Saturday, 24 January 2009

Outlines. Do you need them?

This week I've been speaking to a screenwriter who spends a long time outlining and I caught him off guard and just said "Why?" He couldn't really give me a good enough answer, I said "Why don't you just start writing and you'll find your character along the way" -- We disagreed and he still hasn't started writing, in my opinion it's just a form of procrastination.

"I'm not going to write because I feel like I don't know my story and my characters"

Well that's a fair enough point but how are you going to know your characters by never writing. For example the first pilot I wrote, I thought it up for ages, maybe 6 months and I did outlines, scene for scenes and character grids and when I got down to it, only 1 out of about 6 characters felt right. But then I had a first draft to work on and I could go back over it till the characters all improved. The screenwriter in question has nothing, he's wasting time like I did.

This isn't a naive standpoint either, I'm not on a high horse, most top screenwriters don't outline.

Two quotes (that I'm paraphrasing) I've heard over the last couple of weeks.

George Lucas when asked does he outline said "Hardly ever, I do what my friend Francis (Ford Coppola) taught me to do, lock myself in a room and just get through it, the first draft is going to be terrible but writing is rewriting so you might as well get that first draft out of the way as fast as you can"

The second being Fight Club scribe Jim Uhls who I'm lucky enough to talk to via the net quite regularly, he says "I don't outline because it's like shooting your load early, I like to explore and outlining ruins that."

I'm not for one second saying neglect planning but there is a distinct difference between a few grids to outlining every scene and spending months on the character's back story. Like Uhls said, "explore" you'll find your way.


Paul Flanagan said...

I think it's a subjective thing really. I've always been a compulsive planner, whether with essays, songs, scripts, fiction or whatever. I also don't think that the two methods are mutually exclusive- whenever I write, I outline each point, then draft it, redraft it, and eventually, what most people see as 'the writing process' is more like editing that writing. I suppose it just depends on the individual, not really something you can provide a blueprint for.

Harry said...

Essays are incomparable in my opinion. Definitely a subjective thing but sticking my neck out I'd say more screenwriters don't outline, then again that doesn't mean it's right.

mikejones144 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikejones144 said...

I think that the most important thing to know when outlining is when to let go if something doesn't work. If you've planned a grand arc and you suddenly see that one point of it doesn't make sense in context then a good writer should be able to work around that and not get too attached to the outline.

That said, I do think that planning is subjective for not only writers, but films. Movies with one or two main characters I wouldn't really see as needing as much background work, but for a huge ensemble piece it can definitely be worth putting thought into the characters backstory, motivations and relationships as a way of making the question "What would my character do here..." easier to answer.

I deleted first message because of a typo that changed my point entirely.

Jane said...

Most TV writers swear by outlining - but there are so many more factors to consider, like what the character has done before, what's going to happen to them 6 episodes from now, and who the character already is - it makes more sense.

Still, the few times I've written movies, I needed to outline, just so I'd know if I had a story and the necessary act breaks.

Désirée said...

Personally, I would say that an outline is something I use for myself if I need during the writing process.

I usually stick to my beat sheet rather than an outline.