An outline is a reality check.

I’m skeptical of people who are too vocal about never outlining. For every one person who doesn’t need to outline, there are a hundred that do.

Some people seem to see any form out outlining as a form of hackery or cheating. Breaking down a story into beats? Cheating. Identifying a premise and then identifying sequences that flow from that premise? Cheating. Using three act structure? Cheating.

While it’s true that some scripts flow fully formed in a bout of gorgeous inspiration, not all scripts do. While some scripts are discovered in the process of the writing, not all are. Outlines, beats, act structures are all just tools that are available to us. They’re not magic cure-alls, but a screenwriter should know his or her way around them.

One of the benefits of my coaching practice is that I get to see the work habits of a variety of different writers.

The majority of beginning writers write both sloppily and slowly. They put off outlining and end up with scripts that are conceptually anemic, lacking an involving story or fun specifics. That would be fine if they used a first draft as a de facto outline, but many times they don’t. They produce a glut of content, but never get around to organizing it in any meaningful way. Then they proceed to approach a rewrite without any working knowledge of structure, and that compounds the problem.

If someone can’t tell their story in 200 words , they probably can’t tell their story at all, because they haven’t fully recognized the core mechanics that move and shape their story.

People don’t outline perfectly, nor should they. Most people outline a little, then write, then re-outline, then finish writing, then outline what they’ve written, then adapt that outline for another draft. That’s perfectly fine, indeed, a lot of the art that’s in a screenplay is discovered in these seeming inefficiencies.

Outlining helps provide proof of concept in the initial phases of pre-writing, and it provides a road map in the throes of actual composition. When a draft is finished, it’s useful to re-outline, to inventory what’s there so you have a scale model of your script that makes planning the rewrite easier.

Not everyone needs to outline, but my feeling is a lot of the people who say they don’t need to outline might improve their writing by applying outlining techniques at various phases of development.

Published by Matt Lazarus

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

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