into the world, it reflects on you. Forever.
Ready, Set, Stop!
You’ve outlined until you are blue in the face. Time to get going right? Nope.
Stop and examine your outline. Step away and then come back to take a good long look at your plans. Take the additional step of getting outside feedback on your outline. You might not have tried this before – getting feedback in the outline phase – but it is a great way to guarantee that your outline is going to lead to a successful story.
If someone can’t grasp the story and its meaning from the outline – it’s not ready to go. A strong outline can and should provide a reader with everything they need to know to grasp the story – the essential elements. Taking the extra step to get feedback at this juncture can make a huge difference.
It’s a lot quicker and easier to make a change on your blueprint than to go back later and start ripping down walls with a sledgehammer. This happens all too often after a first draft is completed. Tearing down a draft for a Page One rewrite is a major drain of your time and resources. Wouldn’t you rather apply that energy when a significant change is quick and simple? A total reworking is costly and potentially weakens every element as they are all interconnected
Take the time to ensure that your outline will lead to a successful Dream House before you begin to write. Examine it for places where the rain might leak in. Where you need a stairway to get where you’re headed. Where a skylight might make all the difference in shedding some much needed light.
Your outline should work on every level: Plot, character, theme, and storytelling.
The true purpose of outlining is to gain a deep understanding of your story – knowing the characters, their arc, your message. Fully comprehending your story’s fundamental building blocks enables you to create something of real value. Something appealing and functional inside and out. Something that will last.
I make my mentees work in an electronic template that not only forces them to explore these elements before they begin, but those elements pop up at the top of every single page of their outline. They’re hard to ignore when they’re staring you in the face. You can find the template here.
While I was writing this article, by sheer coincidence, I heard from a former student. He had just completed a significant rewrite based on my script notes. He had stripped the piece down to the ground to go back to the outline and build up:
I went back to the template and just wrote one beat per day, and made it the best beat possible. It helped immensely. It opened up my creativity when I took it scene by scene from the template. It helped in seeing the characters as real people who are in the moment, as opposed to seeing them as just a character moving to the next plot point that I’m trying to reach. How would my hero do [blank]? He wouldn’t do it the way someone else would, would he? It made it fun. It made me think of the scene for what it would be and not what I want it to be.
Wow! I’m thrilled at his progress, and I can’t wait to see what happens next for my student.
If you’re still not convinced that writing without outlining is counterproductive, check out what Dr. Paige Turner has to say to writers eager for the freedom of going commando, sans outline.
Outlining for depth and meaning, not just for the sake of creating beats, and you will be creating a solid foundation for your successful Dream Script.
I know you are wishing and hoping and working hard toward building your Dream Script.
I know you.
And I want you to succeed.
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