Outlines are a great tool when crafting your story. They allow you to construct and organize your ideas in a linear manner, pick relevant information essential to your story early in your process, and can give you a steady foundation to build your screenplay.
While crafting an outline can seem like a tremendous task, you’re not alone! We’ve gathered 5 tips from past AFF panelists all about using outlines to the best of your advantage!
At AFF 2019, panelist Emily Carmichael discussed how she believes that having an opinion on a story’s structure is uniquely valuable to the outlining process. It allows you to be educated on what you’re doing, while also revealing what you want for your story.
“Part of writing an outline is starting to have an opinion and have feelings about story structure, and it’s easy to watch a movie and be blown away by the tone or by the characters or just believe in the world or just feel like the world is real and get lost in it, but as you start to think about structure more, start to think more about the structure of the stories that you’re watching and start to have an opinion about them.”
Emily Carmichael (writer Pacific Rim: Uprising, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Adventures of Ledo and Ix) at AFF 2019
Outlines are extremely helpful to look back on to see what is necessary for the story and what is not. They can help you to avoid unnecessary filler and other first draft traps. According to AFF 2018 panelist Alvaro Rodríguez, outlines can assist you if you need to change scenes that don’t support your story.
“So that’s one of the things I try to constantly challenge myself with, is taking a moment in any outline or any beat, and saying, “What if that now happened ten pages before? Will that give me ideas? Will that spark some new thing?” And that generally helps.”
Alvaro Rodríguez (writer Rust, Florida Man; executive producer/co-creator Seis Manos; screenwriter Machete, Last Rampage) at AFF 2018
An outline is just that… an outline! Change is consistently around the corner, so keep it open to adaptations. This benefitted 2018 panelists Bryan Woods and Scott Beck when crafting their script for A Quiet Place. It was the perfect tool for new discoveries within their story.
Bryan: “We kind of outline just the broadest of strokes. Like, we knew where we wanted all the characters to line up. We knew what we were driving towards, but we love discovery on the page.”
Bryan Woods and Scott Beck (writers A Quiet Place, writers/directors 65 (upcoming), Haunt) at AFF 2018
Outlines don’t need to be perfect! During his time at AFF in 2018, Distinguished Screenwriter Award recipient Tony Gilroy discussed how outlines are at their best when they’re a little bit messy and leave nothing out. This allowed him to go back to his outline later and flush out all the stuff that was unnecessary to the story.
“The best outlines are the ones that tell the whole story, the whole script, every scene in a messy kind of document, all kinds of dialogue, and when I go to type Fade In and go- when I go to Final Draft or whatever your software is, when I go there and I actually make a script, I want to be having fun. I don’t want to get hung up. I know what the scene is supposed to be.”
Tony Gilroy (Distinguished Screenwriter Award Recipient) at AFF 2018
Not all outlines need to be extremely detailed and long. Leon Cheo, who attended AFF in 2018 with his short film SIN-SFO, shared that some outlines should be short and sweet, especially when writing for short films. This helps with staying on track and keeping the story moving.
“I think when I outline, it’s an effort to make it as short as possible, for sure, or even for the future, too, actually. Yeah, just really- what is the minimal amount of time I need for the scene, or to say this thing or to move the story ahead. I think that in my mind, it helps. I think it will help to keep your story as tight as possible.”
Leon Cheo (writer/director, SIN-SFO; creator People Like Us webseries) at AFF 2018
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