(Hint: It’s a Screenwriting Career Requirement!)
Here’s the thing: Over the years I’ve heard every reason why writers hate writing outlines. They kill the magic. They leave no space for discovery. They are too confining. They take the fun out of writing entirely. And who am I to disagree? Outlining, in its practice, is not for everyone. But here’s another thing I know, with (almost) absolute certainty: If you want to work in the entertainment industry in an ongoing basis doing writing assignments or in a TV writer’s room, outlining is going to be necessary.
Don’t get me wrong: If somehow you are able to write on spec for the whole of your career and generate substantial income from it, do what you do, and don’t let anyone tell you different. If you want to write books, plays, short fiction or graphic novels (i.e formats that require significantly less collaboration and financial investment in order to see the light of day) and have the story unfold before you as you progress, go for it. And if you are an established scribe with a significant track record, then yes, shortcuts (by way of bypassing the outlining stage) may be afforded you by virtue of past credits and a successful career.
But if you are a newish writer (i.e. just starting out or ascending the professional space) then outlining is something you are going to have to wrap your brain around, despite any and all protests.
When I interviewed her for my blogpost EXPERTS WEIGH IN: OUTLINING YOUR SCREENPLAY, working TV writer and founder of Script Anatomy (LINK) Tawnya Bhattacharya (currently a Co-Executive Producer on Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia told me: “Outlining is one of the crucial stages of development. You wouldn’t build a house without architectural plans. You wouldn’t drive across country without directions. You shouldn’t write a script without an outline.”
Outlines have indeed become an integral part of the development process, both in features and television. Let’s break it down:
Got a writing assignment? If your assignment consists of developing a fresh take for the studio’s IP or a page-one rewrite for a producer or production company, an outline is going to be necessary and often written into your contract as one of the required steps of your engagement. Once you’ve established the broad strokes of your take, your executive will want to see a detailed outline, in order to identify any challenges in the material before you go to pages. Here is where you will identify whether or not the architecture works, whether the material is going in a direction that’s exciting for all collaborators, and whether or not the vision is honed and developed enough for all involved to move to pages.
Got in a writer’s room? Congratulations! But keep in mind, the room is where outlining kicks into high gear. While every room is different, for the most part, it works like this: Once the room is done breaking your episode, your episode is “off the board” and a story-area is generated and signed off on, the writer will be expected to deliver an outline and not go to pages before the showrunner, production company, studio and network sign off, often giving the writer multiple rounds of notes. If the episode is a co-write, i.e. written by multiple writers, then expect the outline to be divvied up, with one writer taking the front half and the other to construct the back half, only to then blend the two parts together in order to generate a unified, cohesive document come approval time.
My dear friend Jen Grisanti, a former Current Programming VP at Paramount and these days the writing instructor at NBC’s Writers on the Verge and a sought-after writing consultant, told me: “My feeling is that the writer should start with log lines for each arc. Then, move to the concept phase. Then, move to the outline. Then, move to the script. As a former Current Programming executive, this system was largely practiced.”
Sold a Pitch? Whether for a feature or TV pilot, expect your studio, network or production company executive to expect your outline before you go to script. Much as you would with any writing assignment, once agreeing on the broad strokes and general direction, an outline will be expected to get everyone on the same page as far as the specific direction of the material is concerned.
But it doesn’t end there.
Got a manager? Today, many managers taking on emerging writers without a previous industry footprint often look to develop industry-focused material with their new client, in order to make the desired industry splash. Mirroring the process deployed by producers and executives, managers first select the most intriguing and unique concept that they expect will give the writer the biggest industry bang, after which they require a treatment, to be followed by the careful, thoughtful and patient development of an outline that creates an effective and comprehensive blueprint for the screenplay or TV pilot that lies ahead.
Writing this, I realize how off-putting this process may sound to the writers reading this particular piece. But remember: this blogpost is written specifically for those writers who are looking to work within the standards and structure of the industry, in accordance with its rules and practices.
While in earlier stages of your career, you will want buy-in from your producers, manager, and executives as you develop new work that they will, in some fashion, be championing, trust that the further along you are in your screenwriting or TV writing career, the more freedom you will have to write in accordance with your own process, as by then you will have established your reputation and earned goodwill across the industry. It’s in those earlier career stages that you will be expected to play by the rules in order to succeed. So unless you want to set your sights on more free-flowing fiction writing, hunker down and sharpen your outlining skills. Even if you never learn to truly love this particular practice, your outlining tools will be instrumental in the construction of your stellar reputation and the development of your sustainable, long-lasting screenwriting career.