Why I always outline (unless I don’t)

The world of writing is full of rules and absolutes, many of which conflict with each other even to the point of being polar opposites. Never start writing a story without a full outline. Don’t worry about an outline as long as you have the basic plot structure. Don’t even bother with that; you’ll figure it out as you go.

There are plenty of people more (and less) qualified than myself more than willing to tell you how to write. That’s not what this is about. I’m just providing a glimpse into my writing routine, which is anything but a routine.

My film school education included a required purchase of David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. The book was a solid place to start for an unexperienced writer, but it urges its readers to follow a rigid structure to which I adhered far longer than I should have. Everything needed to be outlined and outlined again. You needed to know the entire story inside and out or you had no business starting a draft. I completed several short screenplays and one feature length screenplay using this format.

I tried to continue with this method for a while, but it didn’t matter because I was young and stupid and none of my ideas were movie ideas, almost all of which were based on moments from my life as a suburban teenager. I finally reached a point where I realized nobody would ever want to read or watch what I was writing, myself included. I floundered for a bit before embracing genre storytelling becoming a finalist in The Writer’s Store’s Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest in 2014. For those unfamiliar with the contest, writers are given a prompt on which to write up to the first 15 pages of a screenplay. Finalists are chosen from the submissions to get through a first and second draft with the help of one of their screenwriting coaches. I finished my second feature screenplay, the one that told me maybe I can really do this with a lot more practice, during this contest.

Outlining was a cornerstone of the competition, and the whole thing wasn’t entirely different from Trottier’s formula, which is honestly just a distillation of Syd Field’s teachings, which are themselves distillations of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces and so on back through time. There’s a lot of helpfulness, and an undeniable truth of storytelling, buried within, but it became secondary to a rigid process. This didn’t work for me.

I grew tired of what was ultimately one of the most formulaic printed methods of screenwriting, beaten only by Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and its Beat Sheet. I stopped outlining completely. I figured out where I wanted the story to go and I started writing, often ending up somewhere else entirely. While working with a coach to get through a screenplay was a minor breakthrough in terms of ability, it was the process of struggling through the next few with no guidance that really helped.

I wrote two screenplays in 2015. The first was an apocalyptic romantic comedy that stuck way too close to the conventions of both genres to be worthwhile. The second was a romantic thriller that I might return to at some point. I started to find my way toward what works for me in 2016. I wrote three screenplays, ranging from a jumbled mess of romantic drama and psychological suspense to another romantic thriller to a take on a haunted house story. I can’t even count how many other screenplays were started and aborted in the first half leading up to this point—some were reworked and became the drafts I’ve finished, others were abandoned entirely.

I shifted from the seat-of-my-pants, no outline approach to having basic story structure figured out over these two years. I outlined probably 75% of the last screenplay I wrote in 2016. Things finally clicked for me this year, and I learned something very important: there is no right (or wrong) way to write a story, or to prepare to write one.

Do whatever works for you.

It’s not an original place to end up, and I’ve even heard it from several sources (many of whom have been featured on John August and Craig Mazin’s invaluable Scriptnotes podcast). But it seems I needed to get there myself.

I’ve finally realized that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all-projects way to do this. My most recent “completed” project is a screenplay currently titled Undone. I had a moderately detailed outline for nearly every scene before I even created the Final Draft* document. I wrote another equally detailed outline of all the changes I wanted to make in the second draft.

*I’m currently using FD 8, and I can’t keep going with it. Its low resolution is destroying my eyes, but I’m not sure what should replace it. Newer versions of FD support the MacBook’s retina display and Apple’s split-screen mode, but it seems ridiculous to pay around $100 for basic features. Fade In looks good, but it doesn’t support Apple’s split-screen. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

I’ve been working on the early stages of a few different things since then, ranging from a novel that’s been brewing in my head for over a year (now fully outlined, even more detailed than Undone) to a page one rewrite only loosely related to a screenplay I wrote last summer (a concept with a minimal outline). And both approaches are okay.

The former is pretty heavy on action, so I really wanted to plot out the events in detail before starting on the prose and diving deeper into my characters’ heads. The latter is a character-driven supernatural romance, and it’s much more about the characters existing together and separately in their world than where they end up (though I know exactly where they’re ending up). It’s not something that really screams “outline me,” and I don’t feel the need to do it. My approach is going to vary from project to project—I just wish I’d been able to figure that out sooner.

So what’s the point of all these words?

Outline your story. Or don’t. Just write it, because that’s something only you can do.


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