Sunday, June 26, 2016

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.

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


Joseph Scarbrough said...

I feel like you recently reposted this one. I think I've only written an outline approximately once, because I knew what the story was that I wanted to tell, yet still hadn't worked out many of the tiny little details in between, but those all came along when I started fleshing out the script, of which I've been working on for the better part of the last year - it's gone through several revisions and tweaks.

Stephen Robinson said...

I might start sharing this at my writers groups. I often encounter new writers who try to write novels without outlines or character profiles. I liken it to building a house without a plan. "Let's see where the construction takes me!" Or "the kitchen practically built itself." It just never works, and I think there's this image -- promoted in a lot of movies -- of a writer sitting down and typing starting with Chapter One to The End. I get so much resistance to outlines that it boggles the mind. I'm a bug Hitchcock fan and his movies feel tight and economically told. You can just tell the difference between them and say a Judd Apatow film that meanders and demands editing.

Roseann said...

As they say 'Time is money'. That's the first thing I learned making the move from Theatre to Film/TV.

Earl Boebert said...

I'd put it this way: Rex Stout wrote the Nero Wolfe novels in one draft, no outline, no revision. Stout was a genius. You are student. Do an outline. (And get off my lawn :-))

I've written a ton of technical proposals and several technical books and I always do them text-first instead of outline first. The reason for this is that if you do technical proposals outline first you can fall into the trap of having a topic line like "Explain unique qualities of our framistat" and then you get there in the text phase and you can't think of a thing to say. *But* I also always have had the services of an experienced editor to impose order on my ramblings. Without them I would be lost.

But for fiction, again: Rex Stout was one of a kind. Do an outline. (And stay off my lawn :-))

Pidge said...

As a former teacher of English, I spent many years banging my head on this particular wall.......make an OUTLINE!!!!
Brainstorm, select best points, arrange, re-arrange for the best effect, write. REWRITE!!!! proofread, etc. And still, when I invigilated an exam, many students would begin writing from the first sentence, off the tops of their pointy heads, wandering all over the place, going off topic and, inevitably, running out of time.
The concept that writing well is a skill you have to develop and work at, over and over, just doesn't sink in for some people.
It's probably all your fault, Ken. You make it look too easy!

Astroboy said...

I read once where the novelist James Ellory, in explaining his writing pattern, said the outlines for his books usually wound up being as long as the finished novels themselves.

Bud Wilkinson said...

I'm chuckling here. Had a writer for my website turn in a column last week that was more than twice the max length allowed. When I gave the writer the option of trimming it (before I took out my scalpel), I got a response that said the column was being retracted - basically because there wasn't a word that could be touched. As you might expect, steam came out of my ears. I finally calmed down to the point of noting that the Gettysburg Address was only 272 and that there are always parameters that writers come up against. A 2,300 word column in a 140 character world just isn't going to be read online no matter how good it is. I've now convinced the writer to let me do my job as an editor, while advising that had this happened at any newspaper I ever worked for, the offender would have been told succinctly, "Get used to it, kid" or "Find another profession."

Janh Ghalt said...

I wonder how general Ken's advice to write and use outlines is.

One exception, perhaps not relevant, was Asimov's practice.

(he was a prolific writer of 500 books - 80%-90% nonfiction - and no works for the stage or screen)

According to his autobiography he did not use outlines. In a late interview (1990) he said when he first started he tried an outline but found he couldn't stick to it, they were "like chains". He cescribed his process as starting with a general notion, a "snappy ending", and a starting point. Like many novel writers, he says that the story "writes itself" - that he doesn't "the faintest idea what will be ten pages later on."

Of course, for novelists, deadlines are much more distant than they are for screenwriters. I wonder if the Good Doctor would have resorted to outlines if he had to write for, say, Star Trek.

Jahn Ghalt said...

@ Bud Wilkinson:

My wife, mostly trained as a philosopher en route to her doctorate, once submitted two op ed pieces to the Anchorage Daily News for their Voices From the Community series. They bit, and assigned her to write 750-word columns to be published every 4th week for six months.

Unlike myself, she tended to love her own prose such that she had a hard time cutting.

Me to the rescue.

Typically, she would hand over over 1,000 words, an hour later I'd hand back the column tightened up to spec. Not once did I cut any content. This was in 1995 and 1996, so you might imagine this was not accomplished with typewriters.

So, Mr. Wilkinson, did you cut more than 50% from 2,300 words without cutting content?

Jahn Ghalt said...

The first new book I have gotten in recent memory came in last week - Ken's memoir The Me Generation.... By Me.

So far it's a hoot - very entertaining. I opened it in the middle and read about Ken's "career" in The Dating Game. He was 16 going on 17 when he gagged his way onto that show - hard to believe since I don't remember teenagers on that show - but I was not even a teen when I saw it - there' a good chance I didn't know the difference.

(to be fair, the only thing I remember about it was that Bill Bixby got shot down on that show - he was Ray Walston's "nephew" on My Favorite Martian and was said to be a "very eligible bachelor")

So a Monday Question, Ken: given that "Me" is a memoir about your favorite (or at least best known) subject - and not a script or any other fictional form...... Did you first write an OUTLINE for it??

MikeN said...

Do all writers look like TV villains, or is just David Kelley, who could pass for the bad guy in Suits?

Covarr said...

I recently did an experiment: I rewrote the entirety of of the book Charlotte's Web with characters and lore from the Harry Potter franchise (and some new characters), using the original book as a loose outline of sorts. I gave myself permission to make big changes, but still followed the book enough that the story was recognizable. My rule of thumb was that one chapter from the book would be one chapter of my own story (save for a few unnecessary chapters I cut).

What I would do was to look at each chapter, determine what the major beats were that would have to advance the story, and make sure to include those. Beyond that, though, I gave myself a lot of freedom. The core of the story was still intact, and most of the structure made it unscathed, but some events unfolded quite differently (which was okay, just as long as they unfolded). The end result came across as a spoof of the original book, and was an absolute blast to write.

It's not something I would ever consider attempting to publish professionally, for what I hope would be obvious reasons, but it was a decent exercise in writing from an outline, which prior to that I didn't have any real experience with. It got me thinking more critically about story beats in general, and led to a story that didn't feel like an overlong improv session. Most importantly, it got me thinking about the things that an outline would cover, and has helped me with writing my own outlines since then. Definitely an exercise I would recommend for someone who wants to get their toes wet with outlines but isn't ready to write their own outline yet.

(I won't link it because I don't care to use this as an advertising platform, but on the off chance someone is interested, it's floating around the web: "Harry Potter and the Fabulous Cowpig". I don't recommend reading it; it's really REALLY stupid, and was never meant as anything but a joke and an exercise).

Johnny Walker said...

I spent the weekend with a celebrated British TV writer, and he explained to us how he would create "pillars" of the story, and then write towards them. That seems to be a good compromise between the outlining to the nth degree (like writing rooms do) and blindly jumping in (and invariably getting stuck).