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.

The Beats of a Screenplay.

If I’ve learned anything in years of discussing screenwriting online, it’s that people have an unending appetite for being told that they CAN write, but that they violently resent being told HOW to write. Even the merest suggestion of assumed orthodoxy can set off flame wars. Writers rarely agree on anything.

People hear beats and they tend to think of guys like Blake Snyder, who codified entire systems of beats – inciting incidents, darkest moments, fun and games. Let’s leave those aside for now, while those might be a KIND of beat, they’re not the only kinds of beats.

Beats are not inherently formulaic, they become formulaic once people start making assumptions about what “must” be in them.

There are two kinds of beats: the beats of a story and beats within a scene.

Beats within a story: John August says that your average story can be written in 30-50 index cards. A beat is a unit of story. Scripts tend to have around 40 beats, so in practical terms a beat is about 2.5 pages and is simply a moment in a story that justifies 1/40th of the narrative (or 1/30th, or something else, depending on the number of beats). It could be an action moment, it could be expository, it could be really emotional. It’s just a generic unit of measure, saying scripts tend to be made up of beats is like saying novels tend to be made up of sentences or chapters.

A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat. “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean.

Beats within a scene: In the same way a story beat is a unit of a screenplay, a scene beat is a unit of a scene. There aren’t any hard, fast rules for these, but they represent the major moments in a scene.

For instance, the beats in this scene might be:

  • Buzz works on his “spaceship”
  • Woody confronts Buzz
  • Woody opens Buzz’s helmet, Buzz panics
  • Woody realizes Buzz thinks he’s the real deal, mocks him

Again, there’s no hard rules for beats, one could break down the referenced scenes in more beats or fewer, but the beats of a scene represent a higher level view of what’s going on in the scene, over and beyond the action and dialogue.

If you’ve read this far, you might ask, why does screenwriting use the same term for two different things? That’s a fair question, and I don’t have an answer. Screenwriting terminology is often fuzzier than we might like, but you learn to live with it.

Someone is probably going to say that beats are an artificial construct, and that you don’t need to use them. That’s fair, no one needs to do anything, but a lot of people do use them, and you may find them helpful.

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.

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.

 

 

Beat sheets and how to use them

A “beat sheet” is a form of an outline. In this form, you can think of each beat as an individual unit of plot, so a beat sheet in an outline that’s specific purpose is to touch on each of those.  (John August’s screenwriting.io).

Note that beat sheets are also commonly written after there is a draft of a screenplay. I’ve asked my assistants to do a beat sheet of a script I’m about to begin rewriting so that I’ll have a roadmap of how things are arranged.  (JohnAugust.com)

You’ll find I talk a lot about “forty beats” in the pages of this blog, and when I say that I’m really talking about a beat sheet.  A beat sheet is just a list of what happens in the story.  It can be written after the fact, as a precis of what’s in the draft, or it can be written in the development process as you try to flesh out your story.

A beat sheet is an agnostic tool.  A lot of writing “gurus” like to map out the beats according to their personal theories on how stories are told.  Take these with a grain of salt, when talking with another writer or producer never try to impose conflate the concept of beats with a theory on how they should be used, it just leads to an argument.

So in brief, a beat sheet is an inventory of the key moments that exist in your script.  They are commonly used after the script is written.

There are ways to create a beat sheet before you write your screenplay (most approaches that use index cards on a board create a de facto beat sheet that’s intended to help develop the outline and facilitate the writing of the first draft).

As an exercise, I like to have my clients test their story ideas in beat sheet form before they start writing.  This is a good test to see if you have enough content to fill 100 pages.  This is also the hardest exercise I’ve ever come up with, so hard that 90% of people get discouraged while doing it (when something’s that hard, it’s the fault of the dumb teacher who inadequately explained the exercise, me, than the people).

With that said, I’d like to break down the exercise a little more in my next blog post, in the hopes of making it easier and more useful.  When done right, it’s a powerful development tool.

From idea to rewrite in seven (not so) easy steps!!!

People love breaking life’s challenges into “X Number of Easy Steps.”  Life loves to make these people look like fools.  Anything worth doing is more complicated than it looks, anything that promises easy competence is setting you up for failure.

Beginner's Guides - the promise vs the reality.
Beginner’s Guides – the promise vs the reality.

That being said, I’m sure this easy seven step guide will be totally different!  So let’s dive in.

How to take your screenplay from outline to rewrite in 7 easy steps!

Ideas
Step 1 – Idea

Ideas come from the brain (duh).  The brain is always flipping through memories like a million monkeys on typewriters.  Every experience, memory, dream and idea you have floats around in there.  Every so often two ideas come together, something sparks, and a new idea is born.  Carry a recording device to capture these ideas when they happen, the trick isn’t having ideas, it’s knowing which ideas to write down and having a place to put them when you do.

Step 2 – Premise test

Does your story fit into this form? If it doesn’t, you may have a problem.

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

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Step 3 – The one page synopsis/three act handle.

Are there other ways to write a script beyond the three act structure?  Of course.  Does writing the script along the lines of the only pattern you can count on an executive to recognize actually hurt?  No.  Remember, screenwriting is less about reinventing the formulas, and more about using the formulas to tell a unique and beautiful story that means something to you while still playing in the wheelhouse of the familiar.

Step 4 – 40 Beats
The next step between the handle and the outline is a list of 40 beats. A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat.  “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your beat could plausibly take up 1/40th of a script (three pages). If it can’t, it’s not a beat.

2013-09-05 11.18.01

* This is the hardest step.  Everyone fails here and says fuck it, I’ll figure it out in the writing post.  Don’t do that.  By being disciplined here, you’ll save yourself time and pain down the road.  If you have any questions, email me at mattjlazarus at gmail dot com.  I’ll help you, promise.

Step 5 – Outline.

Your 40 beats are 40 containers into which story is poured.  They’re currently empty vessels with seven word labels on them, here’s where you want to write down everything you have.  It’s all got to fit into one of these 40 ideas.

If you start coming up with scene after scene that isn’t in your 40 beats, create new beats, but go back and reevaluate your structure.  If you’re finding tons of content that you didn’t see at the high level view, that’s fine, but it suggests that you’re not writing the story you initially though you were, and you should go back and re-logline and re-do the handle.  Try to make each beat at least 200 words with minimal dialogue and lots of ideas for cool images and moments.  This will yield you an 8,000 word outline.

If you’re having trouble here, you don’t have enough movie moments to flesh out your idea.  Try tweaking the means of the script.

Step 6 – Draft

If you’ve done the above steps right (you probably haven’t, I don’t, most writers can’t work this robotically), writing the draft will be a breeze.  You’re not really thinking, you’re just rendering ideas you’ve already had in screenplay form.  It should feel pretty easy.  If you get stuck, you’re probably feeling problems with scene craft, which is a completely different subject to work on.   But still, you’re only writing 20-25,000 words.  You already know what order they go in, and you’ve written one third of the words you need in the heavy lifting stage of the outline.

Step 7 – Rewrite

Once you finish, let your draft sit for a few weeks, so you get perspective.  Then go through and reread it, making notes on every page.  Then you’re going to want to break your script down into a handle again, and make a list of all your beats, and then re-outline before you write the next draft.  And so on and so forth until you sell the damn thing or your brain breaks from nihilistic despair.

It’s just that easy!

Except it’s not.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.  But by using a firm and rigorous set of steps to develop your craft, you save yourself a lot of pain and heartache in the long run.

The path from logline to outline to draft is not a straight line.

The treatment is a necessary step in the process, but very few people can solve a story on the beat outline level.  To combat that problem, think of the process as a continuum, and if you’re stuck on one phase of the continuum, the best way to do it is jump to a different perspective (see video game example, bel0w).

Image

People often want to check these items off, one at a time.  This leads to incomplete outlines.

If you’re stuck in an outline jump back to a treatment.

If you want to see if a beat works, you can write it as a screenplay draft, but don’t be seduced into thinking it’s time to skip the outline.

Changing perspectives allows you to solve problems in different ways with different tools.

 

A simple trick that separates a weak logline from a strong one.

“Torn by his daughter’s suicide, an existentialist writer must recapture his faith in humanity while journeying in a magic wonderland.”  Not a real logline, but I’ve read dozens that were very similar.

Loglines like this skirt around the actual meat of the movie. They don’t have a single picture in them. I get the goal, but I need to see the visual means by which the goal is achieved.  The means are very, very important.

Example: “A teen gets stuck in the past and must make his parents fall in love or he’ll die.”

This logline is a premise, but it doesn’t suggest anything about how it’ll be executed.

  • It could be dark: He must make sure his parents fall in love by brutally murdering their other partners.
  • It could be trippy: He must make use of the machine from ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND to create a magical world of memory traps to ensure they fall in love.
  • It could be talky: In service of this goal, he engages on a series of existential conversations a la MY DINNER WITH ANDRE.
  • It could be 80’s formula: To survive, he must teach his dorky dad how to beat the town bully in the county-wide drag race.
  • Or it could be Back to the Future: He must teach his dad to be a man while avoiding the town bully and his amorous mother in a series of clever action bits and scams that inadvertently create 50’s teen culture.

That’s why I created my logline template (is Lazarus Logline taken? Too much?) to ensure that you include the means in your logline. Here is the same story but with different means:

Example: “A nerdy kid must learn karate with the help of an unorthodox, wise teacher or else lose his girl and get destroyed by bullies.”

  • A young jester must learn to joust with the help of an unorthodox magician to destroy an evil knight and get the maiden fair.
  • In a world where only teens are sharp enough to play a video game that pilots space ships, a young cadet must learn to fly with the help of an unorthodox trainer or else lose his girl to a dickish hotshot.
  • In the zombie blighted ruins of America, a young farmer must learn to slay the zed or else lose his girl to a wandering mercenary.
  • A kid from the inner city must learn to fence or else lose his scholarship and lose his girl to the captain of the Yale team.

The means allow you to see what the image is on the poster, they change a karate movie to a MMA movie, a standup comedy movie, or even a zombie movie. If you know what the means are, you can make a list of how you’ll explore them. These become your set pieces in the second act. More on that later.

You might be thinking, “I’ve read a lot of loglines, and none of these go into such detail on the means.”  You’re right.  This is an exercise that over-emphasizes the means of your story.  By focusing on it now, you’ll internalize this very useful principle so that you’ll internalize it and ensure that you’re actual logline hints at the means and the genre of the story in a more elegant way.

The means are one of many tricks that take a logline from terrible to average. They help you crystallize your idea in a way that transmits from your mind to another mind without losing fidelity.