A cautionary example:
Bob wants to write a screenplay. He’s smart, he’s creative, and disciplined enough to write 1,000 words per day. He’s written some mediocre screenplays, but they took a long time to write, even when he had the structure of college and a kindly professor to help him along.
Bob knows that it’s much easier to solve a story in the treatment phase. But he’s bad at outlining. He’s a big picture guy and he finds breaking down his story in granular, minute beats stressful. He wants to dive in and discover the story in 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 as Bob nears a milestone birthday with so little to show for his life, he tries to properly outline.
THE THINKING CAP
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 accepts it, but later 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.
But 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. The outline becomes a bloated mess of unsorted ideas, and Bob gets lost. He 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.
People often smugly regurgitate this received wisdom: “Outline before you write.” The problem with this, is that most people toss off a lousy outline or treatment (I’m using the terms interchangeably here), a two page piece of fluff 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.” “He meets her and they hit it off right away.”
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? That’s a meet cute, but I have no sense of where this takes place, what they bond over, or why it’s supposed to be interesting. These are basically a big “screw you” to your future self who’ll be writing the script. You’re saying, “Hey future me, figure out something brilliant. Glad I’m not you!” It’s like the Simpsons, where Homer goes to find the emergency donut he stashed away, only to find…
When people say “write a treatment or outline,” what they’re really saying is figure out every major choice 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 serves as the tracks your imagination runs on. If you’ve done all the envisioning, it frees your mind to steam ahead as you render your already-solved story into screenplay form. If there are gaps, you go off the rails. So give your future self the gift of clear, vivid prose that makes writing your script a breeze. Cut the variables. Don’t leave yourself imaginary donuts.