Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
In a previous post I talked about structure and outlining. Outlining, for me, is a Linus Blanket. I might not need to know how my movie ends before I write page 1, but I feel better if I do. This is a process choice. Your process. Maybe you want discovery, you don’t want to know exactly what happens. One writer described it as taking a vacation and knowing not only every road you’ll drive but every twist in the road ahead of time. Some writers are more intuitive, the last thing they want to do is kill the spontaneous writing impulse by outlining.
So how does one outline? The Old School/Syd Field Method is to write out every scene of your movie on 3-by-5 index cards, place the cards on a table in sequential order, and then begin the vetting process of determining that every scene is necessary. You break it down by Act 1-2-3. Double-check the order of your scenes. Is it logical? Is it inevitable? Does it make sense? Is your movie compelling, void of fat, relentless?
Nowadays you can outline on your computer. With Final Draft software, when you type up a slugline, you create a card. Go to Scene Navigation to find the movie laid out before you in a series of cards. It’s easier to look at the big picture this way, and to make choices of inclusion and exclusion.
As I say, I personally outline (though not in Syd Field-style, and not because Syd says I must do so). It’s because I need my Linus Blanket.
Let’s say you know the story. You know what-where-why-how things will happen. Begin by writing down—with a one or two line description–every scene that’s in your mind.
Think of outlining as a GPS system. You’re at Point A; you need to get to Point Z. You will take multiple roads to get to the destination. You are visualizing every scene in your movie ahead of time, like you’d map the roads you’ll need to travel.
Don't worry if you can’t visualize the full story yet. To outline a feature-length movie will take time. It has taken me upwards of two months sometimes to fully outline a movie. Of course, after you put in the dues to see the entire movie, the actual writing of it comes much easier, sometimes in just a few weeks.
Brainstorm scenes, don’t even worry if they’re not in order. Just write ‘em out. You can connect the dots later. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing the big picture. This will take time.
Again, this is a personal choice. You can outline or not. But it's you who will decide that, not Syd Field, or any other structural guru's system. If Save The Cat works for you, great! For me, I have to outline. I’ve never had writer’s block because of the dues I put in ahead of time seeing the entire movie. If I get stuck on a scene, I move on to the next scene and double-back to the problematic scene later. I find, this way, there is still plenty of personal discovery within the body of each scene, even if I’ve seen the full world of the movie ahead of time.
So whether you go with Syd Field or Blake Snyder, or go back to the grand-daddy of all structure models, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, don’t freak out if your story doesn’t fit into somebody’s 15-point structural model. If you can’t find you’re “Come To Jesus!” moment, if you don’t have a “Protagonist’s Pink Elephant” scene, you’re not screwed…you are under no compulsion to shoe-horn your story into pre-fab structural systems that might have absolutely no bearing on what you're trying to do.
Be a storyteller first and foremost. Don’t make structuring your story more important than the story itself. The tale and the telling of the tale—concern yourself with these, you can’t go wrong.
Sofia Coppola’s script for Lost In Translation was only 70 pages long but the movie won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2004. How’d that happen? Bill Murray improvisations went a long way to helping her claim that Oscar. Not all dialogue is worked out ahead of time.
I use an off-shoot of the Syd Field system because it works for me. Without me selling more books for his estate, the basics of Syd Field's “Paradigm” method is as follows for a 100 page script:
• ACT 1 = 1-25
• ACT 2 = 25- 75
• ACT 3 = 75- 100
Lynch pin scenes are Plot Points. These are scenes so important there would be no movie without them. They are the two scenes that signal the end of Act 1 and 2. An example for Plot Point 1would be from The Matrix:
The LEATHER CREAKS as he leans back.
Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
Morpheus opens his hands. In the right is a red pill. In the left, a blue pill.
MORPHEUS: This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.
The pills in his open hands are reflected in the glasses.
MORPHEUS: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Neo feels the smooth skin of the capsules, the moisture growing in his palms.
MORPHEUS: Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.
Neo opens his mouth and swallows the red pill. The Cheshire smile returns.
MORPHEUS: Follow me.
Neo has to swallow the red pill-- If he swallows the blue pill, there’s no movie! He takes the red pill and we’re off to Wonderland. In classic Syd Field structure, Act 1 ends here.
Then comes Act 2: Exploration of the ship and world, the bungee-chord fights (rising action), the Oracle(midpoint), the betrayal by Cypher, and Morpheus taken by the Agents. This leads us to Plot Point 2. Half the crew is dead, Neo and Trinity are shot up, back on the ship. Then Neo has a revelation:
NEO: The Oracle. She told me this would happen. She told me...That I would have to make a choice...
TRINITY: What choice? What are you doing?
NEO: I’m going in after him.
TRINITY: You can’t!
NEO: I have to. Morpheus believed something and he was ready to give his life for what he believed. I understand that now. That’s why I have to go.
NEO: Because I believe in something.
NEO: I believe I can bring him back.
Now, what if Neo had said: “You know, Trinity, you’re looking mighty fine in that black latex catsuit. Why don’t we just chill, order in some fake Moo Goo Gai Pan? Sure, it’s not real, but it tastes good enough. Don’t worry about Morpheus. Morpheus will be fine. He’s going to a truer, better place.” If Neo doesn’t rescue Morpheus, there’s no movie. Act 3 of The Matrix is the Morpheus rescue (one long action sequence) followed by Neo’s realization that he’s “The One,” the vanquishing of Agent Smith, etcetera.
All these structural systems seek to accomplish the same thing: To order chaos. Or, as David Mamet defined with 3-Act structure model: ORDER—CHAOS—RE-ORDER.
When you’re at the idea stage, outlining can be frustrating and intimidating. It can also be an exciting opportunity. From here you can take your story, literally, in any direction. Pitch the idea to your “inner circle” to get feedback. Open yourself up to multiple possibilities. Consider: “If A happens, then…” “If B happens, then…” Note what strikes you—or others—as implausible. See the multiple paths your movie can take, pick the one you want to write, and then write it.
In the idea stage, never censor yourself. There will be plenty of time for criticism. Let the first, rough draft be the one you want to write. Work your scene lists, build continuity. Make sure every scene is necessary to advance character or plot. Plotting Point A to Z, you’ll have the road map in front of you. If you get stuck, you move on to the next scene which is already “written” in outline form.
Some people want a more organic approach. They want surprise. They want the characters to dictate dialogue and action and story. The upside to not outlining is spontaneity. The downside? What happens when you get to page 62 and your characters stop speaking to you? This is how writer’s block commences. This is how scripts are abandoned.
Outlining is a process choice. I prefer this approach, it’s my Linus Blanket.
You’ll need to make your own choice on outlining. But make it your choice.
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- A Writer's Voice: 'The Tree of Life' - Alternative Forms of Structure
- 5 Reasons Screenplay Story Structure is Important + FREE Download
- Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script
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