Mark David Gerson

Why Your Outline Could Kill Your Screenplay

Why Your Outline Could Kill Your Screenplay
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Your outline could be killing your screenplay. Thats right, the tool everyone says you must have in order to start work on a successful screenplay could be doing the opposite.

Why? Because outlines force you to plan like an engineer not craft like a storyteller. Outlines drive you into linear thinking when the most memorable characters and compelling stories emerge from lateral thinking. Outlines lock you and your script into a box when the most exhilarating films are always found outside the box.  

Outlines manufacture screenplays

Wouldnt you rather create your screenplay? Wouldnt you rather free yourself from the boxeveryone else is writing from and, instead, pitch stories that are more original, imaginative and captivating than any constructed from an outline?

Before you answer, let me reassure you that Im not asking you to abandon three-act structure, beats, plot points and other traditional tools of the screenwriting craft. Im not even suggesting you give up outlines altogether. But instead of using them to build your screenplay, use them to revise and refine it.

Heres an incentive: If you apply the approach Im about to describe, your screenplays will ultimately incorporate many of the very structural elements you once labored over. Organically.

Thats because natural storytelling structures itselfwith a beginning, a middle and an end and with the turning points that inherently build suspense. That doesnt mean that those structural elements wont need tightening and fine-tuning. Of course they will.

The difference is that your story wont start its creative life already constrained by structure and by the outline that put that structure in place. Rather, structure will serve the story youre telling instead of being its master. Isnt that the way it ought to be? Isnt storytelling why were all here?

So how do you tell a story for the screen without first outlining it? Without first prearranging your scenes on index cards? Without first figuring out what that story is? Without knowing how its going to end?

You just do.

Screenwriter or not, we are all storytellers. Thats what we do all day: We tell stories. We talk about who we are and what we have done. We talk about our joys and our challenges. We talk about our loves and our fears. Theres little we talk about that isnt a story.

Have you noticed that the best of those stories are the ones that are spontaneous and unrehearsed? That are open and free-flowing? That ignite your imagination in the telling of them as much as they ignite the imagination of your listeners? Its no different with the stories you write as screenplays.

Despite its non-prose structure and strict format requirements, a screenplay is no less about igniting imagination and freeing up flow than any other storytelling enterprise.

I dont write an outline, Guillermo Del Toro (Pans Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) said in his 2011 BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture.I have no preconception. I have no preconceived ideas. I have just a very vague idea of where the storys heading and what structure it needs. So the way I write the stories is I sit down and begin writing.

Generally, Arriaga also has no concept of how his story is going to end, nor does he spend any time developinghis characters before he starts. He just starts and trusts that his story and its characters will reveal themselves to him as he writes.

I want to be as free as possible, to have these things coming naturally,he said.

I didnt know about Arriagas approach when I wrote my first screenplay. I did know that traditional screenwriting strategies werent going to work for me. I have never planned, plotted or outlined anything from term papers back in school all the way up to my published novels. Even before I had a formal name for it and began teaching it, I have always written on what I now call the MUSE STREAM.

If you have ever written morning pages or experienced free writing, then you have already dipped your toes into the Muse Stream. But while those other techniques are prescribed primarily as personal-growth exercises or to prime your creative pump, the Muse Stream can be more than that.

If you dive into it and surrender unconditionally to its current, the Muse Stream will write the first draft of your screenplay for you. Its that simple. And as you become more practiced and more trusting in the process, your three acts will emerge on their own, as will many of your beats and plot points.

Heres how it works: Type FADE INand just start writing what you know of your story, even if its nothing at all. Once you begin, dont stop to correct or edit, to grope for the rightword, to worry about consistency or redundancy or to look back over what youve already written. And dont stop to fuss with format or structure.

Will that first draft of your screenplay be messy and inconsistent? Probably. But you will have given your story and its characters the freedom to blossom that an outline can never provide. As for the inevitable chaos of an outline-free first draft, thats what your next drafts are for. Its in those later drafts where you can apply the structural tools that will help you produce a polished screenplay.

Heres why it works: By writing without stopping, you are forced to go with first thoughts, to commit to the page whatever leaps first into your mind, however wacky it might seem. In fact, the wackier it seems, the more likely it is that your inner censor is interfering with your creative process.

Wackyis a judgment. It comes from that fearful, second-thoughts, second-guessing part of you that is trying to protect you from being too original because being too original could subject you to harsh criticism or rejection.

The Muse Stream helps bypass that inner critic and gets your most creative thoughts onto the page before those logical, analytical, critical, cynical, doubt-filled, fearful or judgmental parts of you can stop them.

You have a lot of doubts when you read in unfinished fragments,Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) told this magazine in 2009. Theres almost a hormone that secretes from writers to hate what theyre writing, so you get fooled into reworking and changing it.

As Coppola works on a screenplay, he never looks back over what he has already written and never rewrites until he is ready to start a new draft. He just keeps moving forward. Its counterproductive to start judging it before youve allowed the whole trip to take place.

What if you cant move forward? What if the next word wont come? Write anything, even if it means repeating the last word or sentence you wrote. Getting any words onto the page will ultimately free up the words of your screenplay. You can also temporarily switch to prose if screenwritings rigid format requirements are getting in your way.

Another reason you might find yourself feeling stuck is that youre trying to control your story or its characters. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has written that her worst blocks come when she has made a character do what he doesnt want to do.

When you give up conscious control of your screenplay and allow yourself to surrender to the intuitive, un-outlined journey that is the Muse Stream, you stop forcing your story and its characters to be what you think they should be and start freeing them into their best, most creative and compelling expression.

That doesnt make outlining wrong. There are no absolutes in creativity. In the end, though, your responsibility as screenwriter-creator is to serve your screenplay not control it, which, too often, is what an outline ends up doing.

A few years ago on Facebook, a fellow writer challenged my attitude toward outlines and the Muse Stream. His argument went something like this: The problem a lot of writers have is not being able to nail down exactly what their ending is before they start. That would be like getting in the car for a weekend getaway and not having any idea where youre going… just driving aimlessly, wasting a whole lot of gas. Thats the value of a map, of an outline: If you know where youre going, you will get there, and usually in the most direct line.

Frankly, I think its more fun to start up the car with no fixed destination in mind. Nearly always, it takes me to a place I never could have imagined going, along a route I never would have thought of traveling. Writing a screenplay on the Muse Stream is no different.

Can it be scary? Certainly. Can it feel out-of-control? Absolutely. But its in uncharted territory where innovation reveals itself, where characters evolve in unforeseen ways, where stories take unexpected turnswhere creativity happens.

When I write a screenplay, I sit in the passenger seat of the experience; I leave the steering wheel to the story. What Im really doing is putting my unconscious mind in the drivers seat. If I let it take charge, I know that it will introduce me to scenes, characters and situations that are far superior to those my conscious mind could have thought up…or outlined. Down the road in future drafts, I will clean up my scenes, tighten my structure and punch up my dialogue. For now, though, all I have to do is enjoy the ride! An outline would just get in my way.

Dont let it get in yours!

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