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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.
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.
This is a re-post from over four years ago. But the points can't be emphasized or repeated enough.