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Constructing a Screenplay: The Outline


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If you enjoyed my entry on how to start writing a screenplay, you may have devised a logline for your next piece and be looking for ways to take the next step of the writing process.


Thankfully, I am here. And I really like telling people what to do.


So, I wanted to expand on my previous advice. As I wrote in my previous entry, screenwriting is about saying a little with a lot. That is to say, being clear and distinct with your purpose and specific with your execution.


I suggested that composing a logline is a good place to start, and determined that the key to a good logline is capturing the moment a given state of affairs begins to be effected by the events of the screenplay. Now, I want to explain how that state of affairs can be fleshed out, and specifically, how action can be used to extrapolate on it.


To do this, I would recommend creating an outline. Since you have likely already done your free, exploratory writing, you probably have a good sense of the stagnant details of your piece: your main character's personality, your magic system, your conflict, etc. It's time to bring them to life.


I imagine that, like my suggestion to eliminate camera references from your screenplay, many will viscerally reject my suggestion to outline because it seems too rigid. I can understand this: outlining can sometimes feel like plugging in values to a formula of someone else's making.


I invite you to try think of your outline, not as a chore, but rather as a significantly creative and invigorating step in your journey toward narrative satisfaction. It may not be the most artistically gratifying step for you, and that's okay. But if you hate to outline, I hope that by the time you finish reading this article, you are able to reevaluate the perspective that makes you dislike this step so strongly. If outlining feels too constraining, I'd like to show you that it can be liberating. If it seems too plot-oriented for your taste, I want you to realize that it is within your power to write a character-centric outline.


When creating an outline, a writer can certainly rely on a traditional structure, but personally, I don't think it's necessary. All you're really looking for is an apparatus by which to control the tension of each part of the story and to tie all the consistent strands of your story together by the end. Using a tried-and-true method like "the hero's journey," the five-act structure, or the eight sequence structure is a totally valid way of identifying the tension and making it as dramatic as possible.


But I hardly think outlining needs to be as clinical as all that. You could, for instance, imagine that you are gathered around a fire, telling your story to other people. You wouldn’t use action lines and slug lines in such a situation, but you would instead create the impression of all the smaller acts happening between the lines. "And then the warrior slayed the dragon, and the village celebrated her heroism with a feast," is just as valid a point in an outline as "Midpoint: MC kills monster, townsfolk get drunk, another monster kills them in their sleep."


Bear in mind: the latter example is likely not going to satisfy your desire to tell your story once you get started: you will inevitably flesh out your outline, sketching out important scenes, going back and changing things you've already written. Certain moments in your outline will attract your attention, and you will inevitably spend more time and effort on the beats that you find the most attractive and interesting.


Likewise, while the former example might seem more free-flowing and less rigid, it will inevitably follow a few recognizable beats that make a traditional story: a protagonist, a complication, a resolution, yadda yadda. Additionally, someone writing a less traditionally structured outline will have to rework it an indefinite number of times before they feel it is ready to be written.


That is to say, these methods will likely end up looking pretty similar to each other: the difference is personal but not particularly profound in terms of outcome. The important thing is that you are coming to understand the motions of which your screenplay consists.


If you are starting with a logline for the first time and are not sure where to go, I suggest starting small. Pick a single beat that appears in your logline that you feel you have a decent grasp on. For instance, take this hypothetical logline: "Nina has stage fright, but a chance encounter with an old friend encourages her to try out for the school play."


There are three beats built right into this logline: 1. Nina meeting her old friend, 2. Nina being inspired to try out for the school play, 3. Nina trying out for the play.


Believe it or not, that's a lot to work with. You can flesh out a few moments you know will be present because of this information. For instance, you'll need to know Nina has stage fright. How will the audience know about this? Well, now you know that a scene before Nina meeting her old friend needs to establish this: in what context might this happen? By the way, what kind of relationship would encourage her to do this? How can I display that relationship in action?


You should also be able to predict a dramatic moment at this point, at least in general terms: will Nina show up for try-outs? Will she get the part she wants? If she does, will she show up on the big night?


The important thing at this moment is not whether or not you intend on showing all of these points in pain-staking detail when you sit down to write your first draft. What's important is nailing out a general timeline, time being the canvas on which film is painted.


Pay attention to the decisions your characters make. If you already know your characters well, make sure that their decisions are in-character, not just their attitude or manner of speaking. Outlining is a great way to put your characters, themes, or story worlds to the test of sustaining action and consistency. As you continue to map out your characters' decisions, actions, and reactions, you will be able to see how they might change to suit the other elements of your screenplay better.


If you don't know your characters yet, this is a good time to figure them out. You know where this story is leading now, and you know the kinds of decisions that need to be made to get you there. So take note of your characters, see how they are forced to behave, and imagine how they might feel as a result. This is your exploratory writing space. While anything you write on your first outline is subject to endless changes, this is a perfectly valid way of learning the elements of your story.


As you outline, you will be able to move back and forth in your timeline easily to plant information, establish themes, or plug in interesting ideas that you want to fit in somewhere. I encourage you to let this happen: to let your outline look like a Frankenstein's monster of overflowing scenes and nearly barren plot points and clichés that you hope never see the light of day. Your final outline will not be a perfect reflection of what actually happens in the first draft of your screenplay.


This is because you really cannot get a sense of the timing or practicality of the events you plan to write until you actually start to write it. For instance, a necessary component of your script might be completely outlandish as a scene, but you might decide on the fly to incorporate this component into exposition. Or, you might notice that the first act that you've written is too slow for your taste, and some of the scenes you thought necessary in the outlining stage are actually superfluous.


This is not the time to be too critical: practical, sure, be certain that you have covered everything that needs to be covered. But don't break out the red pen just yet. That's a job for later-you, the one that edits your first draft. Write now, you're a creator, and your job is to create to your heart's content.


Writing without an outline can be a form of outlining in and of itself. I recently decided to engage in a writing experiment: I am writing a screenplay off-the-cuff, without so much as an outline. A bit like my friends doing #NaNoWriMo, (including the brilliant Elan Cassandra and Edie Bales) I do not anticipate trying to sell this screenplay the second I reach 90 pages. My intention is to treat the first 90 pages as a poorly-written first draft with which I will have to do consultation work.


Essentially, I am writing an outline in a roundabout way, and testing my skill with spontaneous creation and editing to do so. (As a script consultant, I do a similar thing with the works of others, so why can't I do that toward myself?)


I am finding the process exceedingly difficult. Even though I sometimes think I understand what the action could be, the inability to see the ending clearly makes preparing for this nearly impossible. I am craving the ability to jot down my predictions, and thoughts of going back and changing things I have already written occur often.

I think this will be a useful and educational exercise for me. But I am gaining a new appreciation for the outlining step of screenwriting.


Personally, my outlines tend to be structured like prose. (For reference, the first chapter of my Silver Crucifix series started off as a short script until I realized it was nearly indistinguishable from prose.) I love having the freedom to skip over sections I am not passionate about and concentrate on the pieces I am excited to write. I like to double back and suddenly be able to see why I wasn't interested in the earlier section in the first place, and know how to change it accordingly.


I hope this helped you reframe any conflicted feelings you have about your outlining phase. Remember that in the end, all steps in your writing process need to be one thing above all else: fun. That doesn't necessarily mean entering delirious ecstasy every time you sit down for writing time. It means that you should always feel like your engaging with whatever it is that makes you want to write this piece in the first place.


If you sit down for two hours doing nothing but trying to fill in blanks with information you don't care about to answer questions you don't find interesting, you need to find a new way. Because you are a writer: if you can't enjoy your writing, what's the point?

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