Kill Your Outline: A Screenwriter’s Guide To Discovering Your Character
By Jacob Krueger
Young writers often get obsessed with writing for the audience. Even in the earliest drafts, their focus is on sneaking in tons of exposition about their characters, layering themes or symbolic motifs, or carefully outlining the mechanics for a surprise ending they think will be the key to selling their script. It’s no wonder that this happens. After all, these are the things that film scholars rave about and film studies classes teach– complex psychological portraits and deep thematic importance, screenplay structures, beat sheets and outlines. So why do movies written this way so often come out flat? Why does it seem like nothing is happening, when the writer has put so much effort into building the psychological life of the character? Why do all the themes and motifs just feel like smoke and mirrors? Why is no one reacting to the surprise ending you’ve worked so hard to craft?
It’s not because these things aren’t important. They are. It’s because you’re focusing on them TOO EARLY. At the beginning of the process there’s only one thing that’s important: the profound journey your character is undertaking and the irrevocable changes in your character’s life that go along with it.
Thematic ideas are not something you impose on your script. They’re something you discover as you get to know your character. Story structure is not something you plot out before you’ve written a single word, it’s something that reveals itself to you as your character’s journey unfolds. Until you figure out your character’s journey, exposition will only slow your movie down, no matter how profound, exciting, or psychologically fascinating your character’s past may be.
“But what about my outline?” you may be thinking. “I already know my character’s journey!” No way. Not likely. If you think you already know your character’s journey before you even sit down to write your character, it’s probably not a very profound journey. How could it be? You don’t even know who your character is yet! In fact, if you can predict your character’s journey before you even start writing, the chances are the audience can too. What could be more boring? Not only for the audience, but for you as a writer.
Your outline may make you feel safe, but great writing is not about painting by numbers. It’s about stepping into your character, and taking a profound journey with her. Kill your outline. Get to know your character. Decide out what she wants more than anything, and enjoy coming up with the most exciting, challenging, and inventive ways you can to make it hard for her to get it. Ask yourself, what’s the best or the worst thing that could happen at this moment? And see how your character reacts when it does.
Forget about exposition or setting up things for the audience. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. For now, just let your character be herself, say what she would say in the situation, and do what she would do. Forget about how it all fits together or what it all means. Instead just follow your character as she strives to get what she wants against impossible odds. Notice her specific behaviors. How she talks and acts differently than anyone else in the world. How she responds to things in unexpected ways. Notice how your dialogue suddenly feels more real and your characters actions more motivated and specific. Notice how your character’s journey reveals itself to you. Notice how a big surprise you never saw coming seems to bubble up from nowhere, and actually surprises you.
Of course, this is only the first step. There will come a time when you do need to focus on your audience. When you need to set things up and pay things off, layer in theme, and hone your structure. But not right now. Right now is the time to keep your focus on what’s really important. Trust your character. Kill your outline.
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