If your approach to writing an outline is to not write an outline, then you’re probably the not-so-proud owner of a drawer full of half-finished screenplays. Outlining saves you a lot of heavy lifting and makes the process of writing your screenplay feel the way it should: enjoyable. Side-step the late night cry-eating and writing rage-athons by checking out these five reasons to outline your script. See if you’re still a sworn pantser by the the end of it.
1. Reduce rewrites
An outline is a lot easier to fix when you notice a huge logic or storytelling issue, and it’s a lot easier to forgive the friend who pointed the problem out to you. Get your basic idea on the page, then work it out. It’s better to spend three hours on a rough outline and realize there’s a gaping logic hole, than to spend three months writing a feature screenplay and realize the same thing. Working in broad strokes before you paint the finer details, helps you to see the overall picture and more effectively craft the nitty-gritty.
2. Kill less, master structure
Spare the lives of darlings by preventing them from ever being born (insert evil cackle). When you write fast, short, and dirty — you have less emotional investment in the early stages of your creation. If you’ve ever written a script, and you know a scene isn’t working but you can’t bring yourself to cut it because of one hilarious line of dialogue – it’s because you didn’t make sure that the story worked in the outline stage. It’s hard to scrap writing you’re impressed with, but if it doesn’t move the story forward then it doesn’t belong on the page. Avoid getting caught up in your own amazingness by making sure that your story works before you start writing side-splitting dialogue.
3. Work faster & easier
Outlining allows you to write your screenplay faster and avoid writer’s block. If you find that writing the first act is really fun, but after a few pages into the second act it begins to feel like an excruciating slog – it’s because you didn’t write from an outline. If you don’t know what comes next and you’re #YOLO-ing your way through the script, you’ll eventually find yourself facing a dead end. By knowing what each consecutive scene is, and the purpose of each scene, you take all of the hard work out of writing your script. By using this approach, you can get the first draft of your script written much faster, then come back in and finesse.
4. Know your story
Outlining helps you to understand your story better. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone talking about their script, and it’s taking an eternity for them to spit it out? Then, after they’re finished torturing you, you realize that you still have no idea what the heck their script is about. That’s because they don’t either. They have some concepts and characters, but no actual story. A story can be told in one line. If you can’t do that with your script idea, then you really need to go back to the outline. By boiling down your story to its most concise form, you have a better understanding of what you’re actually saying and why you’re saying it.
5. More shots fired = more targets hit
You can pitch an outline but you can’t pitch a half-finished screenplay. Don’t blow your first, and maybe only (pressure!!!), opportunity by dropping the ball. You can write three effective outlines in half the time it takes to write one semi-effective screenplay. If you’re trying to make a spec sale, it’s a good idea to have several bullets* in your gun in case the producer, studio, or agent you’re pitching to isn’t vibing on your one-and-only masterpiece. Sure, you might spend a week destroying your body with NoDoz attempting to turn that outline into a screenplay – but you might sell it.
*Please note: bullets are a metaphor for ideas – don’t shoot anyone to get your movie made!
Super Villain Tip:
If you have a concept or character that you want to explore, try writing three wildly different outlines based on the concept/character. Work the idea until you have the best possible outline.