Monday, March 21, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 168 - How to Write and Use an Outline

At first, when I was still in school for writing, I openly doubted the importance of outlines. To me, they were suffocating documents that hampered my experience writing a script; I preferred having the story unfold for me as I went along, each day a surprise as to what came next. An outline meant that I would just sit down and bang out the details of a scene that I had already figured out, with little surprise of what was to come. The budding, less-wise writer in me thought that took any sort of art out of writing. 

More recently, as I have improved as a writer, I've come to see the great importance that outlining plays in my technique. Some writers refuse to use them; others outline until there's no room left for changes, and burn through writing the actual script. I, on the other hand, think I've come to learn that there's a comfortable middle ground to work in. I'll outline until I have more than just a loose structure of the film. The document I prepare gives an overall sense of what beats fall where and what happens in them, so it's pretty detailed. However, it's also fluid; that means that when I sit down to produce actual screenplay pages, I don't take the outline as gospel. Case in point: when I wrote my firefighter spec a while ago, I realized before I had even finished the first page that an entire component of the story was missing from the outline. Luckily, the structure I had mapped out was successful enough that it afforded obvious places to include these new characters I was adding, and allowed certain beats to be molded to incorporate them. This flexible outline approach is great - it gets me writing with little hesitation about what the next day will bring, but it also allows me time to problem-solve as I go along.

I've spent the past few weeks talking about various stages of the multiple outlines I'm working on, but I realized I have yet to really delve into what that looks like on the page. For a quick snapshot of what those look like - and, mind you, I have submitted both forms to my manager, so this is what people in the industry have seen - there are two main types of outlines I write. Often, I'll do one of each for each project I'm working on. 

The first type of outline is a pretty straight forward, scene by scene breakdown. It will look something like this:
-Vietnam, 1972. Mark stands at the edge of a battlefield. He and his buddies are tense. They pass a joint, trying to calm down. Hushed small talk.
-BOOM a mortar round lands not far off. The trees erupt with gunfire.
-In the battle, Mark goes down with a shot to the gut.
-Later, in the field hospital, Mark recovers. A nurse stands nearby. He checks her out.

I tend to conceive of these lines as shots, almost, multiple beats within a sequence. The guys hanging around talking might be a page or two. The mortar round might be a half page. The battle will be a few pages, culminating in Mark's injury. The next scene we see opens in the hospital. Depending on the detail I put into each scene, this type of outline might be 6-10 pages. I'll mark a few tentpole scenes for myself with the following: ACT ONE, PAGE TEN (or INCITING INCIDENT), ACT TWO, MIDPOINT, and ACT THREE. More than anything, those demarcations are to help me with my page count targets. Acto Two should begin between 25 and 30, midpoint will land at 50 or 60 (depending on total count), and Act Three at 75-90. 

The other kind of outline is all prose. This approach will convert the beats into a narrative that reads like a short story. Again, this might be 6-8 pages. My goal with this is to see how the story checks out as a narrative. Sometimes, the beats make sense as bullet point, but reading and writing it the other way makes it easy to see where something's missing or redundant. This approach is also the one my manager tends to favor, and converting the outlines has proven helpful for me. I tend to think out my story in narrative terms a lot, and then convert it to the beat format, so half the work is already done by the time I sit down to work it out as a short story.

Anyway, hope that's helpful. What approach to outlining do you take - if you take one at all?