To outline or not to outline. That is the question many writers struggle with.
I've written about my love of outlining before, and as the years have passed, I am still a fan of having a story roadmap. However, I've also learned to embrace a bit of a pantser style when it comes to learning the core of my characters' actions and beliefs.
No one likes to stare at the blank page, and we all know starting a new project is daunting, so we need to do anything we can to make progress. There are no right or wrong answers on how you get a story on the page. It doesn't have to be a detailed outline. Even just a broad-stroke visual map of plot points can help.
Outlines can be a lifesaver. If nothing else, they serve as a way to test your story. Can you come up with enough conflict ideas to keep Act II interesting? What plot points can you create to push your hero over the emotional cliff?
Just don't use outlining as a form of procrastination. Keep the progress going.
Outlining can also take you down the rabbit hole of story research. Yes, research and outlining count as "writing," but if you let yourself hyper-focus on creating the "perfect" outline, you need to force yourself to move on and get the actual story on the page.
If you're stuck, try doing a stream-of-consciousness writing sprint where you put anything on the page that comes to your mind, without stopping. Set a timer for 15 minutes and see what your imagination drops on the page. Maybe write a monologue for your protagonist, or explore a scene setting, or make a list of all the different verbal or physical responses your character could have to a specific story conflict. Set your mind free!
In an attempt to avoid the blank-page brain freeze, I also input my outline directly into my writing software as sluglines with brief descriptors. It's a simple way to trick your brain from going as blank as the page you're staring at. But my favorite practice is to end my writing day mid-scene. That way, when I come back the next day, I can start in a place of progress.
What's the best way to outline?
To create a useful outline, you need to understand story structure from the perspective of audience expectation. Sure, there's the classic 3-act structure, and also a 4-act structure, but don't be afraid to push the boundaries past a linear storytelling into a nonlinear one.
Be creative. Be unique. Be compelling. No exec is going to stop reading because your inciting incident didn't happen on page number whatever, but they WILL stop reading if your story isn't a page turner. Make them forget about structure, or any other "rules," by writing an incredible story that grabs them!
Which brings us to another tweet by Anna:
Great story concepts sell. Period. They attract agents and managers. But what also attracts representation is you... your character, your work ethic, and your personality.
Your mindset matters. In fact, the inception of my "Balls of Steel" column title was to encourage writers to consider the importance of having a confident, resilient mindset in pursuing a career in writing. Rejection is everywhere, and you can't let it deter you.
Believe in yourself. Work hard. Don't waste time writing stories you aren't passionate about. Sit your ass in the seat and bleed on the page. And once that script is written, a whole other level or hard work exists.
I'm a 3rd-degree blackbelt. For the many years I trained, my karate master always drummed into us that the journey wasn't about getting your blackbelt. In fact, the greatest learning doesn't even begin until after that benchmark. You need to achieved a certain level of skill in order to understand the finer points. The same holds true in your writing.
Now stop reading, stop procrastinating, and get some words on the page.
If you're on Twitter, follow @scriptmag. If you ever want a writing sprint, follow me, too, @jeannevb, and tag me in a post. I'll join you! Finally, follow Anna Klassen @AnnaJKlassen, too! She's always dishing out important writing advice and inspiration.
You can read more Twitter Screenwriting Tips here.