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One of the most heated debates in screenwriting circles is, should you or shouldn’t you outline? Bust that one out in a Los Angeles coffee shop and within half an hour, you’ll have 17 police cars surrounding the place and at least one screenwriter being dragged out of the venue without a shirt on screaming, “He didn’t even understand what an inciting incident was!!” Happens at least once a week in my neighborhood.
I’m a strong believer in outlining, as are most professional writers. I’d say about 90% of working professionals outline their scripts ahead of time. With that said, we are still talking about art here. And there’s no single way to create a work of art. For that reason, if you are anti-outline, I want to share with you the best way to write a script without one.
But before we do that, I want to talk about why professionals prefer outlining. You see, almost every screenwriter starts off thinking outlining is pointless. They write four or five scripts without one before realizing that, wait a minute, you actually spend more time rewriting a screenplay than writing one.
Once you understand that, you ask yourself, “What preventative measures can I take to lessen the amount of rewriting I have on the back end?” They figure out that if they can do more work on the front end, before they write the script, it can actually save them a lot of time when the rewrites start. And hence a belief in outlining is born.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to write a script without an outline is that while you’ll have a general sense of your story ahead of time (where you want that character death to happen and how that plot twist is going to play out), it’s all very nebulous. And because it’s nebulous, once you start writing, you realize you don’t have nearly as much story as you thought you did. So you add that character death on page 20 and that plot twist on page 30. The next thing you know, you’re on page 45 and you’ve already written down all of your ideas. You’re now staring off a cliff of uncertainty, wondering where to take the story next.
Had you planned for that moment ahead of time, you probably would’ve been able to prevent it. And that’s why outlining is so helpful.
It’s so helpful, in fact, that I’m fascinated with why most beginners are so against it. So I started asking them. At first I got a lot of answers like, “It restricts creativity,” and, “It’s not real writing.” But when I pushed, I realized the answer was simpler. Most beginners don’t outline because they don’t understand the 3-Act structure. How can you outline if you don’t know the structure the outline will be based on??
That, then, becomes our first rule for writing a non-outlined script.
Rule #1: You need to learn as much about the 3-Act structure as possible.
I don’t care if you outline or don’t outline. A script needs structure. You need to be writing towards certain pillars in the story that are only there if you understand how storytelling works. The issue with most beginners is they only see one checkpoint in a screenplay, the end. Understanding the 3-act structure allows you to have multiple checkpoints, breaking the script down into more manageable chunks. The first act is the SETUP and takes up ~25 pages. The second act is the CONFLICT and takes ~50 pages, and the third act is the RESOLUTION and takes ~25 pages. The better you understand structure, the easier it will be to write your script in a non-outlined format.
Now, one of the big advantages to not outlining is that you’ll come up with more creative ideas. When one outlines, they’re looking at the script from a bird’s eye point of view. It’s hard to be creative from that perspective. You come up with your best stuff when you’re in the trenches, seeing the story through the character’s eyes. That’s where those ideas really pop. Which leads us to our second rule.
Rule #2: You must have an active imagination.
If you don’t have an active imagination and aren’t the super-creative type, don’t write a script without an outline. This type of of writing requires that you have a LOT of ideas. Remember, you haven’t mapped out your story ahead of time. You’ll inevitably be hitting a lot of dead ends. So you’ll need a steady stream of creative ideas to keep the story moving.
This leads us to our third rule, which is similar to the second, yet no less important.
Rule #3: Release all judgment.
This is ESSENTIAL to writing a non-outlined script (and when you think about it, it’s essential to writing any script). If you judge your writing when you’re working without an outline, you will bog yourself down and eventually give up. You must release any thoughts of “this isn’t good enough,” as “flow” will be your best friend when you haven’t outlined. Once the flow dies, the script stops. So you don’t want any judgement rearing its head, making your life miserable. Weird idea? Follow it. Bad idea. Take a chance on it. Release all judgement and keep those fingers typing!
Rule #4: Your first draft becomes your outline.
When you get to the end of your non-outlined script, guess what you have? You have your outline! That’s right. When you write without an outline, your first draft becomes your outline. Your job, now, will be to assess what you like and don’t like about your draft, write down the changes you want to make, go write your next draft, and THAT DRAFT will actually be your “first draft.”
As much as I believe outlining is important to writing a professional level script, I understand it has its drawbacks. Outlining can become a reason not to write, as you get bogged down in outline details instead of going in there and doing the actual writing. We’re all different. We all approach our creative process differently. As long as you understand the pros and cons of a method, you can make an educated decision on which option is right for you. If writing without an outline feels like your jam, I’m not going to discourage you from adding it to your sandwich. Just don’t punch the guy sipping the caramel macchiato next to you because he thinks theme is more important than character.