Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Writing the outline

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?


doggans said...

//“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.”//

Hey, I think I saw that episode! It was the one that had a scene where Sam and Diane were arguing about some problem that came up in their relationship!

Anonymous said...

Ken, I was told once by someone close to FRASIER (hope I'm not stepping on your turf by saying this -- if I am, I apologize) that when the Charles brothers and JB were developing CHEERS, they drew up probably the most extensive character bios in the history of sitcoms for each of the main characters. I've talked with writers who had worked on shows where there were virtually no character bios to reference and draw upon, who ultimately, and inevitably saw their shows get canceled in 13 weeks or less -- not for lack of talent, but like you said, lack of vision on the part of the producers and writing staff. One of the things that I would imagine helped keep the writing on CHEERS at such a high calibre (besides the talent of the writing staff itself) is that you guys must have found it an enormous help in plotting out your stories based on the ideas you came up with, when you could draw on the character bios and and pretty much know how they would be expected to behave or react in a given situation.

By Ken Levine said...

If there were character bios on CHEERS I never saw them. I'm not sure they ever existed. Remember the characters of Sam and Coach changed when Ted Danson was hired. As originally conceived, Sam was a former football player but Teddy seemed more a baseball player.

Character bios are good to have however. The more you know about your characters the better.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

GPS system -- more visual than the road map analogy.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken
Would you be able to post an actual outline that turned into a Cheers script? Or link to a pdf we can all download (if you don't want to print the whole thing on your blog).

Love all the stories and thanks for the details, it's like a masters class class around here.