People outline imperfectly. That is a good thing.

This December, I taught an online class about outlining. I broke development into 6 phases.

  1. Express an idea as a simple premise.
  2. Expand logline as a one page precis that delineates act breaks.
  3. Break the one page in a series of 30-50 distinct beats, 7 words per beat.
  4. Flesh out the beats into 100-300 words per, creating an outline/treatment.
  5. Use the outline to write a draft.
  6. Rewrite the script by rereading the draft, breaking it down in the previous steps and repeating the process.

The class stressed doing each step in order, possibly excessively so. Afterwards, one of the students asked me, “Isn’t this a soulless and mechanical way to do it?”

On the spot, I said something along the lines of “This is an exercise that shows you best practices. Not everyone can work this linearly, but every step will come into play at some point in either the writing or the rewriting.”

I didn’t have a great answer at the time, but I’ve been thinking about this. I think the better way to put this is that a script has all of these steps, but not necessarily in that order. Some writers eschew all the development crap and just plunge into a draft, thereby discovering the world of their story. This is perfectly fine, but at some point in the rewrite, they tend to use more analytic lenses to troubleshoot their material.

There might be a savant out there who can write a script in a perfectly efficient manner, but most of us can’t. Breaking a story up into 40 beats that don’t suck might be the hardest part of the process, for most of us, we write a logline, try the beats, give up, write some of the draft, then go back to the beats, etc. I used to see it as inefficient, but now I see it as part of the process. Indeed, the inefficiencies in the process are where the artistic parts of the script are born.

So when you write your script, use all off these tools, all of these views to solve your story. A painter will use different sized brushes, and no painter does a perfect job of using the biggest brush, then a smaller one, then the smallest, he goes from brush to brush. So it is with screenwriting. When you’re stuck on your outline, consider your beats. When you’re stuck on your beats, check your one page. When you’ve had enough, write some script pages and make something happen. All of these views are just different representations of the same abstract idea. So long as you continually curate your views and make sure they all reflect the same reality, you can use any of these steps to further your understanding of your world, solve your story, and achieve your draft.



Analyzing the WGA award nominees for the last five years.

Every year, the WGA selects five nominees for “Best Original Screenplay.” These are the nominees from the last five years.

Title Authors Writer/
Written by
American Hustle Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell Yes No* Singer was a BU dropout who worked as a night janitor, then sold the International in 2009.
Blue Jasmine Woody Allen Yes No Allen was writing in TV shortly after it was invented.
Her Spike Jonze Yes No Spike Jonze started as an acclaimed video/commercial director. Before that, he was still cooler than us.
Dallas Buyers Club Craig Borten No Yes  
Nebraska Bob Nelson No Yes* A writer on Seattle sketch TV show Almost Live, Nelson moved to LA in desperation in 2002, and spent 10 years trying to get Nebraska made.
Flight John Gatins No No A veteran actor with many established writing credits, Gatins was a consumate insider. Flight was a passion project, but it came from within the system.
Looper Rian Johnson Yes No Rian broke in with his directorial debut Brick.
The Master Paul Thomas Anderson Yes No
Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola Yes No Roman Coppola overcame the hardship of being the son of Francis Ford Coppola.
Zero Dark Thirty Mark Boal No No Developed by director Katherine Bigelow
50/50 Will Reiser No No Reiser, a producer, wrote the script on the advice of his friend Seth Rogen.
Bridesmaids Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig No No Mumolo, a Groundling, developed the script with Wiig, a star.
Midnight in Paris Woody Allen No No
Win Win Tom McCarthy Yes No Longtime actor, directorial debut was The Station Agent (2003)
Young Adult Diablo Cody No No A successful blogger, Cody was recruited to be a writer by manager Mason Novick
Black Swan Andres Heinz No Yes Written by Heinz in 2002, spent ten years in hell before Portman/Aronofsky found it.
Inception Christopher Nolan Yes No Nolan broke in with directorial debut Following. Even after directing Batman, it was an uphill struggle to get this made.
The Fighter Paul Tamasi, Eric Johnson No No Tamasi and Johnson created Air Bud first. The script later got polished by Scott Silver of Mod Squad fame.
The Kids are Alright Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg Yes No
Please Give Nicole Holofcener Yes No
(500) Days of Summer Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber No No Neustadter and Weber met in 1999 working for Tribeca Prods. (Weber was Neustadter’s development intern),
Avatar James Cameron Yes No Even after making Titanic, Cameron had a hard time getting this off the ground.
The Hangover Jon Lucas, Scott Moore No No
The Hurt Locker Mark Boal No No Boal was a very successful journalist. The Hurt Locker began as an article he wrote for Playboy magazine.
A Serious Man Joel Coen, Ethan Cohen Yes No

Some observations:

2014 really showcases three inspirational stories for writers: Singer, Border and Nelson all broke in on underdog, Cinderella story scripts that had been in development hell for years. Some might take that as a good sign for other writers trying to break in, a cynic might say that it’s a good sign for other writers who’ve had scripts in development hell for years. Time will tell.

Over 50% of these scripts came from writer-directors. Writer-directors (or hyphenates) can get away with stories regular writers can’t. If you really want to tell personal stories through screenwriting, your best bet is to direct them yourselves, or find a director you’re completely sympatico with.

Almost all of these scripts spent years in development hell. What that means for the beginning writer is that you’re not just competing with scripts written this year, you’re competing with scripts that were written 15 years ago as well. Craig Borten spent 20 years pushing Dallas Buyers Club.

A lot of these guys broke in during the 90’s indie scene. While that’s to be expected (it takes years to get good), the indie market has shrunk and these guys are still in that space. Hence, there are fewer opportunities for the future Woody Allens, Nicole Holofcners and Kevin Smiths to develop in that space. I’m really tired of amateur writers writing based on case studies from the 90’s, it’s a completely different business universe now. Also note, we’re going to be competing with the 90’s guys forever. While they won’t have the longevity of Woody Allen, thank god, their existence and the shrinking market makes it that much harder for a 2010’s writer to break in.

I’ll leave you with some screenwriting advice from Andres Heinz (Black Swan): Follow your heart, do something you believe in, but also be aware of the market. It’s a very difficult climate right now to make a living as a writer. Nobody is taking any chances. You need to know who your audience is because that’s the first thing producers are going to look at.