Back when I was in University, somewhere between my BA and my Masters in English literature, I tended bar at one of the campus’s quieter watering-holes. Among the assortment of oddball regulars that frequented the place was a fellow nicknamed Chef.
In spite of the fact that everyone called him “Chef,” Chef rarely talked about food. What Chef talked about was the Great American novel he was going to write. Time and again he’d saddle up to the bar and tell me all about the literary masterpiece he would some day complete.
But deep down, I knew that his beloved novel would never get written. And it wasn’t because it was a bad idea or because I’d seen a movie with the exact same plot several months earlier. Chef was destined to failure for the simple reason that he didn’t have a plan.
Never underestimate the importance of careful planning. Because he had a plan, Hannibal was able to score a decisive military victory over the Romans. Because they had a plan, the New York Jets were able to defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
And because the owners of the bar I was working at didn’t have a plan, the university revoked their liquor license, leaving me to spend many an endless evening eating bacon and onion pizza, serving orange juice, listening to Chef talk about his damn novel.
An outline is to writing what that map of the Alps was to Hannibal. It is a blueprint of the script you are going to write, an overview designed to ensure that there are no surprises in store for you later on.
Without an outline, you could be halfway through your script when you realize Lamont couldn’t possibly be Maureen’s long-lost brother, because you’ve already established his childhood as a Parisian street urchin. If you’d done an outline, you could have foreseen this issue.
Outlines are specific to the type of script you are writing. Most of the genre shows I worked on were made up of a teaser and five acts (occasionally a tag). The tease, or teaser, is essentially a taste of what’s to come, an appetizer of the episode you are going to watch.
A pantless middle-aged man crashes his RV in the dessert. A man in a suit wakes up at a airplane crash site. A guy goes out fishing and discovers a body. It’s wrapped in plastic!
The first four acts are the body of the story. SG-1 heads off on a mission. Complications arise. The action builds through each of these four acts, culminating in various cliffhanger Act Outs. The team is captured. They hit a dead end. The baddie makes an appearance.
Finally, it’s time for the denouement. In the fifth act, we wrap up our story. The enemy is defeated. Our allies are rescued. SG-1 saves the day. A teaser and five acts.
In order to write an outline, you must first “break” the story – a teaser and five acts – breaking those sections down into individual scenes (an average of 4-5 per act) covering all of the major dramatic beats.
When outlining, it’s always a good idea to know what you are working toward. For example: What do we want to accomplish in this act? What is the cliffhanger moment that will end the act? It’s always a good idea to have a plan for the plan.
I remember working on show where there was no plan for the plan. We sat in a room and the showrunner started the ball rolling by asking: “So, what happens in scene one?” We tossed out ideas, spun them, decided, and moved on to scene two. Then scene three. Then scene four.
Instead of working toward a goal (What will happen in this act? How will it end? What is our cliffhanger Act Out?), we were proceeding blindly through a long dark meandering narrative tunnel.
This approach worked until we realized the story structure was fucked – seven and a half hours later. And so, we had to start over from scratch the next day. Lesson learned.
I approach every outline working from macro to micro. I want to know how the episode will end. I want to know my Act Outs. I want to know my teaser. Once I have those locked, I fill in the pieces of the narrative puzzle.
This, I should hasten to add, is MY approach. There are showrunners who prefer to tread the roaming path. Which is fine if it works for them. But it doesn’t work for me.
How long should your outline be? That’s entirely up to you, but my outlines for one hour genre tended to fall in the ballpark of 12-15 pages. Pilots tend to be longer. P.S. Save your dialogue for the script.
Breaking a story with other writers is a lot easier than outlining on your own which can be a lonely, challenging, frustrating, ultimately very satisfying task. If you’re working with others, hear them out. If you’re working alone, occasionally seek advice.
Whenever I craft an outline, I’m reminded of an artist who once likened sculpting to the act of freeing rather than creating. Somewhere in there is the perfect version of your story and it’s up to you to find it by carefully chipping away.
What I love about this notion of the creative process is the suggestion that there is always an answer, a solution to any roadblock, provided you keep at it or, perhaps, approach it from another direction.
I also love the suggestion that perfection is elusive if not, ultimately, beyond reach and success really comes down to how close you can get in the end.
As I said, it’s always good to have a plan, but writing an outline can be challenging and very frustrating. On the other hand, it’s nowhere near as challenging or frustrating as coming up with an episode title. But that’s a lengthy thread for another day.