Screenwriting : Outlining... by Enmerkar Zedek

Enmerkar Zedek

Outlining...

I know outlining helps writers and many writers recommend it. The problem is that my brain works like a movie projector. The movie needs to play in my mind first with my eyes closed from beginning to finish. I am the audience. I write what I see. When I stare the outline board, I just sit like a zombie, is there a way to break through the process?

Joe Henriques

I outlined for years and most of my scripts ended up reading like very forced stories in order to stick to my outlines... but those outlines were essential in helping me really focus on 3-Act structure, plot points, etc. All that practice really has helped in building a sense for writing in 3_Act structure and I now don't write outlines--but I won't start a script before I know what it's about, how it will start, what the major stakes are, and what the climatic scene is (I need a finish line to run towards). Writing is much more fun for me now without the outlines, but I couldn't have done it without being rigid at first, when I was learning.

Enmerkar Zedek

It is interesting. Thanks for the replies. I have no trouble with 3, 4, or 5 act structures. I can do that with or without outlining. I was hoping outlining can shave off a few months of writing and rewriting, but so far it turned into meditation on the interface of outlining software.

Shelley Stuart

Write like you want to write. I have a partner with whom I outline, but I love writing free-form most of all so I do my own projects that way. That said, it is well worth learning the skill for your long-term professional career. I'm working with a director now on an idea, and he wants an outline first. "Outline" can mean various forms for different people; basically, he needs to see the story structure laid out before we head to script. What might work for you is to write the script first, then go back to outline it and see what the structure looks like in that form.

CJ Walley

Enmerkar, firstly, don't worry about it too much. I'm sure there's plenty of exceptional writers out there who don't outline or at least only do it sparsely. Secondly, I've always found it easier to outline as a result of learning more about the mechanics of story. The good stuff tends to come from our subconscious so sitting staring at a blank sheet can drive us crazy. What works for me is having a set of questions I can put to my mind and wait for the results. Kind of like how when you try and force your memory to recall a name it doesn't work, but two hours later when you're dusting a room it pops into your conscious. So that might be questions like; What does my protagonist learn? How can I show their flaw? How is their life balanced before their call to action? etc. So perhaps Google story structures, read through what comes up, and see if it sparks any thoughts. Thirdly, keep in mind that getting anything down, no matter how cumbersome, no matter how disposable, is progress.

Mario Leone

You are in the idea collecting phase. It doesn't matter how you collect ideas. Just collect them as much as possible and put them together in a logical progression. Whether you remember it in your head or write it down. You need a logical progression. An outline, in your head, an audio recorder. You are in the idea collecting phase. @ Enmerkar, People don't go to movies to think, they go to movies to Feel. Thinking movies are good, but feeling movies are better. Try it with an outline and try it without. Why not learn. Why not experiment? Find what works best for you. There will always be more scripts to try out. Just try not to write yourself into a corner. This phrase is much like painting yourself into a corner. Let it flow. The subtle plot points make it interesting. 1. Idea collecting phase. 2. Formulation, in your head, or on paper.

Lisa Clemens

I asked the same question to Brian Koppelman and he directed me to this link to watch this Lecture by Tony Gilroy, as he covers the issue... http://www.bafta.org/film/features/tony-gilroy-delivers-his-bafta-screen...

Joseph Dispenza

My 'outline' usually ends up as some pencil notes on the back of an envelope -- notes that are more or less useful during the writing process. I'd say, if you can 'see' the movie in your head and write down what you see, you probably don't need an outline. If a producer or agent wants to see an outline, you could outline the finished script.

Richard Toscan

It's true that most screenwriters, at least in the US, would rather jump in front of a bus than write without an outline. But there is a rarer breed of screenwriter (you may be one of these) who does in fact "see" the movie spooling by in their minds and they literally write down what they "see". Screenwriters of this sort find that outlining brings their creative process to a halt -- they've already told the story in the outline so the urge to write it again as a screenplay evaporates. Among current non-outliners are Ethan and Joel Coen. But nearly all how-to advice on screenwriting defaults to outlining as part of the secret sauce. If you're a real non-outliner, the solution is to ditch the outline and start typing on page one as you watch the full story unfold in your mind.

Mario Leone

The creative process is different for everyone.

William Martell

Part of the reason why those US writers outline is because most screenwriting work is assignments, and the treatment is a required part of that process and must be written before the screenplay (and notes and story changes are made at the treatment stage which must be incorporated into the screenplay). So you need to be able to think in steps, with the general story being mapped out and tinkered with before you get to the screenplay. And because there are hard deadlines, using draft after draft to find your story isn't practical. This may not matter if you are working outside the USA.

Joseph Dispenza

Point well-taken, William -- when I was under contract to deliver a screenplay (it was a while ago), the first thing asked for by the producer was...and outline. Since I work like you, Enmerkar, I had to go back and make an outline of what I had already written.

William Martell

If it's an assignment, the problem is you haven't written anything at the point you have to deliver the treatment/outline... and the notes they give you on that treatment/outline may take the story in a completely different direction. On one gig the treatment was about a female school teacher and her troubled son on vacation in Mexico and the son is kidnapped... the script was about a male head of security for the UN battling diamond smugglers in South Africa. No way I could reverse engineer a treatment/outline and have that work as the step in the stepdeal.

Enmerkar Zedek

William, do you have a blue book on this subject?

Tim Aucoin

Don't think just write.

Enmerkar Zedek

Yes, Tim, I can write :) I get the whole don't analyze your writing, because it stops the creative juice. I got no problem with my creative juice flowing. Still not thinking leads to scripts that are unoriginal and lacking in pop. The challenge for me is combine the normal way I write with the whole outline process. The reason I am interested in this has to do with what William mentioned as far as assignments. The other reason is because many writers have 26-30 scripts to their name and they are in their 30's. I am breaking in at 40, so I don't want to spend 40 years writing 20 scripts. I'd like to speed the process up as much as possible without compromising the quality and the craft of it. Maybe it is like my non-fiction writing, it will become faster with time, but if outlining gives me an edge, I'd like to make it work. / 4:00 AM rambling Off

Mario Leone

Judgement is a creativity killer. Not discernment. To discern word choice is good.

Richard Toscan

Enmerkar, outlining gives you a detailed roadmap for the screenplay and can avoid the detours and dead ends that the non-outline, freeform, approach may produce. So, yes, outlining is usually a quicker route to a first draft of a screenplay. That assumes you don't get bored out of your skull by the process of telling the story a second time by filling in the blanks in the outline.

Mario Leone

This is a repost from another post. You may write yourself into a corner with out a outline. Just like the phrase painted yourself into a corner. This happens because the route was not planned out. Perhaps, you did not take the time to formulate the path that it was going. There is a lot of argument between being formulaic and writing freely. Formula is not a bad thing. Because most people don't understand the concept of the phrase "the map is not the territory." The formula is not the story, it's just a spine. The spine does not have to be stringent. But we need to have a direction, a logical finish line. A logical progression filled with an emotional roller coaster. Most of the time we create a skeleton, then flesh it out. But I'll say this, and a person really has understand this phrase to get it. "The map is not the territory." The direction is not the story. But we often need a direction. What may happen is a writer may write himself into a corner. Writing is like one big game of connect the dots. However, it is like creating a connect the dots game for somebody else. So there must be plotted path. Food for thought. If you're connecting the dots, the dots are your plot points. Mario

Rob Wagstaff

Hey Enmerkar, I had a very similar experience with a book I was writing that went out chapter by chapter online. I knew how the story would start and I had a number of ideas for what could happen. The key was knowing what would happen in the final chapter. Once I knew that, I took an extremely relaxed approach and simply wrote the story as though I were watching the events unfold on a movie screen. I could make as many twists and turns as I liked, all the while making subtle hints to the ending so that when all the events came to a head it all made sense and finished perfectly. If you can decide on the very last part of your story, have fun with the middle. You'll learn how you should approach writing in future.

Jenny Masterton

To outline or not - it's one of those arguments that will be with us when we're all long gone. Needless to say, lots of people do outline, here's a link to some famous outlines http://www.pinterest.com/kalbashir/kalbashircom/

Mark Reasoner

An outline can be a useful tool, but it's just that. Whether writing a story, a novel or whatnot, I find an outline helpful to keep things on track or a nudge to continue writing after one scene or chapter's inspiration runs dry. It can also help to keep a story from overwhelming and escaping.

Graham Giddy

This is a good idea, went to film school in London, first lesson was to quickly outline your story, have a beginning, a middle then the end. You are taught your a natural if you successfully fill in the gaps.

Thomas Doran

Hi Enmerkar, I am the same way. I close my eyes and can visualize my story playing in my head. Nonetheless, I've found that outlining helps me to create that initial structure for the entire story, which is critical. Through revision after revision it begins to shape and then more and more visuals play out in my mind. It's a back and forth process for me. Best of luck with finding the process that works best for you. Tom.

Mario Leone

Outlining is a part of formulation. Form into substance. In essence a bunch of collected ideas that form a starting point. Many things in life, start off with an idea. Then the idea is formed and collected into something bigger. An outline is part of forming. So does it matter? No! It is indeed minutia. When you form your ideas with audio recordings. It isn't any different. It is a vehicle. Does it matter how you get to work? Your car is a vehicle. One car may be nicer than others. But at the end of the day. It is a material vehicle. Some take the bus? Some take the mini cooper! The truth is in effectiveness. At the end of the day! You are forming and collecting ideas to be fleshed out. The outline is a skeleton. A skeletal structure to be fleshed out. That skeleton can be anything. But you need a skeleton! With out it you may write yourself into a corner. Create an outline of any kind. Audio, paper what ever vehicle you find effective. Turn ideas into stories. Form into substance. Remember, the map is not the territory. A map for example are static analogs, like a snapshot. A point of reference. A territory is dynamic, like a river. A map can become outdated. They may be resourceful at one time in our lives and limiting at another. An outline is a map. You need a map. The map can be formed in many ways. We often hear the words "road map." associated with screenplays. The map gets you started. Then your script is the territory. Dynamic and can be changed! The map becomes outdated.

Serita Stevens

Ask yourself what miserable things you can put your protagonist through and use some of those as your plot points. What turns the character toward his journey that's the inciting incident? What is the moment when everything seems lost and that is act 3 turning point? There are a series of questions in save the cat you can use. By outlining I am able to work more than one project at a time

Mark David Gerson

I've been writing for more than two decades and I have never outlined, not my 11 published books (novels, memoirs and books on writing) nor my three optioned screenplays. That's not to say outlining is bad (though it's definitely bad for me!); just that it's not necessarily the key to a successful piece of writing. The key is to find what works for you, from project to project and draft to draft, not what works for anyone else. (P.S. One of those books on writing is on screenwriting, where I take on all the rules and conventional wisdom!)

William Martell

Mark: How do you deal with assignments (most of screenwriting) where an outline and treatment are required parts of a step deal? Has the studio that has optioned your screenplays progressed to rewrites, yet, where often an outline or new treatment is a part of that (my recent script sale includes an outline as one of the steps before we go to the next draft). As a professional screenwriter, there is no way to avoid doing an outline of some sort; and I believe advising against it is sabotaging the careers of others.

Mario Leone

Exactly, I was hired for a T.V. series. Deal did not go through. However, an outline was part of the deal.

William Martell

I believe in "training for the job" and "developing good work habits". When people say things like "It took me 3 years to write this script" I wonder how they will manage to write drafts on a deadline. That is part of the job: working on deadlines and being able to write great material against the clock. Anything you can do to prepare yourself for the way the job actually works will help you when you sell your script or land an assignment. Think like a professional.

Graham Giddy

William, yes I agree with you, if you love what your doing, do it, a couple of weeks ago I had the idea for a script, less than two days to draft, two days to right, two days checking it then that was it. I have read the script since and some extra work in needed, my problem now is turning the script into a novel. This take a lot longer, after two weeks only writing 80pages, off to China tomorrow and Van, I hope to have it finished Nov.

Derek Ladd

Ideas come to me the same way, Enmerkar. That's why you should allow yourself to free form and just write what you see as the movie plays in your head. No rules, no limitations, just write it. 'Tis what many refer to as 'writing with your heart'. Then you step back and look at what you have and see if it's enough to develop into a full-blown script (or novel, whatever does it for ya). The editing process is called 'writing with your head' if I'm not mistaken. At least that's what Connery's character said in 'Finding Forrester'. ;-D

Enmerkar Zedek

Exactly William! I was looking on youtube for your video on how to write 3 Specs a year, but couldn't find it. I can write a non-fiction book in my field in couple of months. I can write a 60 page assignment in my field in 3 days. It shouldn't take me 3 years to write a spec script. Producers, directors, and the market will not wait. Someone else will just step in and snatch the opportunity. I do write with my 'heart' and I have no desire to short circuit the creative process. However, any trick of the trade that can speed the process up is always welcome.

CJ Walley

I think you can still write with your heart and treat spec writing like a job. I used to go in blind and visualise everything myself. It was a very exciting way to write. But, as I've focused more and more on the craft, I've found that exciting first draft kind of comes out in a much faster and more systematic process via an outline. It's like my subconscious tackles the task differently now and focuses more on structural elements that I was previously using but not aware of.

Doug Goodrich

You know what I just discovered that was like a eureka moment for me? I was using Scrivenier (Which I highly recommend for the creative right brain) and I wrote my whole manuscript (for a novel - but will work for a screenplay as well) and I did a "reverse outline" once I flew through the draft, I went back and made an outline from what I had written. This way I could sit back and see what scenes and chapters followed other scenes and chapters and I can move them around and add something if it looks like it's missing, or take something away that's not needed. Then when I get into my next draft I can work off of the Outline. Not sure if it could work for you but I totally know what you mean by letting the story percolate in your head - I call it my soup - and when it's ready to come out, it's gotta come out! Good luck!

Enmerkar Zedek

Jess that was a very good video. Thanks for the link. Gotta say though $700+ to read a script is a bit on the high end :)

Jess Hinds

It really depends on what the script read is, reading through a script at least twice, with detailed note taking and devising a plan of action combined with a two hour session working it through with a writer is a lot of work. And the value that comes from having someone not only great at screenwriting, but producing and mentoring writers (which is a totally different skill) can be the difference between getting a few formulaic notes and getting the guidance, mentorship and structure that not only makes your script stronger but strengthens your skill as a writer. It's certainly not cheap but it is worth it. You are also always welcome to call and talk directly to Jake so you know its the right step. We also have tons of free videos and podcasts and articles for anyone not interested in classes or direct mentorship. Happy Writing!

Jeremy Thornhill

Writing outlines isn't primarily for your own benefit, it also prepares you for how the industry works as a "working screenwriter" which means, someone hired by a company to write a script. Doing outlines for producers is the way to get projects green lit as a working writer before you write the script. So if anything, practicing it would help you prepare for a career writing. Every TV show is outlined first by season, then episode, then written. Outlining is one of, if not, the only way to write as a working writer. And that means you are hired to write specifically the way they want you to. As a spec seller, you can write how you want. There are very famous spec writers who don't outline, and some that do. It just depends on what your goals are.

William Martell

But even as a spec writer, once you sell your screenplay your contract will include rewrites in the contract. For my most recent spec sale my contract includes an outline step. It's required. I have to submit a new outline incorporating the producer's notes before we go to rewrite. So no matter what, once you sell that spec screenplay you will need to outline. I think the only way to avoid the outline stage is to avoid selling a spec script... which makes writing a hobby. Still interested in the contract language in anti outline Mark's deal regarding rewrites and outlines... and how he will manage to fulfill those requirements.

Ben Atkinson

For years I felt the same way. Ultimately, I realized that outlines are only as useful as I make them. And then I realized that I could make them incredibly useful. I love Scrivener for outlining software because it frees one up to write whole scenes or just single sentences that describe the scenes, then manipulate the organization of those ideas so that they inspire and reveal still more ideas -- things that never would have come to mind if I were just trying to connect dots on the surface by starting with page one. And by no means am I recommending not starting on page one and just going, if that's your thing. But an outline, even after the fact, tracing what you've done in the script, will only help to strengthen it in the next draft. As storytellers we are like magicians. There's the trick played for the audience on the page, and then there are the mechanics of the illusion behind the scenes. Designing a magic trick based solely on what one sees at a magic show is going to be tricky, and the results may not be what the magician expected.

Mark David Gerson

William: My first script was spec; the other two were sequels and I was trusted enough (based on the first) to turn in complete scripts without fussing with outlines. Having said that, I understand what can be required by the industry. From a personal standpoint, though, I find that those requirements stunt my creativity/storytelling rather than foster it. Back in school, when outlines were required, I wrote first and outlined later. I wouldn't hesitate to do that again...if I could get away with it!

William Martell

Does your contract include an outline step before rewrites? My point is that once you sell a spec script or land a writing assignment, outlines will be part of the required work method, so it is much better to train yourself to work as a professional than to sell a spec and then not know how to work in a professional manner.

Enmerkar Zedek

William: Your book on outline is only 48 pages. It seems a bit skimpy. Is there a digital edition? How much did you cover on such a topic?

Anna Maria Elisa Manalo

I find that I tend to write a one-page synopsis first, then the three-page act and then expand to a treatment. It seems to intuitively flow for me that way to expand the creative process. It's whatever works for you. My issue is that once I start writing the actual script, I sometimes find a better idea and start to detour from the original treatment. Is that a common issue or just my bizarre "flow"?

Serita Stevens

I find that common. The characters come alive and start telling you what they want

Serita Stevens

All of William's blue books are excellent instructions

Enmerkar Zedek

I love all the ones that I have. William has a good heart and it comes across in his writing. The reason I said 48 pages sounds skimpy is because I'd like devour everything William has to say on the subject.

William Martell

The original Blue Books were written in 2002 and were basically pamphlets that focused on a single element of screenwriting. I am now in the process of expanding them to 200 page ebooks (between screenwriting gigs) and when all 20 are done I will probably do the boring reformat work and take them to print. (The print problem is that paper is expensive these days. I had a big publisher interested in the Blue Books but only if the deal included ebook format because that's where the profits are... I declined, and they still have some interest but can't seem to make the numbers work for print only.) The Outline Blue Book is scheduled to be expanded sometime next year, but everything depends on what screenwriting gigs I may land and what happens with this one I just sold as far as rewrites are concerned.

Carol Hovsepian

I'm with you, Enmerkar. I never outline and also see the story playing out in my head but head is structured :-)

Enmerkar Zedek

William, the reason they are not doing well in print, is because most of us are too bloody impatient for those things to come in the mail. I don't want them in print either. I'd prefer to get them in digital (Kindle saves the day) and then print them right here and right now ;) Each of them is less than 50 pages, so my computer printer can handle it. This is the issue with some of the offerings on your site like the audio CD. You're mailing them out. We don't want to wait. We want insta download. Size doesn't matter. People will pay top cash for 50 pages, if they contain information they really want, and they won't pay $1 for a 200 one, if they don't deem it worthy . People make the mistake of thinking more pages = more money. It doesn't work like that. It is perceived value of the information. What I am looking for as a screenwriter isn't a thick guide full of concepts and fillers, but a plug and play reference of about 100-120 pages. I'd like this reference to be next to my desk as I write so I can quickly and within minutes find the points that apply to where I am in my screenwriting. This way the book can help me improve my writing AS I am writing it. Your blue books serve that functions and so does Carsons book. If you were to combine both in a plug-play format then divide them into each stage of the writing process then yeah!!! You are an excellent screenwriting teacher, but I can see visiting your website that you need some .net marketing help. It is ok, I am in the same boat as you, except I have zero excuse, as I am a .net marketing pro and get paid top dollars to help others triple their income, while I let mine slide. Shame on me! Anyway, yes, let me know, when those blue blooks are ready :D

Enmerkar Zedek

@Carol: I've begun to incorporate outlining. I write the parts that I see in the form of an outline instead of a whole script. I then go back and rewind the film and wonder if the film would play any different now. I do this a few times and then analyze the various outlines then pick the parts I like. I write those into the script and as usual as I am writing them in, it changes again and becomes more dramatic. It is still a piecemeal process and I am yet to outline the whole script from A-to-Z before writing it. One step at a time..

Michael Scott Lima

Hi Emmerkar, An idea used often is free writing. Just jot down your images on the page regardless of order. Do it as quickly as comes. Oliver Stone mentioned that he writes the first draft quickly. Flood the page with your images ensuring you set the stage early, introduce characters strongly, build the plot, conflict and subplot, and launch into the third act with rising climax that crashes on a satisfying resolution. Don't overthink in the free writing stage. Crystallize it in the next step. Good luck!

Tim Aucoin

Outlining sucks and is boring but it's necessary. I managed to write one script without one, so I considered that my outline. But in general some type of outline helps immensely. I like using beat sheets as they're short and to the point. Just one or two sentences about what the scene or sequence is. The script will change once you write it so it doesn't need to be super specific.

Other topics in Screenwriting:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In