Outlines Suck!
A New Approach for People Who Hate Outlining

Take any random stack of screenwriting books, and they'll all say the same thing: the first thing you need to do when building your screenplay is to create a detailed outline.

And yet there's a stubbornly persistent school of writers who rebel against this sage advice, who don't like to work with an outline and refuse to do so.

I have to say I'm one of them. But I'm not alone: the Coen Brothers. Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor. Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, to name a few. Writers who win Oscars, and don't "do" outlines. Granted, I couldn't with any modesty claim to be in the same class as them, but I have to say I understand where they're coming from.

Writers like to write. Not outline, not make notecards, but write. The all-too-common advice is: get yourself a pack of 3x5 cards and start doing scene level blocking. I believe I once got a pack of 3x5 cards. They're still around here somewhere, unopened, yellowing with age. Real writers don't do notecards. Real writers don't do outlines. Real writers write.

Those who feel comfortable in screenwriting format, the thinking goes, are not real writers, they're technicians. Hacks, for lack of a better word, clutching their notecards and making their step outlines and character bios and sitting there dredging their shallow minds for nuggets of shiny stuff that's usually just fools gold. And the diminishing quality of film in Hollywood shows us just how well all that works.

The solution, therefore, is to throw all that out the window and hit the keyboard, filling pages as you go with white-hot inspiration and false starts and dumb ideas...anything to get a story with as many genuine and unanticipated (and therefore real) moments as possible.

The advantages of this method are these:
·  You get writing immediately and you don't have to fool around with annoying prep work. You can see pages stacking up, representing the visible spoils of a hard day's work.
·  Spontaneous and unexpected plot twists are guaranteed, especially if you're willing to write your characters into tight spots, then write them out again. If it was unexpected to you until you wrote it, it can't help but be unexpected to the audience.

And the drawbacks:
·  Not having a plan means a lot of false starts and unproductive forays.
·  Loose threads may not get tied up carefully due to the inability of the writer to see them
·  You risk having a disconnected series of scenes rather than a thematically unified and satisfying story with a clear throughline and point.
·  You risk cliché and shallow characters, depending on what type of story you're going for.
·  Many drafts, almost certainly more than with an outline, are required to get at the finished product.

A screenplay should go through many, many drafts -- this is a common element to all successful screenplays, and it represents the work ethic of most successful writers. They write the hell out of their scripts until, the theory goes, all unnecessary bits have been eliminated, and the story has been honed and sharpened into its most ideal form.

If you can do an outline -- if you have the temperament for it -- then you can avoid several drafts of a screenplay. If the first few drafts are a search for your story, a search for the basic spine and throughline and theme of the thing -- well then, an outline achieves that goal neatly, and avoids the work involved in writing false starts and blind alleys.

Robert McKee, in Story, is a booster of this method. Don't write one line of dialogue, he says, until you've outlined the living hell out of your story and your characters are raring to go, dying to speak because they've been cooped up so long.

But most writers understand that the dialogue often comes first. A character has already been simmering inside you, perhaps for years. One doesn't invent characters out of thin air. They come from inside us. The best characters, the ones we can relate to the most, are often unexpressed aspects of ourselves, or qualities of ourselves.

Without the characters, without their dialogue, without their interactions, then there simply won't be any story to outline...the outline will only be a dead thing, a pure contrivance. A mechanism. And nobody really likes watching a mechanism on the screen, unless he's some sort of cyborg.

But there are few among us who can keep an entire story in our heads -- who have the brainspace to do so -- and wind up with anything remotely resembling a quality screenplay. It should be noted that many writers who say they don't outline just don't outline on paper...but they do outline extensively in their heads. And while this is fine if you're a genius, it's one hell of a tall order for most of us.

Here's a happy compromise: post-outlining.

Raring to go? Then let 'er rip! Hash out an exploratory draft or two -- after you do so, you'll begin to have some idea of the beats you want to hit and the themes you want to treat, and of course, who your characters are. Then, even if you hate outlining, you'll find you're already committed an "outline" to paper: your script.

Now, all you need to do is boil your scenes down to a concise list, and presto, you've got yourself an outline! You don't even have to call it an outline, if you don't want...call it a beat sheet, or a script map, or whatever.

Post-outlining after you've done a draft is a wonderful way to get at the meat of your script, arrange scenes and service theme, drop that which doesn't work and focus on that which does. And this is something you've got to do, if you're looking to write and finish quality screenplays, lasting screenplays, classic screenplays -- screenplays that sell. 

Then, just sit back, collect your Oscar, and when the interviewers come calling, you can tell them truthfully that you never outline. Thus inspiring the next generation of screenplay gods.



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