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11/25/2002 - The Outline

To outline or not to outline.

That's the million dollar question. I've done it both ways. When you start with just a concept, things can get pretty hairy. You have to figure out who your protagonist is, as well as your antagonist. Then, before you even start writing, you have to decide where your story is going to start. So in a way, you've already started an outline.

Recently, I wrote an outline for a script that was an ensemble drama. As I started writing the outline, when I reached the third act, it became increasingly harder to write the next step in the outline. I pondered the reasons why and figured out it was because I didn't know the characters well enough to know how they would close out the story.

You see, this was one of the most important lessons I have received in the craft of screenwriting. It's not about story most of the time. It's about characters.

So I started writing the script. The deeper I got, the easier it became. Imagine a huge boulder that weighs two tons, sitting at the top of a hill. It's going to take a lot of effort to push that boulder over to the edge. But once it starts rolling down, that big rock picks up momentum and speed as it rolls.

The boulder is your story. Once you start it, and get it going in the right direction, it will tell you where to take it.

In my case, when I reached the middle of act two, I didn't even have to look at the outline anymore because the characters were so well etched in my imagination that I knew exactly what they would do next. And of course, logic tells you which scenes are necessary and which are not.

Before, I was adamant about not writing an outline. I resisted it with every iota of my being. Why? I'm not exactly sure. I guess it was because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to come up with the complete story. So I said to myself "I know the concept already and I know the Hollywood formula, so I'll just run with it." Well, if you enjoy doing lots of rewrites, then go that way. However, if you want to get it halfway right the first time, then I suggest you create a step outline for at least the first two acts.

By the time you reach page 70, that big rock's gonna be rolling like thunder.


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