What’s Wrong With Your Outline?
By Jacob Krueger
In life, what happens if you outline everything that’s going to happen to you today? You get very unpleasantly surprised.
What happens if you meet someone on an internet date and start planning your two kids and your dog and your white picket fence? You get very unpleasantly surprised. But also you often end up missing out on really cool stuff.
When you’re writing, eventually what’s going to happen to you is your characters are going to do something you didn’t plan. You’re going to think, “this is the scene where she finally tells him how low she thinks he is,” and instead she kisses him and you’re left wondering, “What just happened? This wasn’t what I planned.”
And that moment is the moment where you make or break it as a writer. Because if you listen to your characters at that moment, you’re going to end up with something awesome. And if you listen to your outline at that moment, you’re building a house of cards. Outlining is incredibly valuable. But it’s only valuable once you know your characters. And the only way you get to know your characters is by writing them.
I had a novelist take this class a couple years ago. He was an award-winning novelist, incredibly successful. He had been outlining his script for two years and he kept feeling he still wasn’t ready. The outline still didn’t make sense. He still couldn’t figure out how things were supposed to happen. I asked him, “Did you outline when you wrote your novels?” And suddenly a look of understanding crossed his face. “No,” he told me. We got him writing and he finished his script in a four week class.
Now not everyone’s going to finish their script in the four week class. This is a guy with an extensive writing practice. And again, it’s not that outlining is bad. It’s just that it’s not helpful if you use it at the wrong time. I used to have to write outlines all the time.
Before I worked as a writer I worked as a producer. And my job: I made up stories. I made up stories, and then we hired professional writers who would screw them up and then they ended up in my office and my job was to fix them. And I really loved it; I was very good at it and it was a lot of fun.
So I had to write outlines all the time and I had to write treatments all the time. And the way I wrote those treatments-my boss didn’t know-but I wrote the movie and then I wrote the treatment. Now I wasn’t doing finished, polished drafts of the movie like I would if I was actually working on a work-for-hire project. But I was writing scenes, movements, structure. I was learning who the characters were, learning how they talked.
Because writing an outline without the experience of knowing your characters is planning a life with somebody after one date. Once you really get to know somebody, once you’ve spent a lot of time with them you can know how they will really react, “If I do this, watch”: You push one button and they blow up.
Think about your best friend. Now stick your best friend in a Star Trek movie and it’s easy, right? You know exactly how they’d react when they first encountered alien life. You know exactly how they’d react the first time they’re on a spaceship because you know them.
The problem with outlining is not that outlining is bad. The problem with outlining is that people do it too early. If I really believed that you guys wouldn’t get attached, I’d say go ahead and outline and just know that it’s all baloney. Go outline away: If outlining makes you feel safe, outline away and then ignore it!
This is how I direct-I don’t direct film but I direct theatre. And when I direct theatre what I do is I actually go through each character as if I was acting the role, and I figure out what the action is underneath every single line. I play around, I build a set out of foam core and I move the little characters around so I know exactly where they go, all their blocking, and then I ignore it. Because as soon as my actors open their mouth they’re going to do something way cooler than I’m going to do, because the truth is my actors are better actors than I am. I like to know that there’s one way through it when I direct so that when an actor comes to me saying, “There’s no way this can work,” I have at least one way it can work. So if you get a feeling of safety from that, do it!
Here’s the problem: Most people get too attached. They’re not willing to throw out an outline, and the harder you work on the outline the less willing you are to throw it out.
So if you insist on outlining, what I would recommend is do four different outlines and make them completely different. Figure out four different ways through your movie, and then you at least know that you’re not locked into one stupid outline, that you’re still going to have a free, safe space to play.