7 Lessons in Outlining, by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
By Jeanne Veillette Bowerman | October 10, 2013
I have a problem starting scripts. I am a self-proclaimed outline junkie, allowing myself to linger in all the possibilities of characters and conflict for far too long before opening my screenwriting software and diving in.
For this new project, I’m trying something new on multiple fronts:
- I did a rough outline, not as detailed a one as I normally do (the one for Slavery by Another Name was 31 pages long! Yikes).
- I’m writing a novel that I will ultimately adapt into a screenplay. Go with it. I do things backwards sometimes.
Wait, this is a screenwriting site, why is she talking about writing a novel?
Because story is story, and my experience still pertains to screenwriting. I also mention it because I met a writer when I was in L.A. for Screenwriters World Conference West who not only won the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship in 2000, but he also later adapted that winning script into the novel, God’s Child. I’ll interview Christopher J. Moore for ScriptMag in the coming weeks, but the reason I’m sharing his experience with you today is because he has sold over 100,000 copies of his self-published novels, his third about to be released. Now that’s not a bad side gig in between screenwriting jobs.
His last two books were also adapted from scripts. My guess being one of his goals is a script sale organically coming from his popular intellectual property. We all know how Hollywood loves to adapt. More on all of that when I speak to Chris directly.
See, this is why it’s hard for me to start a new script. Even when writing a blog post, I go off on a tangent, just like I do when working off of an outline.
I am here to encourage you to embrace the tangent.
I’ve discussed the “to outline or not to outline” debate before, but I want to simply explore what I’m learning by writing on a scant one instead of a detailed one.
1.) Characters change in purpose and motivation: I thought I knew who my protagonist’s love interest was going to be – a dude she picked up in a bar while on a business trip. But suddenly, instead of picking up a stranger in a bar, she was in a boardroom, presenting TV commercial storyboards to her number one client and ended up making out with him in an elevator after her pitch. Go figure. My girl didn’t need a drink to get frisky.
You know what? I like it much better than my original idea. It says so much more about her, her job, and her frustrations, both sexually and professionally. We learn more about her character in that setup than the original one. And that’s the point. All you need in an outline is, “She meets her love interest” and then maybe some idea of how, but once you get to writing the scene itself, let your character decide.
2.) Understanding of Protagonist’s mind: Since this is a novel, not a script, I have the luxury of crawling in her head and letting the readers linger there, in the dark corners and abyss of pain. Writing that way is an entirely different kind of character study than what I can do as a screenwriter. I’m getting to know her on a cerebral level. It’s fascinating the lessons she’s teaching me about life and love.
I need to see the layers in my characters. A character with no layers is not only boring to read, but also boring to write.
Since we can’t write a character’s thoughts in scripts, I suggest doing it as an exercise before you write your first draft of the screenplay. Pull up a Word doc and have it at. Write a couple of pages of your character’s diary. You might come up with some plot points not in your original outline. I know I did.
3.) Theme comes into focus: I always know my story’s theme ahead of time, but it’s fine tuned when I write the first draft. I analyze if the subplots showcase the theme. Does it truly speak to the message I’m trying to convey? Sometimes the theme gets refined in draft one to better deliver the message I intend… or the message I didn’t even realize I intended but the one that forces it’s way organically to the surface as I write.
4.) Going off road almost always makes the script better: When you outline, you are taking the story in a certain direction. But when you write the first draft, the story is taking you on the ride. Sit back and resist the temptation to take control. Sure, the new direction may not end up in the final script, but that’s why it’s called a draft.
Webster’s defines “draft”:
PRELIMINARY VERSION, rough outline, plan, skeleton, abstract; main points, bare bones.
Stop trying to make the first draft perfect. Give yourself permission to just write with reckless abandon. Write like you’re naked. OK, maybe with your pajamas on. Whatever. You get the point.
5.) Don’t overthink it: Just like we can get stuck in outlining, we can also get trapped in the endless abyss of writing the first draft. I had lunch with a screenwriter today who had gone back and changed her beginning four times and is yet to get to FADE OUT on draft one. Be forceful in resisting the urge to do edits until you have flushed the entire story out. By the time you’re done with the first pass, you’ll discover the elements that need to change in draft two. But before they can change, and you can truly understand your entire story, you need to vomit the words out on the page. JUST DO IT! Put them down and then go back and change details later. Don’t waste your time tweaking scenes early on, because those scenes may not even exist in draft two.
6.) Don’t look at your story with “pleaser vision”: Having a disease to please can suck the life right out of you because it’s impossible to make everyone happy. The need to please also kills a story. Once you write that outline, there’s a tendency to want to stick to it in order to please yourself by validating the ideas you had earlier must somehow be better than the ones you have now.
Whenever we cling to something too tightly, we risk crushing its beauty.
Instead, feed it. Nurture it. Think of your outline as a caterpillar and the first draft is the cocoon. Once it enters the chrysalis phase, that’s when the beauty happens. On the rewrite, the cocoon pops open and the gorgeous butterfly takes flight. If you keep the cocoon wrapped too tightly around the caterpillar, you’ll kill it.
Nature is a lot like writing. Organic and beautiful, when you don’t force it. Be flexible and embrace what can organically happen when you open yourself up to change.
7.) Change is hard. We get married to ideas. We resist killing our darlings. We’re hesitant to write new genres. We stay stuck in an outline, or write ourselves into dead ends in our first drafts. I’m suggesting you breathe through all of that. Just let it happen. Let your story flow. Don’t put that glorious stallion in a stable and then lock the stall door so it can’t run free.
Release your creativity. Set your story free. If you don’t sit your ass in that chair, outline or no outline, your script (or novel) will never get written. As Stephen King advises, close the door and just write as if no one will read it but you.
If you’re procrastinating writing your first draft, maybe look at it as an adventure of discovery – discovering your characters and your story. Put some of yourself on the pages. Your emotions. Really dig deep into the characters and don’t be afraid to write on-the-nose and ramble on the page. Do whatever it takes to explore the world you’re creating. After all, explorers don’t always use maps. Sometimes the best treasures are found when you go off road.