Tip #21: Outline! So That You Have a Plan to Ditch Once You Start Writing

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

– Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

Film Outline

Image by: Fauxto Digit

First: how cool is that guy’s name? That’s exactly the sort of weird and wonderful name you should be giving your characters. Second, our friend Helmuth is absolutely right about no plan surviving contact with the enemy. But do note Helmuth’s implication that you should actually have a plan in the first place.

That plan is your outline. Know what an outline is? An outline is the difference between a professional writer and a hopeless amateur.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m that guy. I’m that strict, writing-is-a-science jerk who wants to quash your creative energy by channeling it into a boring, bone-dry template instead of a beautiful, free-flowing script. I’m the outline jerk. And I’m going to save you from months of unnecessary pain and heartache. Your script is not an improv play, a jazz saxophone performance, or a stream-of-consciousness poetry jam.

Your script is more like a space shuttle launch. No word should be out of place, no character arc less than fully realized. Every single thing in your script has to go exactly right, and for that you need a plan. Luckily, you’re probably writing this thing on spec, which means you have a large amount of time in which to make sure your plan is completely foolproof.

I know what you’re thinking: “But my favorite writer doesn’t outline! He uses the first draft to ‘discover his characters’ and ‘find out what the story is really about’!” Here’s the thing: your favorite writer may not know it, but he’s lying to you.

Take David Milch, creator of Deadwood and NYPD Blue. David Milch claims he doesn’t outline – he simply dives in and decides what happens as he writes. But this is highly misleading for two reasons:

• David Milch is most likely a freaking genius who works on a different plane from you and me.

• David Milch has internalized story structure over the course of thousands upon thousands of hours of screenwriting, to the point where the “outline” emerges fully formed and glittering in his mind like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

The man’s been doing this for decades – he hears the music in his head now. We don’t, and we won’t…not until we spend a few thousand hours writing detailed outlines followed by space-shuttle-quality screenplays.

So why do you need an outline? Let me count the ways:

You need an outline to tell you what happens and when.

This might seem obvious, but believe me, I’ve seen plenty of screenplays in which the authors clearly had no idea where their own stories were going. And if you ask me, it’s all the fault of that pesky Act 2.

Beginnings are easy. Any idiot can write a beginning. You simply set the heroine up with a goal, a villain, and a portfolio of interesting character flaws and turn her loose on the world you’ve created. The story drives itself forward…right up until, oh, page 30 or so.

Endings are pretty easy, too. The heroine defeats the monster/gets the boy/cleans up the Louisiana coastline while learning and changing and growing into a better person and so on. All the minor characters get something cool to do, and all the characters we hate get what they deserve.

So what happens in the middle? Ah. There’s that pesky Act 2.

Act 2 is vast – sometimes up to fifty pages long – and very poorly signposted. If you follow the traditional method of screenplay structure, there are only two big signposts along the way: the midpoint and the Dark Point. Trouble is, the midpoint is separated from the start of Act 2 by a staggering twenty pages, and the dark point is separated from the midpoint by an even bigger gulf of twenty-five pages. If you start writing into Act 2 without an outline, you’re walking out onto a tightrope without a safety net. So write the damn outline, already.

You need an outline to find out what your story’s about.

Writing a script without a theme, an ending, and a goal for the protagonist is like attempting to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping your arms really fast. So how do you acquire these things?

Well, you could just let your characters chat to each other for twenty pages until a story emerges. There’s a chance this approach will work. There’s a much, much bigger chance that it won’t, and you’ll be left with pages upon pages of aimless, meaningless drivel.

“But wait!” you cry. “My story is about love and heroism in the face of overwhelming evil, or whatever. I have a protagonist, a setting and some totally sweet action sequences that’ll make for nice trailer moments. Why can’t I just go from there?” Because, as every good screenwriter knows, structure is character and character is story. If you don’t know the structure – if you don’t know what drives your heroine at the Act 1 turning point, what turns her around at the midpoint, and what tears her down at the dark point – then you don’t know jack about your protagonist or your story.

You need an outline so you can deviate from it.

And here we have the – Wait, what? Doesn’t this contradict everything I just said?

Not really. There is no rule that says you can’t change your outline on the fly. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you’ll have to at some point. There are some things you simply cannot account for at the outlining stage – this part might not make sense without a bridging scene; this scene has more emotional impact if it’s moved back a few pages; and so on.

So – to return to Helmuth’s military metaphor for a moment – you may have to alter your battle plans on the fly. But at least you’ll know the strengths and weaknesses of your troops. You’ll know where to redirect them when the time comes to change the plan. That’s what a good outline is for.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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