Common beginner problem: A fear of outlining, even at the rewrite stage.

My platonic ideal of developing a screenplay:

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

  1. Express an idea as a logline.
  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.
  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.

That said, it’s incredibly rare to be able to work this linearly. What happens, is people start on steps 1-3, get bored, write a little, use that to inform a rewrite on steps 1-3, write some of step 4, etc. That’s fine, it happens, the inefficiencies in the process are what creates the art..

That said, the 40 beats are the structure of the story, and you’re going to have to have them eventually. Without them, it’s hard to envision, hard to pitch, hard to rewrite, and you generally end up with a story that lacks a coherent second act that flows logically from your premise . My major argument for the 40 beats is it’s a quick list/view that allows you to see how many of your story beats actually pertain to your concept.

Not everyone can think like that. That’s fine, if you need to write a vomit draft first, do so (though outlining is a skill you’re going to need to build anyway).

My patience for a non-linear approach runs out when people can’t synopsize their own work. This is more common than you’d think.

To rewrite your script, the first thing you should do is inventory everything that’s in there so you know what’s working and what’s not. Write a 1-2 page synopsis, then rewrite that synopsis, use that rewritten synospis to guide the rewrite of the script.

This is common sense, but a lot of writers I work with seem to be afraid of it. It’s as if they don’t want to know what’s there. They’re afraid of seeing the flaws in their work, so they skip this step, and start rewriting individual scenes without a plan until they get fed up and start a new project.

If you don’t kill the fear that prevents you from outlining, you’re unlikely to get better. The fear is the fundamental problem, trouble outlining is the symptom.

I use this analogy:

Once, there was a guy who had a messy room. He refused to clean it because he’d lost his class ring and if it wasn’t in that room he’d have lost it completely. The guy never cleaned it because he’d rather have the possibility of the ring being there rather than clean the room and possibly know for certain that he’d lost it for ever.

Don’t be that guy. The messy room is the script, the “ring” is your original vision. It’s in there, I promise, but you won’t find it unless you clean the room.

Most second acts suck. Here’s a tip on how to fix that.

I read scripts for money. I enjoy it. I like reading, I like teaching, and reading has given me insights that have helped my own craft.

But 90% of the time, I end up writing some variation of this paragraph:

The script starts late – it spends 35 or so pages setting up the whys and wherefores of its complicated setup, and then does nothing with it. The second act only spends two scant setpieces exploring the ostensible main idea, and spends the rest with talky, pro forma scenes that could be swapped into almost any other movie of the genre.

Let’s unpack this:

* First acts should be efficient. We want to sketch out the rules of the world, the main goal, and the main opposition, then we’re off to the races. If you’re still explaining the difference between quantum cyborgs and nexus cyborgs by page 41, your premise is already dead in the water.
* Second acts are usually underpopulated. When I was starting out, I was always proud of my first acts, which felt fun and writerly, but I would sort of bullshit my way through the second act on my way to the big finish. This seems to be a general trend with writers.
* Premise is your friend – if a premise is working, the movie is working. If you do a story about a werewolf cop, the story is clicking whenever his werewolfing is complicated by his policing. If you put in something that’s not related to the core concept, you’ll have to work twice as hard.

Let me be perfectly clear: the second act basically is the movie. If you don’t have 4-8 dynamite sequences that relate to your concept in your second act, you’ve basically written an overstuffed short, something that could be written in 10-20 pages. Shorts are a noble art form and everyone should try writing one, but they won’t make you rich enough to change your life, so let’s move on.

Redundant metaphor: if a script is a sandwich, act one is bread, act three is bread, act two is the meat that the bread contains. You don’t make an anemic sandwich better by adding a third slice of bread.

Before anyone says “yeah, but I write art movies so spare me your commercial hackery,” the idea of premise also applies to art movies. If you spend 25 pages explaining why the Maori woman must go to the sacred rock to atone for her miscarriage, I want the second act to explore Maori stuff and human drama, I don’t want to see a bunch of talky bullshit that could come from any other movie.

Ultimately, a movie is its second act. That’s the money part, that’s where the premise is explored. When someone pitches a comedy with a premise like “Zombie OKCupid,” they’re making an implicit promise that they can find enough funny moments in the second act to justify whatever inane setup that movie would require. If the zombie Okcupid stuff is funny, the comedy is succeeding, if all the jokes come from two human characters, the premise is a wash.

So second acts are important, and they’re mostly made of setpieces. Big moments, movie moments. If it’s an action movie, it’s gotta be action. If it’s a talky drama set in Regency England, the costumes have got to be gorgeous, the talk eloquent, and the drama dramatic. If it’s a zombie OKCupid movie… you get the idea.

A good premise yields 4-8 obvious moments. A good premise is one where even your non-writing mother gets excited and pitches you an idea that could work in your story. A bad premise is one that only yields one or two ideas.

People talk of premises being light, loose, or “soft for development.” What this means it that the premise doesn’t yield enough ideas to populate a second act and that it’s hard to imagine more. So if you want to write a movie about zombies attacking a farm, make sure you can think of enough specific, fun moments to make your story worth telling. If you can’t, you’re better served by picking a different premise, one that’s more fraught with evident possibility.

TLDR: Before you write an idea, make a list of 4-8 sequences that logically flow from your main idea. If you can’t, your premise might be too soft for development.

This can be fixed with the help of a diagnostic logline.

It’s easier to write every day if you get organized first.

People say that the secret to screenwriting is to “just write.” It’s sound advice, but it’s also convenient advice. It’s right up there with “just be yourself,” “have fun with it,” and “go with your gut,” advice that’s got a grain of truth in it, but that’s also frequently used by lazy people who don’t want to put much thought into the question you’ve asked.

So, while I agree with the advice of “write every day,” I like breaking it down a few steps further.

If you’re going to write every day, you need two things: a place to write, and a place to put the writing you do.

The absolute easiest place to put your writing is in a flexible catchall like Evernote. I like evernote because it’s searchable and flexible, and if you’re ever super bored, you can spend a day curating the ideas that you’ve stored there. But honestly, anything that’s searchable will work. In the age of modern computing, you can save all your documents to one folder and use your computer’s search feature to find keywords or hashtags if you ever want to tie all your fight scenes together.

The other thing you’re going to to need is a place to write. Some writers like to take their laptop out to a Starbucks. If that works for you, more power to you. But most writers have a desk or a workspace. Most beginning writers don’t use this space well. Your desk is your physical locus of control for your projects, the cockpit you sit in as you navigate your craft deep into the subconscious. If you’re using your desk as a big horizontal shelf, it’s not serving it’s intended purpose.

So if you’re stuck on writing every day, spend a day getting organized. Clean everything off your desk, keep it clear so you have a nice clean space to mess up with all the keystrokes, post-its and scrawling you’re going to make in the service of creativity. Get your notes off your gmail drafts, your iNotes, and the post-its on your mirror and put them all into a place that is easy to search.

If you’re serious about writing, you’re going to spend every day of the rest of your life doing it. Make sure you carve out enough space to make that task easy.

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