SCREENWRITING NIGHT SCHOOL 101: Outlining Sucks.
I hate outlining.
I hate it, hate it, hate it.
I didn’t outline this blog post. I’m just writing from the top of my head. Sure, I’ll go back and fix some stuff. I might retrace my steps and clarify some points or add a sentence or two. Maybe this blog posts needed some more jokes. Maybe it needed more character development. Either way, I had no plan going in.
This is just some internet ramblings though. There is no narrative. Unlike a screenplay…
…You must outline...
It’s the road map to your story. You don’t get into a car without an idea of where you’re going. Ok, in LA everyone gets into their car, turns on the engine, pulls out of the driveway and then boots up the GPS for the first time five minutes into the journey. But that’s LA.
I used to not outline. My belief was that the first draft is the outline. A lot of writers call this the ‘vomit draft’. Gross, I know. But it’s a pretty accurate description. You purge a bunch of words onto 146 pages and then go back and ravage everything you did. The problem with the ‘vomit draft’ is that it takes a while to write. You might as well use that time for the real script. An outline, if done right, should take three days. Think: An act a day. You start on a Monday, finish Wednesday night, make some tweaks, show some friends or reps if you have them, and you can be going into a solid first draft by Monday! And you know the path! You know what happens in the dreaded second act! You know all the major set-piece beats you must hit! You know arcs, rug-pulls, who the killer is, where the final kiss takes place! Basically, the movie is written - you just have to put in all the pesky dialogue and informative scene descriptions.
But it’s boring. It’s not writing the movie. It’s planning the movie. Planning sucks. No one likes to plan. I’m sure most bank robbers are like ‘Can’t we just go in?!’ No, of course not. You have to be Danny Ocean.
Outlining sucks because they made you do it in school. That’s why I have a bad association with it. I didn’t do well in school.
It’s a necessary evil. But it’s also a good tool for pitching. We all have movies we want to write, but just haven’t gotten around to the script part yet. A useful exercise is to just bang out a couple of outlines, keep them in your war chest and then refer to them when you do the pitch tour after a spec sale. You have to have other bullets in the gun. You not only have to have your next idea, you must have your next six ideas – and it’s better if they’re all fleshed out. If you’re lucky, you’ll get paid to write one of those vaporware scripts.
Screenwriting is discipline, and discipline is learned. I started off very young in my professional career and really had no formal training as a screenwriter. I didn’t go to film school, and my degree in college was not writing-based at all. Sure, I read the screenwriting books, and was lucky to work in the mailroom of a talent agency at 21. I was able to read sold specs. But I had no guidance or ‘teacher’. I was writing like a firehose with no one controlling it. Yes, I sold specs that did not begin with an outline. But do as I say, and not as I do – as the market becomes narrower, and the spec sales are getting slimmer – buyers want movies that they can make tomorrow. They don’t want movies that will require a year of development and possibly hiring other writers. You don’t want that, and they don’t want that.
Outlining sucks. But lots of stuff sucks. Like taxes. But you gotta do ‘em.
So, save your receipts.