Bees do it, birds do it, even horror screenwriters do it...no, I’m not talking about that! I am talking about outlining. Let me start by saying, there are many, many successful writers who don’t outline and have developed their own system that works for them, which is absolutely fine! However, for myself, I need to outline. I need to make sure I know every beat, turn, arc, and act that is coming my way before I can sit down and write. Sometimes my outlines flow and only take a day to complete with some minor touches. Other times, I am stuck by the second act and have to back away from it for a few days before I can touch it again. The one thing that has remained consistent for me when I do start writing is that I am grateful that I outlined beforehand.
Here are three reasons why I outline my horror scripts:
FIND THE FLAWS BEFORE THEY HAPPEN
It’s the tale as old as time. You start writing and you’re loving it! You feel good about your story, your characters, your antagonist. Your fingers fire away at the keyboard all day and all night. You’re unstoppable...until you aren’t. You hit a wall that you didn’t even see coming. A movement that isn’t working or you can’t figure out how to get your character out of a scene. It happens to all of us, which is why I like to outline all my beats before I write. When you have a document open next to your script, you can find the beat and keep going. You’ve thought about it, you’ve mapped it out and planned it, so you know what to do. Having an outline will save you so much frustration if you use it as a tool to read and correct over and over again before you start writing. If it doesn’t read well in the outline, it definitely will not translate on the page.
MY SCARES ARE SCARY, BUT ARE THEY EFFECTIVE?
Is having a scary scene the same as having an effective scene? Yes and no. You can have a scene be effectively scary, but not the other way around. Allow me to explain. Some people are naturally just frightened of things: clowns, witches, cargo pants, etc. That’s scary to them and other people are not phased by this at all. The best way to create an effectively scary scene is to outline the beats before it. Scares are built off of tension and release. If you want a scene to be truly scary, meaning it stays with your audience even after the scene has lapsed, versus a quick jump scare, you’ve got to set the table beforehand. Outlining will help you set up your punchline.
A HORROR CHEAT SHEET
Some writers like to notecard or whiteboard to outline, which I have tried before, but have found my outline works best with a simple word doc and bullet points. It’s like having one sheet of notes for your college exam. Once I learned how to split my iMac screen it was game over. Now my routine revolves around my script on the left and my outline on the right. I am able to track myself beat by beat to ensure I am crafting the story I want to tell.
There isn’t just one way to write or outline. As long as it works for you, then do it! My experience works for me and it took me about three scripts to solidify my routine, so please do not feel pressured to follow this advice. Hopefully, by sharing my experience, it will help you to curate your own writing and outlining process.