Friday Questions on Ken Levine’s blog is all about outlining, and I’ve spent the day scribbling on rectangles of coloured card and moving them around a cork board – so it must be time to talk about breaking, outlining, and generally planning screenplays.
I used to hate planning. Forget outlines, let’s go with pure inspiration! Plunge right into the story and see where it goes! Then I found out that “where it goes”, in the absence of a plan, is round and round in circles.
In fairness, I try to have my cake (Cherry Bakewell, preferably) and eat it. I often write what some writers call a ‘vomit draft’, and I call a ‘proof of concept’ draft. That is, I splurge all the scenes and events in my head into an incomplete, mostly incoherent draft about thirty pages long. There’ll be a lot of the first act, a few scenes from the second, and maybe a crucial part of the ending.
This functions as a back-of-an-envelope scribble recording who my characters are and what I wanted this story to be about. Some of the scenes make it into the eventual draft; many don’t, but they serve their purpose by illustrating story points that do.
But that’s the fun bit over with. Then comes the planning.
The advantage of outlining before writing is that you can concentrate on one thing at a time. If you start writing scenes straightaway, you’re trying to figure out who your characters are, work on the broad sweep and the scene-by-scene action of your plot, decide on settings, costume, and write your dialogue, all at once. Planning enables you to put together a story one layer at time – like a composer orchestrating a melody, adding each instrument in turn and checking they work together.
Maybe you’re a character-first writer: I’m a plot-first writer. Doesn’t matter which you are: you can start with one, add the other, then deepen your theme, work on your settings, design your action sequences or comedy set-pieces…
Writers often change their methods as they progress through their career. At the moment, I start with basic events on bits of card, then break the story down into eight sequences, written in brief on eight sheets of paper.
Over the last few months, I’ve started doing a detailed scene-by-scene outline, as you would for a TV episode, for each sequence before writing it. The advantage here is that it forces me to write each scene without dialogue, or at most with a couple of sample lines. That helps focus me on telling the story visually, and on what precisely how the events unfold on the screen.
The other thing I’ve found really helpful is charting exactly what each character wants in each sequence of the story, preferably in order of importance. So in sequence one, I might have –
TOMMY WANTS to check whether there really are terrorists holding the Board of Directors hostage; ask Jodie the intern to go out with him; finish the photocopying.
This reminds me to make sure all those wants get fulfilled or thwarted at some point during the sequence. Especially valuable for minor characters, whose needs and motivations can be lost in the ongoing action.
I may be wrong, of course, but I’m starting to think that careful planning is the sign of the mature writer. So how about you? What’s your technique?