Thursday, October 06, 2005

Two Outlining Cents

It's safe to say that the outlining vs. non-outlining debate is the proverbially beaten dead horse. Really, it's more like a horse that's been blasted to atoms, compressed into nutritive horse-cakes, and used as a soy substitute. Soylent Horse.

Nevertheless, here's my take on it.

To me, outlining a screenplay means creating a story. Every element of the story except the actual, final text. You describe what the characters say, but not the exact words they use. You describe what the characters do, but not in the terse, parsimonious style that descriptives should be in. You describe everything that happens, down to the smallest detail.

Outlining is thus the first ninety percent of writing a screenplay. The last ten percent is actual screenplay format. For the most part, assuming the story is thoroughly worked out, you're pretty much just translating. If the outlining was done right, then the biggest choices to make during the final stage are the dialogue and writing style.

Naturally, there are a lot of different tools to use during outlining. One of my favorites is to start writing the script in screenplay format, from the start, and go 30-40 pages. Try to establish what the characters are like, how they think, how they react to things. Then I take this knowledge, go back to the outline, and change it based on what I've learned about the characters. This is a useful tool because without giving the characters a voice, without knowing their personality, it's harder to make their choices accurately reflect their characterization.

I might even do this a few times, using different parts of the story, in order to see how the characters will react in different situations. In my current script, there's a scene where one major character gets killed. Another major character is very upset by this, but in the original outline, she just weeps and is dragged away by the protagonist. I sat down and wrote that scene, and after being dragged away, she instead became enraged and (using a handy plasma cannon) vaporized several of those who had killed her friend.

This led me to redesign her a bit, in other parts of the story. Normally she's very reserved and in control, but after the plasma cannon incident, I decided to go back and make her a bit more spontaneous and reactive -- but only sometimes. She's still reserved and in control, but she shows flashes of passion from time to time. Does it work? Only time will tell.