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Writing Diary – Remembering the Importance of the Outline


I’ve had this script idea hanging around in my head for over a decade. It’s based on true events, and true events rarely fit into a nice 4-Act structure (or 3-Act structure if that’s what you believe in). I’ve tried tackling it at various timed over the past few years, but I always hit a road block. I’ve used every type of motivation imaginable, especially recently, to try and get myself over the hump and finally just get the damn thing on paper. I’ve tried joining writers’ groups and taking writing classes in an effort to force myself to actually do the work. The most recent writing class that I took started with the most promise, and I thought that maybe I had found the spine. I drafted a beat outline and I wrote a 3-page treatment, and I even wrote the first act of the script. Then life intervened, as it often does, and I completely lost my momentum. There were a few times where I opened up the file, and then proceeded to stare at the treatment and at the beat outline with no real inspiration to keep the story going.

And yet, even after all of this time and all of this struggle, I still desperately want to write this script. I believe that it’s an important story that needs to be told, and that cinema is the perfect vehicle for its telling. And yet, more months have gone by without another word being committed to paper or pixels. Finally, in a last ditch effort to get this thing written, I joined a Mastermind group. Mastermind groups usually consist of 8-12 people from a similar industry and with similar professional goals that could be outside of their current professions, and they meet and form teams to assist each other along in trying to accomplish those goals with an idea that the group provides accountability for the individuals to actually work on their projects. You don’t want to be the only one at a Check In who doesn’t have anything to share or hasn’t done any work. So with this desire to avoid public shaming, I’m moving forward with this script.

What’s nice about the Mastermind group that I didn’t really have, even in the screenwriting class, is a real sense of structure. My main goal is to finish the screenplay this year so that I have a polished script that is ready to submit to agencies and studios. However what’s different is that writing the script is just the overall goal. As a part of my Mastermind tasks I had to break it down into quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals. As I accomplish those smaller goals, I move closer to the larger goal of completing the screenplay.

As I was constructing these goals, I decided that the first thing I needed to do was to rework the outline. So much time had passed since I did any thoughtful work on the script, I felt the need to re calibrate the story, and perhaps think about it from a new point of view. Even though I felt before that I had discovered the spine of the story, something must have been holding me back which allowed be to put it down without prioritizing the idea of picking it back up again. There must have been something missing from the outline that was making it difficult to actually see the individual scenes in my head enough so that I could actually write them.

When I first wrote out the beat outline, I broke the story down into 24 scenes. In looking at the outline compared to what I had written so far in the script, it really seemed like the outline was giving me rough sequences that were very general, but not at all specific. I took the scenes in the outline that I had already written and relabeled them sequences, and then I created a bullet list under the paragraph of one to two sentence descriptions of the individual scenes. Once I got to the end of the portion of the outline that had script pages, I pressed ahead and imagined what the individual scenes will be in sequences yet to be written. I’ve made it about half way through the outline, and now I feel like I actually have really figured out the spine of the story, and I’ve created some tangible momentum as I move forward in developing the story.

The lesson is that, even though I’ve written scripts in the past, I should know that I can’t just jump in and start writing pages with a minimum amount of prep work. The real work of writing a script is in the preparation. The treatment, and even more so the outline, is where you create the story. The writing of the screenplay should be nothing more than filling in the blanks. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the basics. But when you’re struggling to find your voice, going back to the basics will always provide you with the road map to finding your way.

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