Outlining: the necessary evil

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In the last 2 years the single most important thing I have learned about scriptwriting is the necessity of outlining. I stumbled on it when my first script got stuck midway.
It always helps to know where your story is going. It doesnt mean that you have to function within a well etched out corridor of determinism. You don’t even need to know your climax to start writing a screenplay. But you should be knowing what the basic thread of your story is. There may be some masterpieces out there created without outlining. But I am sure they are very few.
Greatest criticism towards outlining is that writing is spontaneous and outlining makes it mechanistic. I beg to differ.
First of all writing not only means writing the dialogues, the action, the scenes etc. When you are etching out your turns and twists, you are writing too.
Another issue is this notion of writing being a magical, incomprehensible journey which is better left undefined and unchartered. I agree it being all this. But the journey of a writer is not like a derailed train compartment tumbling down the hill. Its more like a seasoned driver handling the hair pin bends. If it was not, why is it that more than 90% of our movies have a central character while the real world don’t have any? Why most of our movies have a favourable outcome for a climax? Why good always win? Why almost always the boy gets the girl?

If writing is so spontaneous, I would expect a 50-50% outcome in all these dualities. The fact that it is not shows that (at least script) writing adheres to certain rules. Scriptwriting tends always to orient towards some basic target points. Some manipulation is definitely present in setting the outcomes. Scriptwriting follows more amount of rules compared to most other forms of writing- technical as well as commercial.
So what does I mean by outlining? I just mean that you etch out all the story elements and characters in your story. Usually by the end of my outlining I know what the major events in my story are. But yet I may not have reached a scene by scene breakdown.
My outlining is not a very structured thing. In fact most of my outlining for ‘The three’ has been done while I was travelling to and fro to my workplace. What happens is that I try to figure out the plot, adding and removing the elements in my mind during travelling. On reaching somewhere I jot it down in some piece of paper. Later when I come home, I go through it and add or remove relevent things to my ‘master outline’ in microsoft one note.
Try it yourself. Its worth it. Its your safest bet against a ‘stuck in the midway’ screenplay.

Photo by Enrico

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5 thoughts on “Outlining: the necessary evil

  1. Nice one. i agree- outlining is very useful. I will do a more thorough outlining for my next screenplay.
    The way I am doing my current one (a sports drama) is- I know the main plot points in my story, they could be from 3-5. I then do an outline 30 pages at a time. The reason I didn’t do a full outline at one shot is that inevitably when I start writing out the scenes, the story itself tend to take some twists and turns so I felt a detailed outline will constrain my thinking…but I am facing difficulties in detailing out some parts…so maybe I was wrong…

  2. I was just going thru the basics of script writing as i was working on my first genius script for my short movie, and came along this page. I agree, and true.

    The must utter way to come up with the most brilliant ideas comes thru improvisation on current status.

    I’m not sure how reliable my comment is in respect to your post.

    Would love to hear a word from you.

    Elias Armali

  3. I was just going thru the basics of script writing as i was working on my first genius script for my short movie, and came along this page.
    I agree, and true.

    The must utter way to come up with the most brilliant ideas comes thru improvisation on current status.

    I’m not sure how reliable my comment is in respect to your post.

    Would love to hear a word from you.

    Elias Armali

    1. yeah true. but the need for a rigorous outlining may be much less in a short film. will depend on the length of the short. if length is less than 10 minutes, too much outlining may result in cramming it up with new elements so that the short may get longer or inconsistent in tone. because shorts try to evoke a transient mood or a tone and it depends on the spontaneity of the writing and editing.

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