The Outlining Process
Speed. You can do 20 structure rewrites in a day, but if they are drafts of the feature, it might take 100 times longer to do the same amount of work. It’s so much easier to rewrite 1 page from scratch than 100. And this applies to every step in the process. You can write a scene 50 different ways in a day in a treatment. It’s about seeing the forest through the trees. You just remove all the trees and look at the big green forest as a whole. It’s about focusing on parts by themselves to avoid being overwhelmed, and therefore making working on that small sentence much easier. Simple, Fast, Easy, and Step by Step.
If you think of the outlining process as a way of organizing your story, then it’s very similar to a filing system: The Payments Filing Cabinet, it has several drawers. The Employees Drawer, it has several folders for each department. The Janitor Department, it has several employees. It would be stupid to be thinking about where the Jack and Jill files will be when you are working out where to put the filing cabinets in the room.
The key is to look at an entire segment of the thing you are outlining, and to look at what it all has in common. Get clear on that grouping process.
You work on the level that you are changing. So if you are working on the scene level, work in that document. If you change the structure, work in the structure document. And so on.
Whenever you are looking at a part, you want maybe 1-3 sentences per part. Any more and you probably aren’t looking at that step. If something can be achieved many ways, there is no need to work it out at that point in time. For instance, a car chase doesn’t have to be stuffed into a logline since the conflict of the chase can be done with car chases, or plane chases, or jet pack races, etc. But you also don’t need to work out the details of the chase until the scriptment stage. Work out if the information is crucial to that part or not. So in your act structure, the opening 10-15 pages or so will be written as 1-3 sentences or so. When you are listing out scenes, 1-3 sentences will be all you use to outline a scene.
With a screenplay, you start with Titles. These are the whole core of the subject that you want to write. You are basically outlining what the entire story will be about in a couple of words. Find the Titles that would be great for the subject you want the story to be about. Find the one that really works. You can do this entire outlining process for a few different titles and work out which story really speaks to you.
With your title, see exactly what it tells you about the story. List those bits out. It may tell you the genre, the tone, the conflict, the theme, etc. Then you create your logline based on that. First just list the extrapolated parts and then fill in the blanks. Get the best version of that.
You can test your loglines out with someone you trust. Someone who will act as a surrogate producer or investor, making sure that it works for them. Don’t try to get multiple people giving feedback unless you are going for an overview of the group POV as a whole, since everyone has different tastes and what works for one may be totally the opposite for another.
STRUCTURE / THEME / CHARACTERS:
From the logline, you extrapolate main characters, structure, and theme, and get the best versions of them. These come in different orders based on the type of story you are writing. So go with the most obvious bits first and list them all out and slot them into character profiles and structure. Roughly 1-3 sentences per 10-15 minutes of movie. Then flesh them out and get the best versions. Here is a crucial point to get trusted feedback to make sure it works. They will look for plot holes and stuff that you don’t see.
Now that you have feedback, outline what needs to be changed and how and where and in what order. So if it affects logline, write down that you have to go back, rewrite that, then go from there. It’s like a TO DO list for things that need to be fixed and when. If its core character and structure is based around character, do that character stuff first then update the structure to match. Make sure you look at each part by itself and check that it works on its own.
TREATMENT / BEAT SHEET / STEP OUTLINE:
These are basically all the same thing. There are different versions but really it’s how the story flows as a whole. From the Structure, Characters, and Theme, pull out all the scene parts that these imply. List out all the scenes that you know are there. Roughly 3 minutes each. Don’t confuse scenes with sluglines. You don’t write 3 sentences for an establishing shot which is 5 words in the script. A scene is a chunk of the story with a common thread. A character introduction scene. A car chase scene. A sex scene. Mentor’s death scene, etc. When you have all the obvious ones down, fill in the blanks.
Then get feedback and work out how you will rewrite it. Work out what scenes need to be changed in what order and why. And if some affect structure, go back to the structure and fix that first. If some change a character, go back and fix the character profile first. Then rewrite the step outline / treatment / beat sheet, etc. Whatever you want to call it. Write, feedback, outline how to rewrite, rewrite in order, feedback, outline how to rewrite, rewrite in order, feedback, repeat until your trusted critic is saying it’s great.
Not always necessary but it’s basically a super fast first draft without all the details that are easy to fill in. This is GREAT for seeing if each page will be a page turner. It reveals pacing issues and parts they may be too dense or too thin. From the treatment, you’ll split each scene into roughly 3 parts, 1 for each page. Here you will extrapolate what the treatment might be saying is on each page. Then you fill in the bits and flesh out the scenes to have interesting content on each page.
Then feedback, outline rewrite process, rewrite in order, feedback, outline rewrite process, rewrite in order. Then when you are really happy, you have an outline.
HOW LONG SHOULD IT TAKE?
Roughly 1 day for getting the structure and characters right. Maybe 1-2 days for getting the beat sheet / treatment / step outline etc. Then 1-2 days to get the scriptment done. If you are slow, or don’t have enough time, extend deadline up to about 4 times. So 4 days for structure and characters, 4-8 days for treatment, 4-8 days for scriptment.
THE FIRST DRAFT:
Then after you do all of that, you can format the scriptment into a script. At this point, you are letting the story be what it’s meant to be. It’s more important for the story to be what it needs to be than for it to stick to the formula etc. If a scene ends up being half a page, let it. If another scene ends up 10 pages long, let it. Fix it later. Ignore all the issues and just get it written. You are pretty much just ignoring everything you worked out in the outline stage if it in any way doesn’t work in the draft writing process. It’s more important to have a draft written than it is to strictly stick to the outline.
The outline is just a way to work on parts fast, and to make sure those through lines are solid. Often, all that outlining will have you super clear about where you want the story to go and you will easily be able to work on any part at any time without being overwhelmed. But all of it is just a guide line and a tool. It should never be more important than the story itself.
This will help you strip away the complexity and look at one bit at a time. It’s stripping everything away to work on that single bit, easy. And if you can focus your attention to not stray outside of that bit too much, you will save so much more time.
Some people go straight from structure to draft, and use the draft as if it’s an extremely detailed treatment. This is fine for those people that don’t mind ditching entire drafts and rewriting them. These people tend to be super fast at writing drafts and super fast at rewriting. They love the rewriting process and when they work out what version they want, they then focus on making that version shine. Although, they can end up with 10 totally different scripts for the 1 concept, 9 of which end up never being used.
Everyone is different but the more you are able to work in each mode exclusively, the easier it gets. After a while, a pretty good feature completed in 3 weeks isn’t a far stretch. From there it’s all about making it incredible.
Although theses aren’t perfect, they give you a basic idea about the length and they type of details that are in each step.
Writer of Pirate of the Caribbean:
I use this version:
But here is an example of the process. Again, not ideal but sufficient:
Title: The Mask of Zorro
Logline: A young thief, seeking revenge over the death of his brother, is trained by the once great, but aged Zorro, who is also seeking a vengeance of his own.
And then after all that you can go into scriptment realm.
INFORMATION YOU NEED:
You need to understand what needs to be focused on on each level. For instance, “What makes a great Title?”
Then, “What do I need in my logline that will make my concept awesome, and that will make the rest of the process so much easier?”
Then, “How do I set up the entire story? How do I introduce my main character? How do I have the main character introduced to the main story? How do I set up the conflict that makes the decision to get into the story so much more powerful? How do I deliver the decision to get into this story? How do they react when they first enter the story world?” Etc.
Then, “How do I sequence the 4 or so scenes in this segment of the structure? What do each of those scenes need to deliver?”
Then, “How do I sequence this scene and what scene structure techniques should I use to deliver this scene most effectively so that each scene pops? How do I start the scene? How do I play out the scene conflict? How to I end the scene?”
Point being, each level has its own criteria. Without knowing those, and without being able to control your creative impulses, you will struggle to get them done right. So you may end up trying to do a structure summary (like that one on Wikipedia I put up as an example) and you will try to put all that stuff into a logline, which just won’t work.
PRACTICE IS THE KEY:
Spend a week coming up with only titles, 4-6 hours a day. Maybe 200 titles a day. Become an expert on titles. Then do the same with loglines. Get like 300 loglines. Then same with structures. Write 50 plots out for your favorite loglines. Then Character profiles.
But you need to learn the knowledge into what makes them great and practice that knowledge. So for instance, character profiles. How to make them active, how to make them relatable so the audience can understand the story from their POV. How to make them have depth, how to give them motives and desires. How to make them dramatic etc. And then practice that information like 50 times.
There is no use practicing the wrong way 50 times and get the wrong way ingrained in your head. After you know the techniques backwards, you can then break any of those rules and know how it will affect your story, and you’ll be able to address any issues that arise because of those choices.
List out the each chunk that you can extrapolate, and write it out in 1-3 sentences. Flesh out the bits that are missing.
Then Feedback, Outline the Rewrite steps, then Rewrite and Repeat.
When it’s sorted, use that to extrapolate the next, more detailed level of chunks.
Also, remember to work on the document that matches the things you are changing.
It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort but it becomes easy after a while. It’s all about practice. Once you get the hang of it, you will know exactly how you want your writing process to be.
Written by Steven Hammon
Shared by Danny Alegi @cinemahead
copyright -Steven Hammon 2016