by Fin Wheeler
What’s an outline? Why should you write one? And how will it save you time?
First comes the basic development: your premise and characters, your story and the plot of your spec. The next step is to beat out your story. You should end up with a list of all the significant plot points, regardless of whether you use the 40 card method or not.
Next comes the outline. Once you’ve finished shuffling around all those plot points, they’re written up in a document in the order they will appear on screen.
Treatment or Outline?
One of the first things they drill into you at film school is that an outline is a writer’s document, written before the script. A treatment is a selling document. Written after the script, it’s in prose. It should read like a short story. The tone and style should indicate the style and tone of the movie, where as an outline is purely a working document, a treatment is expected to entertain. A treatment is a document aimed at non-writers.
Some American, English, and Australian producers that you pitch your spec to will mention that they have their own idea for a screenplay. They may ask you to write their notes up as a “treatment.” Essentially, they’re asking you to do the writer-work, so they can get their little baby funded (and not give you a writing credit).
I wasn’t sure what to say or do when this first happened to me. It’s never the good producers who suggest such things; it’s the ones who never quite made it. By the end of the meeting you get the feeling you just might understand why.
Always be polite, and professional, even if others aren’t. When in doubt, head home and start work on another spec of your own. That’s my motto.
Finding Your Outlining Process
This brings us back to the outline, also known as a step outline, a scene-by-scene, and a beat sheet. This document, by any name, is where you list every sequence in the order that they will occur in the script. Some writers just list the 40 major beats in their outline. Others are more long-winded and write every scene into their outline.
There’s no right or wrong. On specs, it’s only you who will see the outline so write it the way that’s most useful to you.
For me, I tend to use my spec outline to do all my heavy lifting. It’s basically a skeletal version of the script. Every scene, even the ones that are just going to be establishing shots, get a slug line and every scene gets a line or two about what’s happening action-wise, as well as the point of the scene and/or subtext.
Once it’s done, I tend to tweak it a bit, or sometimes radically rewrite it.
It’s only when I’m happy with the outline that I move onto writing a full script. I find that fussing so much at the outline stage makes the script much faster and easier to write. Because the first two drafts of the outline are basically de facto script drafts, many of those usual teething problems you get in the first, second and third drafts are sorted.
Talking to other writers, it’s mainly those with a background in playwriting who work this way. When you write plays, you have to sit in on weeks of rehearsals, so you get to know how a script carries itself and you learn how the work will evolve over time, and the endless changes you have to make are always done in a sort of short hand. Writing in outline, rather than full draft, is easier if you’ve had that background.
Or maybe those writers who come from the stage know that we are far too used to relying on dialogue to cover any structural weak points. We know we need to put our pretty, witty dialogue away where we can’t play with it, until after we’ve done all the grunt work.
If you do write your script from an outline, you know the ending and your path to it. While those who don’t outline are floundering or grasping for the next plot point, you’re able to experiment a little with getting from A to B. Because you know where the clear path is, you’re able to look up from the track and look around. That lack of desperation makes its way into the very fabric of your screenplay.
What If You Like Writing Specs Without an Outline?
To each their own, but if you want a job writing for television, you will need to be proficient at outlining.
Whether you write an original pilot that gets picked up (very rare), or you write for an established show, when you get an episode to write, you have to first submit an outline for approval.
If you’ve done exactly what was asked, your outline will be approved and you’ll get the nod to write your first draft of the script. If you didn’t do what was required, you’ll either be replaced, or if it’s not too far wrong, you’ll get notes and have to resubmit the outline.
There’s no point grumbling about it. In television, writers are very well compensated. In return there’s a very reasonable expectation that the studio and the network will get exactly what they asked for.
Even if you don’t want to spend your entire writing life working in television, you do have to be realistic about how many specs you’ll be able to sell, and how much feature rewrite work you’ll get.
A really good spec can take years to fester in your subconscious before it’s ready to be pinned to the page. And features do not pay well, not when you take into account how many years it takes to write one, how long they take to make, and how few ever get a greenlight.
Writing outlines is a transferable skill that ensures you’re capable of making a living as a professional writer.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.