How I outline.

April 21, 2010

(I am going to try to write some posts about writing. We’ll see how it goes. Also these may be total snorefests! Because almost nothing is as dull as writers droning on about writing. However, I promise not to use the phrase “the craft”. Because it creeps me out.)

So – this is about outlining. Some people do it, some people don’t. I can write a short story or an essay without outlining (or maybe it’s short enough that the outline can just live in your brain and you can feel your way through it) but I can’t write long things without outlines.

I kinda-sorta use a version of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet*.

Obviously, I start with a basic idea: “A guy gets asked to transport a locked trunk to a secret location, but then something goes wrong! Also there are monsters.”

Okay, so I have a number of turning points I need to know in order for that idea to become a story, and for that story to work. So I fill those in:

Opening scene: this is usually where I figure you find out about your main character, or your backstory, or both. Like I might meet my main character, a guy who works in a surf shop.

Setup: this is where you find out about the rules of the world you’re in.

Inciting incident/page 10 or 15: this is the part where somebody asks your hero to go across town to pick up a locked trunk.

Debate: now there’s a bit where your hero is either thinking it over, or has agreed to go across town to pick up the locked trunk, but hasn’t really bought into it completely yet.

Hero buys in/act break: this is often a moment where you physically move from the old world to the new world – or if it’s not physical (sometimes you were already in the new world at around page 15) it’s emotional, it’s the part where the hero stops being on the fence and goes “OH MY GOD I OPENED THE TRUNK AND A MONSTER POPPED OUT AND NOW THE MONSTER IS CHASING US, LET’S GO!”

Some stuff happens: (I will come back to this.)

Midpoint: the midpoint is often a hard moment to break for me. Sometimes the midpoint is what I think of as the “okay, now it’s personal!” moment – like you THOUGHT your hero had bought into the quest at the first act break, but now you realize that this is the moment where he can’t turn back, he can only go forward, his emotional or physical life depends on it. Or sometimes the midpoint involves another change of location, almost like an additional act break.

Some stuff happens: (I will come back to this as well.)

Everything is terrible/Low point: the monster has driven our hero into a dead-end cave under a mountain of burning tires at the dump. Our hero gives up and waits to die.

Hero decides to Do Something About It/act break: BUT WAIT! He realizes that he knows how to turn tires into eco-friendly sandals for hippies, and all he needs is a knife… but the knife is buried in the monster’s tail!

Climax: Something something something, our hero gets the knife back, fights the monster to a standstill, and agrees to go into the eco-friendly sandal business with him.

Final scenes: The monster and our hero live the life of Riley on a tropical beach and receive some kind of recycling award. Fade out!

So after I do that, I have these big giant holes in the second act. I fill in those holes with a combination of:

*brainstorming with anyone who will listen
*watching movies like the one I’m trying to write and seeing how that writer solved the problem
*crying

But eventually, you have a comprehensive outline, and then you can write. I used to start writing before I had the holes in the second act filled in, but THAT WAY LIES MADNESS. So I don’t do that anymore. For myself, if I get stuck, it’s basically always because I have either effed up the internal logic of the story (“But wait, WHY would the monster live in a trunk?!?”) or because I just don’t know what happens between pages 30-55.

So. For what it’s worth, that’s how I tackle outlining. The outlining is the hardest part of writing, for me. The actual writing is not so bad. If I really know the beats of the story, the writing kind of progresses without much terribleness – the outlining part is the part where I say things like “This is a terrible idea! I AM A TERRIBLE WRITER! I AM GOING TO MOVE TO COSTA RICA.”

*Blake, may he rest in peace, was a super nice guy who I got to know a tiny bit because my friend worked for him. I am pretty skeptical of books that claim to be able to teach people How To Write A Screenplay That Will Sell For Millions, but I feel like Blake’s books are different: he’s a guy who was clear on the fact that mainstream Hollywood movies are kind of like sonnets or something, in that they follow specific forms. And if you can internalize those forms, writing a movie is easier (not necessarily easy). So. That’s my two-penny endorsement.

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3 Responses to “How I outline.”


  1. I love the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. It are my friend.

    You and I have almost the exact same process, except that I’m too socially backward to brainstorm to anyone except my wife, and I rarely cry. Instead I substitute playing video games, sitting and letting my mind wander, and telling my wife I’ll never make it in this business.

  2. Clay Dunphy Says:

    You and I have almost the exact same process, except that I’m too socially backward to brainstorm to anyone except my wife, and I rarely cry. Instead I substitute playing video games, sitting and letting my mind wander, and telling my wife I’ll never make it in this business.
    +1

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