Outlines. Yes! No! Maybe?

fillion

Every writer has their own way of doing things, and each way is probably different – maybe a little or a lot – from somebody else’s. If it works for you, then by all means, have at it.

Just because your way isn’t how I’d do it doesn’t mean either of us is wrong; it just means we each have our individual approaches. I’m content with how I get a script written, and you can do yours however you want.

Some recent conversations with other writers, along with reading some interviews with professionals, really reinforced this mindset for me. Especially when it came to outlining your story.

Count me in the camp of those that prefer doing it, while others opt not to.

I’ve written before about how I put a story together, and I find it extremely helpful to make sure the outline is rock-solid (to me) before starting on pages. And as is often the case, there’s a strong possibility some elements of the story will change while those pages are being written. But for the most part, a good portion of my outline remains more or less intact.

Again, this is what works FOR ME.

Not really knowing how those who don’t like outlines operate, I admit to being curious/intrigued/impressed with how they do it.

Do they at least have some kind of basic structure in place? Do they just sit down and start writing? Do they know where things are going? Is it all about feeling spontaneous and just jumping right into it?

All I’m asking is – How do they do it?

One pro said something along the lines of “outlining removes the element of surprise”. Honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of that. I’m fairly certain they don’t mean “didn’t see that coming” – or do they?

Others have commented that “outlining a script takes away from its organic nature”. (Again – paraphrasing.) Not sure how that would work either. If the story’s put together in the most effective way the writer can make it, with a solid structure that flows along nice and smoothly, and with three-dimensional characters, wouldn’t that fall under “organic”?

Like I said at the beginning, if you don’t like to outline your story, don’t outline your story. If that’s how you do it, great. All I’m saying is it’s not something I could do, nor would I expect either of us to suddenly change our methods.

Would I ever give it a try? Probably not. I’d be more concerned the end result would be a big mess. I enjoy taking the time to put things where I think they should be, from both the storytelling and screenwriting aspects.

How about you? Pro- or anti-outline? Or somewhere in the middle?

105ish pages down to 1

vintage gym
Not that kind of reduction process

With the page-producing phase of the horror-comedy spec now underway, I’m also finding the occasional need to do a little side work on it. In this case, it’s the 1-page synopsis for said script.

Summarizing your entire story on one solitary page (or one and a half, according to some of my associates) is, as many writers already know, not as easy as it sounds. Yours truly being no exception.

Past 1-pagers for past scripts were the usual challenge, but I managed. Somehow. Part of that challenge has always been inadvertently including too much of the story. As much as I’d like to put all of it in there, that just won’t work.

The key is to focus on the main character and what they go through to achieve their goal, with a strong emphasis on conflict. I’ve also found it very helpful to break each act down into its core components – especially key events and plot points.

Trying to include subplots and supporting characters was just clogging the whole thing up, so those quickly fell by the wayside, which really helped streamline the whole thing.

This time is a little different, probably due to having multiple protagonists. Well, at least it starts that way. This is a horror story, so as you’d expect, people are gonna die.

Not being as familiar with the horror genre, I wasn’t sure of the most effective way to put together a 1-pager for this kind of story. Is there more emphasis on the horror part? Or the story with some horror elements thrown in? “The learning never stops” indeed.

Feeling a bit stumped, I did like all smart writers do, and asked my network of savvy creatives for whatever assistance and guidance they could provide.

Glad I did.

(Hearty shoutout to everybody who reposnded and got in touch – I really appreciate it)

More than one said to focus on the one character the reader/audience would consider the heart of the story, and follow what happens to them. That I can do.

Others, who’ve also written stories starting with several protagonists and see their numbers reduced along the way, suggested listing them all at the outset, so as they’re gradually eliminated, there’s no sense of “Who’s that again?” I might give that a try.

There was the smart reminder to “keep things simple”. Don’t fall into the trap of making it too cluttered or complicated. Just tell the story in a clear and straightforward manner.That might take a little editing and revising, but I think I can also do that.

Based on all of these comments, plus my own experience, having a solid 1-pager in my possession seems definitely achievable.

Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

_MG_0219

Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

breaking free
Took a while to be able to do it, but well worth the effort

Used to be that when I would outline a story, I’d try to be as spot-on about hitting industry-recommended page numbers as I could.

Statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc., etc. That’s how I learned it, so that’s how it must be.

These days? Not so much.

I don’t go crazy, you understand. No scenes lasting 10 pages or anything of that nature.  More like “this happens…around here-ish”.

When I first gave it a try, my immediate thought was “Is that going to be a problem?” It had become so ingrained into my process that this was how it was supposed to be, and any deviation from that was wrong.

Then my writer’s sense of craft kicked in with a hearty “Nope. Have at it, kid”.

As far as I know, the screenwriting police (is there such a thing?) aren’t going to shut me down because something doesn’t happen where THE RULES say it should. I’d rather focus on telling an engaging story with an intelligent plot and well-developed characters than worry about this kind of pettiness.

And honestly? It’s incredibly liberating.

I’m much more interested in telling the story in a way I deem appropriate, rather than drastically cutting something or even cutting it altogether just to make sure the beats happen on the designated pages.

So if my opening sequence runs a page or three longer, so be it. Does it work against me? I don’t think so. My writing usually moves at a good pace, so if something happens a little sooner or later than you expect, and if I’ve done my job in really grabbing your attention, chances are you probably won’t even notice it.

Unless you’re a real stickler for that sort of thing. Most of the writers who read my stuff aren’t; they’re more interested in reading a good script.

-Through September 30th (that’s this Sunday!), the fine folks at LiveRead/LA are offering the discount code MAXZ15 for 15 percent off their script services and the fee for their contest where your script could  be one of two read live by professional actors in Los Angeles in October. Following the read (30 pages max), feedback will be provided, including from veteran production exec & producer Debbie Liebling – Comedy Central, Fox, now working with Sam Raimi. Writers from everywhere are encouraged to submit. The event will be livestreamed, so if your script is chosen and you can’t attend, feedback will be provided live via Skype.

-Filmmaker Scott Kawczynski is running a crowdfunding project for his animated film Light Work. It’s a pre-sale, so even for $1, you can watch the film. Donate if you can!

Story first, jokes second

eio9Hs

Well, that was fun. A bit of an uphill battle, but I’ve survived.

The good news – the basic foundation for the horror-comedy outline is complete. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, it consistently went through a steady stream of changes, edits, tweaks, and so forth.

Let’s just say that what I ended up with is several versions removed from what I started with. For the better, I’d say, but still pretty darned close to keeping with the original idea. Even managed to come up with some new twists and wrinkles along the way.

Despite still considering the story as pliable as warm Silly Putty, it really is coming together and I’m quite happy with the results. Sort of a pre-first draft, one could say.

But in addition to the ongoing process of fine-tuning the story, there’s the just-as-if-not-more-so important part of making it funny.

When they say “dying is easy; comedy is hard,” they’re not kidding. Quite an apropos phrase, especially in this context.

Like with the comedy I’m polishing now, the more I work on it, the more opportunities I expect to find to work in a suitable joke of some sort. Sight gags, plays on words, what have you. I think that’s similar to how the ZAZ team did it with Zero Hour for Airplane!. Not that this script will be anything like that, but you get the idea.

I think I’ve discussed this before, but as I outline, I’ll also include potential lines of dialogue or specific actions for each scene. Same thing applies here. But now that the story is (somewhat) set in place, I can now fine-tune both that and punch up the jokes as I work my way forward.

Luckily for me, there are also great examples of films that did this sort of thing, so I can watch those to get a good idea of how to approach it with this story. Not a bad self-imposed homework assignment, right?

Finding the funny for this won’t always be easy, but coming off doing it for the previous script, and with the burden of telling the story in the first place somewhat out of the way, it seems just a little bit more so now.

Easy, that is.