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.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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