Wednesday, January 02, 2013


A few weeks ago somebody asked about my outlining process, and since I love taking requests, here goes.

Just like everybody else, I read Syd Field. I started off with index cards. I wrote my scenes out on paper, then transferred them to cards, then put the cards up on the bulletin board. Then I wrote, but never really consulted the cards after I put them up to look all pretty. Once I color coded them to represent the A story and the B story. I'm not sure that helped anything.

I think the cards are really useful for people who like to move their scenes around - they can toy with the linear equation of it all by shifting the placement of the cards. I don't write that way. I'm a big fan of cause and effect, so not much in my scripts is interchangeable. Even the B story usually lines up pretty closely with the A story. After a while I began to realize that I was only doing the cards because Syd Field said to do cards, so I ditched them.

I tried a really specifically formatted outline for a while. A few other writers suggested a format that lists the theme and the character motivations and act breaks and whatnot, so I did that. But it didn't work for me.

I used to play the flute. Got good at it - never great - but I was much better when I didn't have to pay attention to the notes. Put me in a jazz ensemble and I'm a genius. Put me in front of a sheet of music and I sound like an idiot. And that's how I am about specifically formatted stuff. I'm not very good at understanding something with that many rules. When I was in the classroom, every now and then the boss would send us these really specific forms to fill out with objectives and learning goals and shit, and I'd just tear mine up and write a couple of paragraphs about what I was doing in my class.

My point is, following a specific format doesn't work for me. So I ditched the template.

I do believe in outlining. I don't see how people who refuse to outline ever get anything finished. And my lack of patience with specific formats and index cards does not mean I don't enjoy being organized. I love being organized, but I like to get straight to the point.

So after a while I just started telling the story. I think it out in my head over a matter of days (or weeks, or years, depending on the project) and then one day I sit down and type the story into Word. If I'm the only one reading it, I write it in an almost shorthand, sometimes with jokes to myself that I will laugh over when I read them later, because if you can't make yourself laugh, how are you going to make audiences laugh? If I know Manager or Producer will read it, I still make jokes, but I try to be more detailed and specific, and leave less to the imagination.

They're officially treatments, but really they're just abbreviated short stories.

Once that's done I think about it for another day or two, rewrite certain parts, add stuff in, remove characters who aren't working, etc. Then I print it out and go to work. I rarely make huge changes. The treatment is usually the script. I do all the creative fucking-around-with-the-story stuff before I sit down to write the script.

Since I started doing it that way I write faster and easier. The stories that have given me the most trouble are the projects where I just crapped out a vague outline and figured I'd fix shit later. But then later came and I really didn't feel like fixing shit. I just wanted it already fixed.

So now, when I start to write, I always solve my problems in the paragraph stage, knowing it will make the eventual script writing stage pleasant and easy.

Everybody does their planning a different way. There are people who never outline a thing. God bless 'em. There are people who love the index cards, or people who have these incredibly organized outlines, or people who do word clouds on a white board. They're all valid methods. I don't have enough patience for that. I just write the story from beginning to end, and then I go write the story from beginning to end again.


  1. Hi Emily, glad to hear I'm not the only one who ditches them awful objectives and learning goals ��

  2. Thanks, hope the writing is going great - and have a fantastic new year!

  3. Whatever works, right! My thing is I have to knowing the ending. I don't even bother to sit down and write anything until I know that ending and key plot points that lead up to it. I outline in my head this way, I guess, but I never actually write out an outline.

  4. I despise outlines. Each time I've prepped with an outline or treatment, it absolutely backfired. Producers, execs, reps, etc. have asked, "What the hell happened to this script? It was predictable, lacked confidence, and didn't read like your other work." Something happens. I don't know if it's only me, or others experience it, but if I know the story, I'm less likely to enjoy writing it.

  5. Thanks, guys!

    Dustin, that is kind of amazing. I would go absolutely insane if I tried to do it that way. But our brains are all so very different.

  6. I've yet to settle on an ideal outlining method. I've written like Dustin and used index cards. I've yet to try the treatment method, but I worry that would suffer from "...and then ...and then" syndrome.

  7. I tried the index card thing but it didn't take, so I felt like an idiot because it didn't make sense to me. Still working on an outline process that feels comfortable/intuitive. I'm recently feeling out using the sequence approach but nothing too rigid - set up the acts and bullet point the story and where the beats occur. I haven't actually written the script yet using this method so whether this is the approach for me is yet to be determined.

    Long shot request to Emily. I'm highly visual and usually understand what the words mean when attached to an image - would you consider putting up a partial screenshot of what one of your treatments/outlines looks like as an example?

  8. Monique (for some reason Computer will not let me reply directly under posts) - if I can find one done in this style that I feel comfortable posting, I will. Most of the stuff I've done this way, though, is not out in public yet, so I don't know if there's a good one. Maybe Wedding Dress. I'll look and see.


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