Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
This is one of those Friday Questions that deserves a separate post. It’s from Chad (even though he admits that that is not his real name).  

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Chad (or whoever you are) – how can I say this nicely? If you want a career writing for television throw out that shit and become an “outline kind of writer”. Outlines are mandatory.

Let me walk you through the process.

First off, you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story. And you have to tell another story next week. And the week after, and the week after that. You have no time for seeing where the Muse might want to take you.

TV episodes are highly structured. As a showrunner, this is my method and thinking:

Working with the staff, we arrive at a notion we feel would make a good story. We then construct the beats – usually not in a linear way (first this happens, then this, then this, then that, the end). I want to know the act breaks first. I want to know the ending. I want to know where the fun of the story is. I want to know the characters' attitudes.  Then we work back from there and fill in the rest.

Then we revise. Is there a better act break? Is there a more inventive ending? Are we getting the most bang for our buck comedy-wise? Is the show too plot driven? Are all the characters well served? Does part of the story work but part still feel undercooked?

In the interest of efficiency and good story telling, I make sure all these questions are answered before someone goes off to write the draft.

Once we’re all happy with the story I ask the writer to give me an outline. Each show is different but I like detailed outlines. 8-12 pages, complete with a lot of suggested jokes.

I give the writer notes on the outline. Sometimes minor, sometimes throwing out whole sections or subplots. If the story changes significantly I request a new outline.

Once the outline has been approved then the writer goes off and does the first draft. Usually under time constraints. But he’s got the story all worked out, the block comedy scenes all in place, and a lot of good jokes.

When my partner and I set out to write an episode, even if we’re the showrunners, we take the time to write an outline for ourselves. We just don’t have the time to feel our way around blind alleys. We can’t count on finding “our groove”.

And now more than ever, outlines are mandatory. Because now stories have to be approved not only by showrunners but by the studio and network as well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing (in fact, it’s not) but hey, that’s the new reality.

I don’t know how Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley (pictured right) work. I know they’re very prolific and write scripts very quickly. I suspect they may not work off outlines as lengthy as ours but (a) they still work out the story in some detail first, and (b) they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve developed internal mechanisms to guide any mid-course corrections. But that comes after years of experience and extraordinary God given talent.

Look, here’s the bottom line: constructing stories is the hardest part of the process. It’s much easier and more fun to just go off writing. So human nature would suggest that if you can skip the hard part why not do it?

Because that method is fraught with traps. It’s inefficient, it’s unreliable, and it’s not collaborative in an industry that is built on collaboration.

So my advice? Learn to outline, and more than that – accept the process. It’s here to stay. And you know what? It’s a bitch, but it works.


Megan v said...

bbIs there any chance of you posting an outline from a show you've done? There are tons of examples of finished scripts out there but not a lot of examples of the intermediate products that writers are expected to produce. It would be interesting to see how what I do before I write measures up to what the showrunners and studios expect to see.

Anonymous said...

here's some Simpsons outlines

Erich Eilenberger said...

When I first started writing, I thought that I wasn't an outline writer, but the more I did it, the more essential I found it to be. In fact, I will spend the large majority of my time outlining then write the script itself very quickly.

However, I also write a lot of sketch comedy. In the past four years, I've probably written over 100 sketches that have been performed at pretty major theatres in Hollywood. I almost never outline a sketch because I have developed enough internal mechanisms that I can anticipate where to go and how to heighten at least well enough to write a first draft. Sometimes, I do start a sketch only to realize it's not working, and then I just stop and move on.

But there's a difference between writing a sketch, which takes an hour or two, and writing the script for a major television show with lots of oversight and millions of dollars on the line.

Barbara C. said...

Right now I'm about to finish The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies (Dr. Who, Queer as Folk, et al). And he used to NEVER right an outline or treatment. (I don't know if he HAS to now that he's in L.A.)

You might find the book an interesting read since it's basically a series of e-mails about his writing process...and if you're a Dr. Who fan it's an even better read. Although, you start to feel like a Time Lord yourself because you know the future while his e-mails are stuck in the past. LOL

Thomas said...

Great article, much appreciated.

Here's a Q: Does race, religion, sexuality, or creed factor into what you are 'allowed' to write about?

Mike Bauman said...

When I'm writing an outline, I begin by writing an outline of my outlining. For example:


Mike makes some coffee. He then sits down to write an outline.

After three hours of email, twitter, and Madden 05, Mike gets more coffee.

Mike: "I wonder what's on television?"

Another successful day.

David said...

This is no judgment on Chad (I've never read him), but in my experience in academic writing (both as a student and a prof), those who claim they are "not outline kinda writers" are usually shitty writers.

I'm not saying there's causality (although it wouldn't surprise me), but there is definitely a strong correlation.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. This subject brings up fond memories of David Lloyd, arguably one of, if not the, finest sitcom writers ever. He was so good, we were always tempted to try to give him a loose idea of a story and let him figure out the details. But he would have none of it,knowing what we were up to. He'd insist on knowing what every beat of the story would be before head would head off to outline. In retrospect, how happy I am to have shared all that extra time with him in the room. Plus, of course, the outlines and scripts always came back terrific.

Jim said...

I don't know if this counts as another Friday question or just a supplementary here, but what do you mean by "beats". Is it plot points, or do you have a sort of score you work to with available notes ranging from plain not funny through mildly funny and the like through to big end of scene laugh. And does there have to be a big end of scene laugh or can it end on a not so funny line?

Kevin McLain said...

I'm an editor, and have often worked with writers who say things like "I'm not an outline writer" or "I never do revisions" or "That's not how my writing process works." Good for you, but if that's the case, writing will never be anything more than a hobby for you. Certainly not a career.

Most writers can't coast on talent alone, and those who can tend to burn out very quickly. You have to take it seriously. It's a job.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

In Cheers, Diane Chambers started writing projects but never finished them, such as the poems "Death of a Shallow Man," "A Bartender Dismembered" and "Hurricane of Wills".

When Diane finally finished a manuscript for her novel, her publisher asked her to cut a thousand pages.

And in the series finale, when Diane won that Cable Ace award for a screenplay, she rambled on and thanked ALL the muses. And then she was dragged off the stage.

If only Diane had outlined first.

Paul Duca said...

For David E. Kelley, the motivation is "Finish up and get back to Michelle Pfeiffer".

BigTed said...

I imagine David Kelley's outlines all look something like this:

"Wacky lawyer sexually harasses colleagues... Mounts crazy court case in front of exasperated judge... Gives long closing speech that sets forth my chosen side of a controversial social issue... Wins. Drinks all around."

--Repeat continuously.

ChicagoJohn said...


I hate outlining.
It is for this reason that I thank you for writing this. Yeah, you're right. Its not going to be as much fun. I'll be annoyed the first few times I try it.

But good habits are usually annoying to artists.... even when we know they will produce better work.

Frank said...

Thanks for the great comedy writing lesson Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post. Thanks, Ken. As others have said, it would be amazing to see real-world, or at least realistic, examples of each step of the process. I don't know how likely this would be, given the time it would take someone, but I'd certainly be happy to buy a copy.

Johnny Walker said...

To the person who posted the Simpsons outline link... Wonderful! Thanks so much!

Larry said...

To be fair to Chad, if he's writing a spec script, he can do it his way, though he better be willing to polish and polish until he may wish he stated with an outline.

It's true, some writers feel constrained by an outline. They're often strongly character-based writers who like to see where their people will take them. I believe Neil Simon was like this. If so, it's probably better, if you want to work in the dramatic world, to try plays or maybe screenplays. It's also highly recommened you be as talented as Neil Simon.

TDG said...

Boy, I love outlining. I need that direction when I'm writing. I need to know what I'm building toward, I need to know what my act break is so I can build to it naturally. And it's so much easier to put together the story on a large scale and then slowly break it down into smaller and smaller pieces, until finally you're at the script and your job is essentially to write fun dialogue and character moments to bridge together the story beats.

I'm a nut for prewriting.

Muzza said...

Thanks for the timely tips on outlining. It was just what I needed to hear this morning. Not what I wanted, but what I needed, damn you.

D. McEwan said...

When writing my novels, I work from a loose outline, with spaces in it for improvisations to go. For the book I have coming out this spring, when I began writing it, I had the first third and the last third fully outlined before I began writing, with a lot of notes for the middle.

Sure enough, when it came to writing it, hitting that middle-third was like hitting a patch of deep mud when racing along on a bike. It took twice as long to do the middle as either of the ends, and when the draft was done, the middle was the part that needed the mos revising. In working out the middle I did end up creating two additional subplots, which required revising the outline of the final third heavily before writing the final third, but it was all the better for it.

For My Lush Life, I did the "Filmography" that appears in the published book as an appendix first. It, combined with various notes, functioned as the outline, and I adheared to it closely. In the final, published work, the filmography has been altered from its original list only in a very few spots. When I wrote the book coming out this Halloween, My Gruesome Life, I did the exact same thing, full filmography done before I wrote the words "Chapter One," and it worked for me well, I think.

But in writing plays, I always work from extremely detailed outlines. In writing a farce I did called Spin Control I had every single beat, no matter how minute, in that outline, pretty much everything except the dialogue, and even there, some jokes planned in advance were already in place. In writing the draft then, I kept a window with the outline open on half my screen all the time I was writing the draft on the other half. No deviations. (Deviations were allowed by me, but the outline was so well and fully worked out, they were not needed) I found the process workable, and even enjoyable.

Anyone who says "I never revise" is not a writer. Writing is rewriting. My Lush Life came out 9 years ago, and there's still stuff in it I'd like to revise.

"Barbara C. said...
Right now I'm about to finish The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies (Dr. Who, Queer as Folk, et al). And he used to NEVER right an outline or treatment. (I don't know if he HAS to now that he's in L.A.)

You might find the book an interesting read since it's basically a series of e-mails about his writing process,"

I read, no, devoured A Writer's Tale about a year ago. Admittedly, I'm a huge Doctor Who fan, and have been for about 30 years, but the book would have fascinated me even if I weren't a Whovian. It's one of the best works on a writer's process I've ever read. He doesn't ever give you instructions or recommendations on how to write; you're just there inside his mind as he works out his scripts while jugglng all the other crap he has to do as the showrunner. You live with the writing, revision by revision.

That I know his DW output extemely well (I have every DW episode Davies produced on DVD, and those DVDs have not just been gathering dust.), made it better, since I always new where his script would go, but now learned how he got there, and learned what was actually planned long in advance and what wasn't. Anyone who wants a real, nuts-and-bolts look at the reality of modern TV writing (albeit single-camera drama), and to live in a writer's mind as he works would be well-advised to read this large, terrific book. (Make sure to read the second, enlarged edition.)

I hope Steven Moffett does such a book as I'd like it from him also.

(And I'd like to see that episode Davies repeatedly kidded about doing where Russell Tovey would be attacked by "an alien clothes-eating virus." Works for me!)

(WV: "pormed": To be given an obscene hairdo.)

Johnny Walker said...

I've just finished reading through all of the stages of that Simpsons episode, read Bill Oakley's comments, and then watched the episode itself, a great process!

It gives you an idea how just how deep the thinking process goes. Their outlines were 46 pages! Very detailed. And the first draft was 54. Oakley talks about them often having far more material than they could use, and especially in the episode discussed.

There's also quite a few cases where perfectly good gags were replaced by equally funny ones, and have to wonder if it's because the staff got bored of hearing the old ones, and so thought they weren't funny. (I think Ken has written about this in the past.)

Anyways, thanks again for linking to it, "anonymous".

cb said...

yay. I love it when David Lee stops by...

In my opinion, David Lloyd ranks among the great farce writers of all time. TV. Stage. Wherever.

Dan Tedson said...

A somewhat related Friday question - Do you have any advice on incorporating old jokes you've jotted down into a new script you're writing? I have thousands of jokes I've written for a different medium, but am having just a hell of a time putting them in my first spec script and making them feel fresh.

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question:

Does it become difficult to write for a sympathetic/likeable character if the actor playing them is completely the opposite in real life?

Mark Fearing said...

Great answer. I was always confused how TV writers pulled off what they did week after week. Until I worked with them and watched it happen. It's VERY organized and outlined and...well, scripted!
I've grown to become a big fan of outlines. It's really hard work, not that much fun and worst of all, it displays the wekanesses of your story. It exposes the parts that aren't working, where you have to get from A to B and C needs to make sense.

D. McEwan said...

"Johnny Walker said...
Friday question:

Does it become difficult to write for a sympathetic/likeable character if the actor playing them is completely the opposite in real life?"

GREAT question! It's something I've wondered about, because I know that, sometimes when I learn a performer is a horrible person, it does become difficult for me to enjoy watching the them.

When I was 18, I was a gigantic fan of Steve Allen, I genuinely idolized him, and then I had the misfortune to meet him. He was so nasty to me I was not able to watch and enjoy him ever afterwards.

I know an actor who was a giant fan of Olivia Newton-John. He had every CD she ever put out. He had pictures of her on his walls. Then he got to work with her one week, when she guested on Murphy Browne, where she was so awful to him (and to pretty much all the men there, though she was very pleasant with ladies) that he can no longer listen to her without flinching, and he threw out all her CDs.

Of course, if you reach the point of really hating an actor and you write for the show they're on, there is always the chance to write awful things for them to do, or to kill them off in ghastly ways. "Diane Chamers [example picked at random] will spend the next three episodes in hospital, in an elaborate traction rig, wrapped head-to-toe as a mummy, but has lines, so it can not be a stand-in."

Anyway, good question, I look forward to Ken's answer.

Anthony said...

Alright, well I'll come clean here--I'm "Chad." :) And I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate this post--I was worried it wasn't going to be answered because it was from a few weeks ago but I've checked back every Friday just in case so hey, I earned my own post! (Or "Chad" did. Hey, don't take this from me.)

Not to make excuses or pass the blame, but the outline process was never really stressed to me in my writing education, which I think is why it was so jarring to me to read about the importance of it. Screenwriting has been my dream job since I was 8 years old, and it wasn't until I read one of the umpteen generic "How to Write Scripts That Sell!" books that I saw an example of the concept. I wrote a feature-length script for my senior film project in college--and the professor never asked to see anything but the finished pages as I wrote them. Whether that was out of apathy (he did have to monitor about 12 other projects that semester after all) or simply a lack of regard towards the outlining process, I will say in retrospect that I wish he had pushed me to start out with a detailed outline, because the first draft ended up being way too long.

Just to clarify, I don't mean to suggest that I immediately jump into writing without a plan. It's just not a very detailed one. In reality, I think if I sit down and do an outline--and I plan to for my next project--it will probably play out similarly to writing the script in that, one idea will pop out from another. And I admit, one of my weaknesses is writing to an act break.

Ken didn't touch upon this, but I think for me one of the real benefits of outlining will be helping me keep my eye on the prize so to speak. I have one episode of a series I've created that I abandoned months ago, not because I don't know what is supposed to happen next...but because what is supposed to happen next isn't a scene I'm anxious to write...and I don't know what happens after that, so I don't have the incentive to crank out that scene since for all I know, it won't lead to anything promising. But if I have a full story in the works, I'll have something to look forward to that will help me soldier on even in a more serious scene.

Well, hot diggity--somehow I just managed to push myself to write a super-lengthy comment that nobody will an outline for a script that I hope will eventually find its way onto millions of TV sets shouldn't be something I dread. And I think it will feel natural once I rework my "groove" to include it.

This post and the comments really did encourage me. It's reassuring to know I'm not alone but helpful and convincing enough to get me to realize, "Screw it. It has to be done." Thank you, Ken (and 'Anonymous' for the Simpsons outline links)--I don't even know if I would classify it "writing advice [I] might not want to hear" because I want to hear any advice that will help put me on the path that's been my goal for so long. It's genuinely appreciated and I'll force myself to change my habits for sure.

Matt Patton said...

I've never written a script, but I've written a fair number of papers for school, and unless you outline, it's very difficult to lay out your points and the information supporting them clearly. And yes, it's annoying. Do it in pencil if you write longhand, because there WILL be revisions.

Anth said...

Well, Ken, it seems that your advice has already come in handy. I've been working on a Happy Endings outline with a dentistry subplot, and tonight I sat down to watch this week's episode...and lo and behold, dentistry subplot. No, they didn't play out the same way and weren't focused on the same character, although Brad's pride in his smile was a component in both the episode and my outline.

Had I dove in head first into the script, I'd have to junk the entire thing basically. But now I can just look in my outline and update the relevant parts as soon as I come up with an appropriate replacement story. And while there was definitely that initial reaction of "Oh no, please tell me they didn't!"...I guess I should be encouraged by the fact that the writers and I were at least on the same page in (part of) what I was trying to accomplish.

So thanks again. BTW, do you have any opinions/insight on the NBC Writers on the Verge program? I've been looking into the possibility of applying for the 2012 class and would appreciate any advice if you know anything about it (or can suggest a better alternative).

Tim Norton said...

Excellent insight about the writing process for a sitcom. With the best scripts, the structure is so seamless, the audience seldom thinks about what craftsmanship went into them. They're too busy enjoying the show.