Monday, April 21, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Outlying Outlines

Outlines are boring, so much so that I barely want to write about them.

The main point of outlining lies in the fact that you should know what happens next, so you can allude to it in future scenes and not have to worry about dropping your set-up in earlier (more on set-ups and pay-offs in a later entry.)

Now, I have mixed feelings about outlines. Sometimes, the best surprises are the one you the screenwriter yourself don’t see coming. But, for the above reasons, and also for the sheer sanity of trying to write a work of the size and scope of a screenplay (comparable to a novel or other work in certain elements, or to some plays,) outlining is a must.

So this is my outlining method. Some people might need to outline more. Some less. But, this is the amount of outlining that works for me:

I write a description of each scene, what the major “thrust” of that scene is for me in terms of narrative. This is usually two sentences, sometimes less, followed by an expected page length (which I use to keep in mind towards those act lengths I discussed earlier.)

If I think of a scene that fits in somewhere in between previously written scenes, I just put it in. This is usually after I get farther beyond. Scenes can always be removed during the rewriting process.

So, let’s pretend I’m making a movie called “It Came From Monster Island” about a rag tag group of misfits stranded on an island hunted by a geneticist’s rogue creation. (This is not actually a script I’m working on. I just made that up.)

Part of an outline might look something like this (this is my individual format, you can get as involved or uninvolved in your format as you like:)

Act I
1. Spinning newspaper: “Mysterious Disappearances Baffle Police” (2 lines.) [This is a minor point, but I like if I have an idea for a device like this to write it down with its own point. Typically they are few and far between as it is, or should be.]
2. Newsroom. Ball-busting female reporter Linda Larsen is furious she’s been reassigned off the story. Her manager tells her he’s putting his grandstanding nephew Percy on the case. (3 pages)
3. Larsen confronts Percy in the parking lot outside their office. He tells her she should be happy to avoid this, but she’s adamant. He leaves, and she follows him. (2 pages.)
4. Interview with the police. Capt. Kroger says they have no new leads, but proceeds to lead a SWAT team on boats out to a small island. Percy follows them, Linda stows aboard. (3 pages.)
5. Three gnarly surfer dudes get caught up in a riptide and nearly drown, Percy saves them. (2 pages.)
6. A rogue storm seems to come out of nowhere, crashing both boats on Monster Island. (1 pages.) [note it’s about 11 pages in. It is my sincere belief that if a film is called “It Came From Monster Island” one should get to Monster Island as close to the first 10 pages as possible. This might not even be how I write it, but it’s a guideline for how long I’m shooting for my scenes to be.]
7. The police boat crew is trying to contact the mainland to no avail when they spot Percy, Linda, and the surfers. There’s a brief standoff, but they need to work together to survive. The police want to make camp. But Linda and the surfers think it would be better to ask for help in that creepy laboratory on the island. [3 pages.]
8. The police and Percy talk about the mysterious disappearances possibly being linked to the activities of Dr. Gene Splicer. [2 pages.]
9. FLASHBACK: Dr. Splicer’s creepy experiments. [1 page.]
10. Linda and the surfers explore the lab, finding creepy dead experiments and a very live monster! Linda escapes while the surfers seem to be at the monster’s mercy. [5 pages.]
[Also, note the appearance of monsters by around page 20, near or on the end of the first act]

And so on.

So, that’s one way to outline. Next week, I’ll discuss Set-Ups and Pay-Offs. Good writing!

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