Hate Outlining? Start With A Screenplay

Last week, during the guest-post-a-palooza, Dan “The Danimal” O’Shea said something along the lines of, “When I’m writing a novel and I try to outline, I fugue out and later wake up covered in blood and surrounded by the corpses of meter maid attendants. Always seven. Always seven meter maids. Each missing the right kidney.” I’m sympathetic to that. We’ve all murdered a handful of city workers during psychotic blackouts, right? It’s okay. You can admit it.

I have a solution for you.

It’s something I did once, and something I might try again.

Fuck the outline.

Outlining sucks. I know, I know, I say, “You better outline or you’re going to die of face cancer” or something, but what I’m really saying is, “You better think this through and do some prep-work, or you’re going to die of rectal cancer.” The form of that prep-work needn’t actually be an outline — uhh, unless a client is asking for an outline, like one of my clients is right now. See, I’m a good writer, but not a great one. A great writer can just step onto the field of battle with no plan, no clue, and just slaughter all the problems that come at him. But those who are merely good must do something — something! — to prep.

So. Fine. You don’t want to outline.

Okay. I can work with that.

Write a screenplay instead.

No, no, you misunderstand me. I don’t mean “write a screenplay instead of a novel.”

I mean, “write a screenplay instead of the novel’s outline.”

Here’s why. Five reasons, boom boom boom boom boom.

The Screenplay Is Automated Wide Open Awesome

Writing a script is a lot more fun than writing a novel. Sorry. Just is. Writing a novel is a toil. It’s an arduous hump up a steep and seemingly neverending hill. Writing a screenplay? Light. Fast. Quick. It’s a swift jog through a pretty forest where all kinds of shit happens. And it zips along. Before you know it, you’ve written five pages. The story leaps along like an ass-slapped gazelle, easily jumping fence-rows and ditches.

It’s a fucking playground, is what it is. Tabula Rasa, baby.

Because most script-writing software is automated, you just hop in and start writing.

You don’t need a plan in this case, because the script will become your plan.

You put your characters onto the page. You throw them into conflict in compelling set-pieces. It takes over. They take over. It’s like writing an outline, except instead of punching yourself in the face, it’s an ice cream cone that giggles as you lick it.

The Screenplay Is Easy To Excise And Modify

Pop quiz, hotshot. Ever written a novel? Ever realized you have to go back and make some serious changes? Recall feeling that heartsick dread of, “Oh, holy shit, that’s going to be a lot of work. It’s like moving a mountain.” Because you’ve heaped a shit-ton of words upon words, mighty hills of sand and clay, and if you want to pull something out and change it, you’re going to be out there with your kiddie bucket and plastic shovel scooping this nonsense one container at a time. No backhoe for you, buddy. You backhoe that shit and you’re suddenly left with the equivalent of a giant sucking chest wound in the middle.

Backhoes? Sucking chest wounds? Mixed metaphors, anybody?

Shut up. I can mix metaphors all I want. What are you, a racist?

Ahh, but a screenplay makes it easy to clip and change and mold and molest your story. Sweep the cursor, eradicate a whole scene, then rewrite. Takes you no time at all. No harder than pulling an index card off the corkboard and moving it over there, or chucking it in the trash and replacing it with another. It’s like designing a room with little cut-out furniture rather than the real deal. Instead of having to push a heavy couch, you just slide the little couch miniature. Much, much easier.

The Screenplay Is Focused To Laser Precision

A screenplay forces you to think cinematically. Books are different from film (hurr durr, I know you know that, stop throwing dirty diapers at my head), but film still lets us embrace one of those most critical of lessons: show, don’t tell. A script focuses on two things, and two things only: What Is Happening, and What Characters Are Saying.

What is a character thinking? Don’t know. Don’t care.

What is the history of this situation? Don’t know. Don’t care.

When will the author opine to us? Don’t know. Don’t care.

Novels are bogged down by a lot of heavy stuff — curdled, glutinous pudding.

Screenplays suffer no such heaviness. It’s a light meal rather than a plate full of gluey potato hash.

It helps you arrange Action and Dialogue. That’s it. And it forces you to ensure that the Action and Dialogue are doing double duty (heh, doody), showing the audience all that they need to move forward on the story.

When it comes time then to translate that into a novel, you’re ready to roll — you have the Action and Dialogue roughly planned out. Sure, you’ll change it and add to it as you go — you’re not married to any of this stuff. But you’ll have the arrangement. The feel. The tenor. The ability to move forth with clarity and comprehension of what you’re really hoping to accomplish with this story.

You’ll see when a scene works and when it doesn’t, because you’ve stripped it down to its barest of underclothes: the bra and boxers of Action and Dialogue.

The Screenplay Is A Creature Of Structure

A screenplay also forces you to think in structure. Writers who believe that stories do not require narrative structure are kidding themselves: stories have a flow, a rhythm, as much structure as a sentence or a song. It’s a very versatile structure. It bends, it twists, it rarely breaks, but it’s there just the same.

Screenplays help you think in beats, scenes and sequences. (And, if you choose, acts — but the screenplay doesn’t enforce the act structure so much as it does the individual demarcation of scene versus scene.)

In a film, each new scene is a dynamic thing. It exists for purpose. You have two hours of screen-time. What you put on the screen needs to count. It needs to matter. By thinking in structure and by realizing the value of a scene, you grasp more easily the ways to make a scene matter.

Each scene needs to dance for its dinner and earn a place on the stage.

If it cannot do that, then it goes away.

You write it in the script as your plan, you’ll know if it plays, or if it lays dead.

And by the end you’ll also see the structure of the story. It might not be right, not yet. But once again, thus is the joy of the script: it offers a fast and easy trip to seeing what works, and what doesn’t. It tells you where your plotholes are, where your character problems exist, where the structure deviates or just plain doesn’t hold water. All good things — hell, necessary things — to know.

The Screenplay Is Already A Goddamn Outline

People mistake the screenplay for a story. It’s not. A script is just an outline. No, I’m not kidding. The screenplay is the blueprint for the movie — it is not the movie itself. The movie is fuckloads more than just the words on a page: actors, lighting, music, set design, costume design, craft services, prescription amphetamines. The script is just a guide. “Here. Say this — or, try this, or this, or this.”

It’s already a goddamn outline.

You’ll find that when it comes time to write the novel, you’ll follow the script but discover where the other extra awesome stuff can go — all the things that make a novel a novel. All the great descriptions and feelings and thoughts and those extra pieces. And just as an actor might try a different way of saying a line, you too will try different ways of writing that line. Or, you’ll add lines just to see how it flows.

But you’ll have a place to start.

You’ll have an outline that wears the costume of a screenplay.

For The Record, I’ve Done This

Blackbirds came together for me after I wrote it in script form first (though admittedly even there I had an outline before the script), and translating a script to a novel is both easy and fun. (I think doing the reverse would be troublesome and agonizing, as you’re compressing and condensing rather than expanding and letting the story fill the newer, bigger room.)

So, you don’t like to outline?

Try this out.

Just to see.

Then, report back if you have the inclination.

I gotta run. Ironically, I have to go write an outline.