The Outlining Process (part 1)...

For most of us, outlining is a very important part of the screenwriting process. But there’s always quite a bit of debate regarding how involved an outline should be. Some writers prefer simple bullet points, while others want their outlines to be more in-depth. Some outlines can be a page or two; some can be in the 30-40-page range. Personally, I feel the more in-depth the outline, the easier it is to eventually get your story laid out in a cohesive form. After all, it’s not just a matter of determining what happens first, second, third, etc., it’s also important to determine some of the details that make up your characters, their setting, and bits and pieces of the plot that push your story forward. Knowing these things can help you determine if your story is working or not – and they will help you to see the movie that's playing in your mind. So let’s now take a look at two different types of outlines.

The Bullet Point Outline

This type of outline briefly touches on what each scene is about. No detail, just the bare bones. For instance:

1). Joe arrives home from work. He finds his wife’s dead body in the bedroom. She’s been killed!

2). Joe is interviewed by a police detective.

3). A week later, Joe is back at work; he can barely get through the day.

4). After work, Joe goes to a neighborhood bar and has had a bit too much to drink. He meets Carla, an attractive young lady.

5). Joe takes Carla back to his place and they “have a good time.”

6). The next morning, Joe wakes up…and discovers Carla’s dead body in bed beside him. She’s been killed!

OK, this seems like a pretty decent start. It’s a solid “bullet point” description of what happens during the first act of the screenplay. But…you’ve really only uncovered the tip of the iceberg when you plot out your scenes in this manner. As you write the script, you’ll inevitably ask yourself some important questions, and it’s best to get these questions answered while you can still easily make changes.

So let's go through these bullet points and ask ourselves some questions, shall we?

1). Joe arrives home from work. He finds his wife’s dead body in the bedroom. She’s been killed.

First of all, do you really want to start the story with Joe arriving at home? Actually, it might be a good idea to establish what Joe’s typical day is like. So, you might want to spend a brief amount of time with him at work. OK, so what kind of work does he do? Blue collar? White collar? Is he the top dog at a big company? Does he have a crummy cubicle? What’s his mood at work? Is he happy and enthusiastic? Is he bored and can’t wait to go home at the end of the day? Does he keep to himself? Is he friendly with co-workers?

Then what kind of house is Joe arriving at? Is it located in a low-income neighborhood? Is it a pricey neighborhood? What type of house is it? Is it an old-style cottage with a Spanish tile roof? Is it a Craftsman house? Is it a rambling ranch-style house? Is it a large Colonial? Establishing these things help you define who your characters are.

Also, what type of car is Joe driving? Is he driving an inexpensive Ford or a brand new SUV? Or is a Mercedes more Joe’s style? Again, knowing some of these details helps define who Joe is and what his world is all about.

When Joe comes into the house, what does he do? Does he come home with a bouquet of flowers and immediately try to locate his wife? If he does, we can assume he’s eager to see her. Does he simply just call out, “I’m home,” then immediately go to the refrigerator, grab a beer, and go to the den to play a video game? By doing this, we assume that perhaps his relationship with his wife ain’t so great. Then perhaps we dissolve to later and Joe realizes that he hasn’t seen his wife since he’s been home. Now he’s wondering where she is. So he gets up off the couch and goes looking for her. Then he finds her in the bedroom, very much dead. But…how was she killed? Was she stabbed? Was she shot? Was she strangled? The manner of her death will certainly be of importance later in the story.

2). Joe is interviewed by a police detective.

Great. So what are some questions the detective might ask? And what is Joe’s demeanor? Is he sad? Does he stare into space and barely get his words out? Does he talk about how his wife had no enemies and that nothing was stolen from the house?

3). A week later, Joe is back at work; he can barely get through the day.

While at work, what’s Joe’s mood? Sure, he’s depressed, but does he show this to his co-workers? Maybe he’s putting on a brave front. Do we introduce another character here – or reintroduce one from the opening office scene? Perhaps this character becomes more important as the story progresses (i.e., he was having an affair with Joe’s wife).

4). After work, Joe goes to a neighborhood bar and has had a bit too much to drink. He meets Carla, an attractive young lady.

After work, Joe goes to a bar and meets Carla. What kind of bar is it? A dive bar? A classy bar? Does Joe drink hard liquor or a couple of beers? Does Carla make the fist move or does Joe? Is Carla a “nice” married girl in town for a convention and looking for a fun, one night thing, or is she a high-priced (or low-priced) call girl?

5). Joe takes Carla back to his place and they “have a good time.”
Joe returns home with Carla and they have sex. Does Carla drive herself to Joe’s, or does Joe bring her in his car? (This seemingly minor detail could become an important plot point later in the script.)

6). The next morning, Joe wakes up…and discovers Carla’s dead body in bed beside him. She’s been killed!

Joe wakes up the next morning and Carla is there beside him...dead. Was she killed in the same manner the wife was killed? Is a murder weapon there? Does Joe call the police right away? Does he call his lawyer first? Are there clues in the room that tell us perhaps Joe is the killer?

By asking questions – by digging deeper into your scenes – you are better able to map out the direction your screenplay takes.

In one of my upcoming blogs, I will provide an example of an In-Depth Outline for these scenes.

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APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

3 comments:

Pamela said...

Thanks for this! I'm looking forward to Part 2.

Cheers

bethany said...

Oh great blog. Enjoy reading this.

Danielle said...

Thanks so much!