Bob wants to write a screenplay. He’s smart, he’s creative, and he writes every day. He’s written some mediocre screenplays, but they took a long time to write, even when he had the help of college classes and a kindly professor.
Bob has never been good at outlining. He’s a big picture guy, he finds breaking down his story in granular, minute beats stressful. He likes to jump in and discover the story in the process of writing it. This is how he learned but he’s hit a writing plateau. the process of writing the first draft. But this is slow and stressful, and the same gaps in discipline will also hinder his ability to rewrite later. So Bob decides to give it a try.
THE THINKING CAP by Bob Exampleman
1. INT. AD AGENCY — DAY
Meet ANDY, a shy ad man. He doesn’t assert himself, he’s bullied by his boss, he pines for the fair CAROL.
2. EXT. SUBWAY STATION — DAY
Andy goes to the subway, saves an old gypsy, who gives him a ratty hat. Andy throws it away.
3. INT. ANDY’S ROOM — NIGHT
The hat magically flies onto Andy’s head and won’t come off. He begins to have good ideas.
Bob’s outline goes awry. He has a list of cool set pieces, ideas for jokes, ideas for dialogue, character bios, and a storyline that ties Carol to a hang gliding club. It all becomes a bloated, unsorted mess. Lost Bob wants to start over, but fears losing some valuable bit of work. Soon Bob is paralyzed and he regards his bloated outline with the same dread he has for his cluttered closet or his shoebox of unsorted receipts.
The months tick by and writing the outline becomes as difficult as it was to write a crappy first draft.
Outlines and treatments (I use the term interchangeably) are helpful, but most people toss off a lousy one that’s full of holes and vagaries. It’ll have non-descriptive lines like, “She tries to make friends with the other kids and fails.” or “He meets her and they hit it off .”
She fails? But why? How? Where? Do the kids ignore her, beat her or spit on her? How does she feel about this? They hit it off right away? I have no sense of where this takes place, what they bond over, or why it’s supposed to be interesting. Beats like this are a big “screw you” to your future self who’ll be writing the script.
When people say “write a treatment or outline,” what they’re saying” figure out every major choice and in the script before you type ‘Fade In.’” This sounds tedious, and it is. It’s just as difficult to figure out the meticulous beats that make a story work, as it is to envision the entire script, but it pays huge, huge dividends. A good treatment is like a set of tracks, if complete, you can steam ahead and render your already-solved story into screenplay form. If there are gaps, you go off the rails.
Do your future self a favor. Create an outline that actually helps him write. Cut the variables. Solve major plotholes before you write. Don’t leave yourself imaginary donuts.