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Tinkering With an Outline

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Greetings, Gentle Readers!

It's the holiday season, and I know that means a lot of you are going to have some long glorious empty days away from work, with piles of new belongings, gradually less exciting turkey sandwiches, and nothing to do but come up with hilarious questions to ask Siri. Has there ever been a more perfect opportunity to construct a solid outline for the feature script that's going to make you the toast of Hollywood next year? Or maybe you've been thinking about a short story or a novel or an excuse to avoid your family by writing a spec pilot about your family. No matter what the project, let's talk about the exciting world of outlines.

Some people tell me that they don't outline because they like to let the story take them where it wants to go, or that they want the characters to start to tell them what should happen. These people tend to all have something in common: they generally aren't taking a break from their hectic book tour. I'm lying, of course. Some very successful writers eschew outlines, although I tend to think these people are working from an unwritten outline that they have spun out of years of experience. Truthfully, if you can do this, more power to you. I just find it very hard and it always makes me have to do a lot of rewriting that could have been avoided.

Here's a good way to think about an outline. You know when Tinkerbell at Disneyland comes sliding down the wire, waving her wand? (Ooh, I want to go to Disneyland right now.) The wire is the outline. The writing is the wand-waving. If the wire isn't straight and stable and attached at both ends, Tink can't make free and confident swirls. If you're not sure what scenes are coming up, or which decision your main character is going to make at the end, it's hard to confidently write all the little quirks and voice-choices and funny bits that make a scene sing.

Personally, I'm a wand-waver. That's the fun stuff, writing action and dialogue that makes a scene feel real or insightful or comedic. And I get to wave because I work in a writers' room (currently the brilliant group at Once Upon a Time) that helps make sure the wire is hooked up in all the right places. This is one of the reasons I encourage aspiring writers to join a writers' group or just find a group of friends with story sense that you trust. Work that outline, get it right, so that you can soar. If you're working alone, you can double-check your work against shows and movies that you like -- if you see what made their structure work, you can give your story a shape that works for the same reasons. There are books that have done this extrapolation for you, too, and classes you can take. Even just a sitting down with Google and "story structure" will reveal treasures.

Start by making a "beat sheet" in which each development in the story is given one or two sentences, then flesh it out until you've got a list of scenes and you know what's going to happen in each one.

If you trust your outline, you'll be amazed at how fast the writing part can be. After all, it's just sliding and swirling. Go ahead, try it. Long may you wave!