The story is hatched. The staff has written the beats on the board. Now the writer writes the outline. How long should it be? How detailed?
Each show has its own format and requirements but at CHEERS outlines tended to be about ten or twelve pages, single spaced on one half of the page leaving the other half blank for notes.
Make the outline as detailed as you can. In sitcoms that means suggested dialogue, and some of the jokes. This is always a little tricky because you don’t want to write too many jokes – the outline becomes too dense and you want a few new jokes to surprise and totally delight the staff when you turn in the script – but do provide a fair amount. Especially in the big comedy scenes.
Here’s what not to do: “Carla enters, says something hilarious to Cliff, he comes right back at her with a killer topper, they argue about Florida or the Red Sox or something, everyone else chimes in zingers until finally she konks him on the head with something funny.” Believe it or not, I’ve actually been handed outlines where the writers did this – writers who I suspect are painting houses today.
Usually you will turn your outline into the producer and staff who will then give you notes. Soooo many script problems can be solved at this point in the process. If your outline is detailed enough the story problems will become evident. If new scenes or different turns are required it’s much easier to flag them at this stage than later when you’ve written an entire draft.
Once the outline is approved don’t use every joke you’ve submitted. Use most, certainly the ones the staff specifically pointed out that they liked, but always be looking to beat your jokes. Trickier is when there’s a joke that someone on staffed pitched. It’s a judgment call but still, if you think you can do better as a rule I say go for it. When David and I started out we brought a cassette recorder to all our note sessions. We then went home and felt compelled to jam in every joke the producers pitched. Most of them were later taken out…by the producers who pitched them in the first place. And here’s a secret: most of the time the person who pitched the joke doesn’t even remember it.
One thing I always tell writers – don’t be afraid to question something in the story you don’t like or get. Don’t kill yourself forcing something to work you feel doesn’t. Just because the staff pitched it out to you doesn’t mean it’s right. Feel free to speak up in the notes session. Also feel free to point out your concerns in the outline.
At the end of the day, before you can go off and write the script you need to know that (a) everyone is on the same page, and (b) you know what the hell you’re writing.
Questioning also applies once you’ve begun your draft. If you get stuck at some point, realize once you’re into it that something doesn’t work don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole Pick up the phone. Even if you have the solution but it veers from the outline, check in and let someone know your plans. Producers rarely love surprises.
A good outline is a writer’s GPS system. Don’t leave home without it.
Tomorrow: Where have all the CHEERS scribes gone, long time passing?