“You can fix anything but a blank page.”
I never used to outline. Meaning the first screenplay and handful of short stories I wrote weren’t written from an outline. My limited experience as a newbie write told me to just put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and go go go. But as my writing grew, where I had previously been happy to meander lost along the highway and hope to happen upon my story, I realized I needed a map if I was going to get from Fade In to Fade Out. To continue with this overused metaphor, sometimes I find a couple hand-scrawled directions will get me there, other times I need fully loaded satellite GPS.
Outlining is a personal choice but before you decry it, I suggest you try it (poetry baby). Cause there’s no one way to do it. Personally I have used synopses, index cards, excel sheets, post-it notes, treatments, and that chart thing from Dramatica. I recommend trying all of them. They all work for different kinds of projects. My second script grew out of a eight page synopsis, my novel from an excel sheet of chapter breakdowns, my dramedy from index cards, a historical script from post-it notes, a sci-fi script written with my partner from a treatment, etc. etc. It is especially important to outline when working with a partner, otherwise the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing.
I wrote my first outline without even realizing it. You see, my daughter was a co-sleeper. She slept in our bed and napped in our bed. The crib was a dangerous pit of hot lava to her. But as long as I sat on the bed next to her, she would take two 2 hour naps per day. At first I just ate cereal and watched a lot of television, then after I exhausted all the good shows and found myself tuning in to a marathon of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t be using this time to be productive.
Little known fact: the clicking of keyboard keys sets off an internal alarm clock in children under 5.
I couldn’t type on the laptop during naptime. Inevitably, she would wake up less than a page into whatever I was working on. Somehow, she could easily sleep through a boisterous round of Gypsy nuptials, but a few clackety key strokes and her little eyes would pop open and she would immediately start asking what was for lunch. I had to figure something else out if I was to get any work done.
Before the advent of Final Draft Writer for iPad (Paleolithic, I know), I had to download My Writing Spot in order to be able to at least make notes when they occurred to me. I could type using the on-screen keyboard without setting off the baby alarm. Mostly I jotted down dialogue or worked on novel chapters. Then one day I had an idea about a project I had been mulling over for years. This is how most projects germinate for me. I have a vague notion of something I would like to see or a character I think is interesting and then I chew on it for months and, yes, in some cases years, until a story emerges. This day, by the light of morning television and the sound of a snoring infant, the idea for Etoile finally gelled. I saw the entire story from start to finish and had to get it down before it was gone again and my attention turned back to mushed peas and tummy time. Since I couldn’t just start writing it in Final Draft like I wanted to, I used my iPad to write a very short synopsis so I could get it out of my head.
Usually for me, my characters start to have conversations with each other before the whole plot reveals itself. I only get snippets at a time and almost always I know the beginning and end and have no idea how to fill the black hole in the middle. I just start writing and hope it’ll work itself out. So that’s what I did. I started writing from my short synopsis and immediately ran into problems. I went back and fleshed out the synopsis into a real outline, adding plot points and characters. When I headed back into the screenwriting software the script came very quickly. And it wasn’t half bad. I needed to cut about 15 pages as I tend to write long anyway, and the great problem with following the outline was that I didn’t plan the length of scenes very well. What looked short on the outline was very long in the script. I sat on it and revised it for several months. Finally I chucked it up on the Black List where it made the monthly Top Lists. I was over the moon! However, being a period film about ballerinas in the Paris Opera, it didn’t get a lot of downloads. No biggie.
Currently, I’m revising it to put in a major competition and know it could stand to have at least ten more pages trimmed. How long is this monster of a script, you ask? Originally 132. Then 128. Now 124. It really should be 115. And that is only because it’s a period piece. Page length will be a future post because there are interesting things going on with this subject lately.
I knew there were a couple scenes I could cut but it wasn’t tightening up the way I wanted so I enlisted outside help from my sometime writing partner. He pointed out some issues that were totally on the money and I opened it back up thinking I was going to fix everything. But I had no idea how to start rearranging the entire plot to accommodate the fixes. Here’s the problem with outlining: you become so married to the outline that it becomes impossible to deviate. Changing a scene here or there, tweaking a character, adding and subtracting dialogue — that’s all fine. But majorly changing the bones of a script? That’s real revision. If I figure out how to do it, I’ll let you know.