Saturday, February 16, 2008

Do you outline?

Probably the cheesiest chat-up line a screenwriter could throw out over a post-workshop drink. But also a central aspect of the professional screenwriter’s methodology.

Whether the outline is a detailed list of sluglines or a bulleted list of key scenes to work around, or even just a mental picture of what the film is going to look like, the general consensus seems to be that outlining is a useful way of keeping track of the story while you write the first draft.

The only serious objection I’ve ever heard to outlining is that it can stifle the creative process. When you’ve neatly worked out the plot, diligently hitting all the required beats and conflicts, you might not feel very inclined to consider new ideas, even if they’re actually improvements, because of the hassle of going “back” and rewriting the outline.

The logic being that you’re likely to settle for second best rather than go through the whole outlining process again.

Extremely unlikely, I’d say. Because as any dedicated, professional screenwriter will tell you, it’s all about how good the script is, not about how many times you had to rewrite the outline.

There’s also a popular misconception that talented writers don’t need to outline, and that those who do are less gifted. I think the distinction is determined by something else altogether.

In my experience the people who least like to outline are those who work most intuitively, or holistically. To them something “looks” or “feels” right. On the other hand, people who like to outline most are more analytical, more conscious of their writing decisions. For them it’s the logic clicking into place that creates the buzz.

Of course most screenwriters operate somewhere in between these two poles. Here’s an interesting example:

I recently heard Diablo Cody talking about the way she wrote her award-winning screenplay Juno. (Check it out while it’s still available for free download at Fox Searchlight.) Here’s someone who very deliberately projects a public image of being the intuitive, artistic type. But when pressed, she revealed that about halfway through her first draft, she decided to compile a bulleted list of scenes in order to avoid getting lost. She found this extremely helpful.

The same old adage applies time and time again: Whatever works for you.

And according to my colour-coded, expandable beat sheet, this is the end of the post.

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