Saturday, February 06, 2016

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar in pilot writing at UCLA.  My students will have to write a pilot for the course.   We're now at the outline stage.   So I thought it would be a good time to reprise a post I wrote four or five years ago answering a Friday Question on the subject.  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.


Mitchell Hundred said...

Certainly this advice is still relevant if you're looking to get a job on TV, but I'm wondering how it applies to productions for streaming services. I mean, presumably they don't care whether you produce one episode per week, since they put everything out there in one big lump. And traditional time constraints obviously don't apply to them, so an outline wouldn't help to keep things under control in that regard.

Wally said...

If I remember correctly, Ellen Sandler said she and the writers at "Everybody Loves Raymond" were having really long network note calls re: their outlines. Then, Phil and the writers started to put a logline at the top of each outline and the calls became *significantly* shorter.

Roseann said...

Oh, Mitchell Hundred, I would guess that the day will be coming when the discipline of the outline, etc. as Ken does it will end up being de rigueur. Use his advice wisely.

jcs said...


Louis CK got a lot of press coverage after "self-publishing" his comedy HORACE AND PETE online. You often criticise networks for strangling showrunners and writers creatively. Do you by any chance know whether the networks are impressed by this shot across the bow? If CK's attempt is economically successful, do you think other heavyweights will follow his example?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

But, I've heard that studio heads and network execs will more than likely not read outlines anyway - this is one of the reasons why whenever Sid & Marty Krofft pitched shows, they went in with conceptual artwork and such to actually show what it was they were pitching because they knew they were more likely to sell a show if they could see what it would be like as opposed to writing an outline they're not going to read anyway. I'm with Chad (or whatever his name is), I've only written an outline once, but I found I wasn't able to really flesh out the story that way and ended up going through with a first draft . . . that's gone through countless revisions, and probably still has a way to go. Seems like a lot of this mandatory corporate approach to shows and movies is really causing American entertainment to suffer in its artistic value: no wonder other countries are getting a lot more done - they actually care about the art of the whole thing, not the revenue.

Tammy said...

Friday Question: Ken, could you talk about what happens after the first draft - is it just a back-and-forth between the writer and the showrunner, or do the other writers, the network etc. give further input? Thanks!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

jcs: Isn't this what Joss Whedon did in 2008 with DR HORRIBLE and Felicia Day with THE GUILD? and various others.


Anonymous said...

@Joseph Scarbrough: Whether or not they read the outlines is beside the point. They require them, anyway.

I can see how selling via conceptual art would have worked for Sid and Marty Krofft, given the nature of their shows, but I'm not sure that would work too well for your average sitcom.

Anthony said...

I can come clean and admit that I am in fact "Chad," and I'm pleased to say that I did take Ken's advice and now I've become much less reluctant about outlining. I still should probably work at making them more thorough--mine tend to come in around 4-5 pages--but the process is definitely helpful, both in terms of having the story fleshed out before the script comes to pass, and giving you an abbreviated canvas to pick out and correct mistakes. So to Joseph and anyone else like me who struggled with it, I would say to give it a shot. Don't treat it as an outline; just imagine you're writing a short story that can stand on its own.

(Oh yeah, the reason I submitted under the name "Chad" was because it was a week where all the Friday questions came from someone whose name started with C, or they were all one syllable, or something like that. It made sense at the time!)

ScottyB said...

Hell yeah, @Ken Levine. About time you got firm with some of these people around here.

ScottyB said...

@Ken Levine: I think in the past not too long ago, you gave us an example of what an outline looked like, and it was quite helpful and useful — and I'm not even a scriptwriter. Perhaps a link back to that blog post, because showing is usually more effective than just telling people how to do stuff?

ScottyB said...

>> Anonymous Anonymous said: @Joseph Scarbrough: Whether or not they read the outlines is beside the point. They require them, anyway. >>

It occurs to me that even tho they're not read, outlines would be extremely helpful to the other writers, if it's a group setting. But even it's just yourself, I'd think an outline would help you yourself stay on track, because I could see how it's easy to lose sight of the road even tho you're the one who invented the road in the first place.

Mike said...

Ken's process of outlining is completely analogous to top-down design in engineering, in which the product is represented (or modelled) in varying degrees of abstraction by diagrams & text. Starting with the most abstract or highest level, each model is decomposed or refined into a lower level of abstraction by adding detail, using formal rules or methodology. At each level, the model can be rearranged using formal rules or algebra. This is the most efficient approach to design. The alternative approach, bottom-up design, requires constant rewriting and may never complete.
Use of this approach evolved computer programming from mere coding to software design.

I gather software exists for aiding writing scripts, but this may be primarily for layout. Ken's process can be coded into a Computer Aided Scriptwriting software package, with an Artificial Intelligence interface. Or you could use pen & paper.

Brian said...

Thanks Ken, its these kind of posts that makes me respect writers even more. Writing is hard - it was hard enough to just to write this comment!

Al said...

In response to Mike's post:

There is software to do both actually. The screenwriting software (most commonly Final Draft) can guide your formatting, but I also use Dramatica Story Expert, which helps with outlining a story that fits within a particular story structure or framework. It's helpful when I'm trying to write to a particular type of story, and even helps when I'm trying to write outside of that structure. As has been said by smarter people than me, you have to know the rules really well before you can break them.

alan0825 said...

Can you do a post about Bob and Ray? I just finished their biography and have always been a big fan. Your thoughts?

Mark Fearing said...

Good answer! I'm not an 'outline guy' but I've learned to be one.