There are two kinds of documents screenwriters often tackle before they begin work on a script. They’re related, but intended for different audiences.
Think of an Outline as a set of directions for your writing. It doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be something you understand to guide you when you get to work.
A Treatment still tells the story from start to finish, but it’s not just for you: It’s a sales document. You’re using it to convince people of the value of your story and coaching them on how to talk about it with others.
For right now, let’s focus on outlines. How can you get the most benefit from them?
Start with the information
It doesn’t sound romantic, but writing is all about determining in what order to present information to the audience. What are you sharing, and when do you share it?
An outline is like exporting from your database of ideas. You have lots of facts about your story you need to keep clear:
- Important objects
- Key dramatic actions
- Moments that alter character relationships
- Ideas for visuals
- Literally anything else you think is important
There are lots of physical and digital ways to track and collate this information, but the most important step is to get it out of your head. Create a space for yourself to take in all the details.
Then it’s time to organize.
Pay Attention to How You Pay Attention
If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to organize the information in your own writing, look at how you experience other people’s writing.
When you watch a movie or a TV show, what keeps you watching?
Grab something to take notes on and sit down to watch. Don’t plan what you’re going to notice, just jot things down.
Then, watch the same thing again, but a little more closely. Fill in the gaps in your notes from the first time.
Look at the way you break down someone else’s story. Is it with bullet lists? Mind maps? Different pages that link together key ideas? A grid or spreadsheet?
There’s no correct way to outline, but you’re better off making an effort to think about the way you think.
The way you naturally want to pick apart and examine something else may be the best way for you to build up your own work.
And it’s a good idea to have that outline.
Don’t be a romantic. Do the work.
Whether you’re the #blessed person with multiple consecutive hours to work on your writing, the person juggling fifteen different things who gets a ten minute burst every so often, or anywhere in-between, your outline supports you.
A good outline reminds you what comes next and why. It reminds you that you have an ending; there’s a goal line to cross.
Outlines make things easier — but that’s not the same as easy. You still have to do the part where you stare into the middle distance, think deeply, and feel artistic. But with an outline, you get some of the work done before that work starts.