Exploding Your Outline

I’ve been speaking philosophically lately, so it’s time to get down to some pragmatic stuff.  (Or as Darkwing Duck would say it, “Let’s get practical!” … or something like that.)

Don’t you mean Cro-Magon Man?

I’m going to talk about “exploding outlines” today – the quick’n’dirty way of going from outline to script.  It’s so easy, a caveman could do it.

As a reminder, you have 5 distinct stages that your script goes through.


5 Script stages

1. Springboard – This is a one or two sentence concept or idea.  (“Phineas and Ferb decide to make the world’s largest candle by stealing earwax off used Q-tips.”)  There’s no dialogue, details, plot development, or character growth.  There’s not even an ending suggested.  (Using an architectural motif, this would be a building sketches on a cocktail napkin.)

2. Premise – Your springboard idea is now expanded into a one or two page premise.  This lays out the basic plot and character arcs, including the ending and some suggested obstacles.  There is, however, no dialogue or plot details.  (Architecturally, this is your building’s blueprint.)

3. Outline – And outline is a complete breakdown of every scene and beat in your story.  There are still details and dialogue to be worked out later, but everything is pretty much here.  (This is the wooden framework of your house, with all the cement poured, the floors laid, and the plumbing put in.)

4. First draft script – This is your outline “made flesh.”  This is a workable document with all the scenes, dialogue, and action figured out.  (You’ve now put up the drywall, the roof shingles, the doors, the siding, etc.  The house is livable… but not complete.)

5. Final draft script – After umpteen drafts, this is the draft that gets handed out, recorded, put in the vault, whatever.  All notes from the producer, the director, the educator, the executives, the executives’ children, and the janitor are now incorporated.  The writer’s job is now done.  (The house is now carpeted, furnished, painted, and window-treated.  Move in!)

Going to Outline

The Springboard and Premise stages are usually “speculative” in nature, meaning you’re throwing your ideas and writing out there for free.  (Remember, I’m talking animation writing.  In live action, you don’t write your name without getting residuals.)  So the sweetest words to an animation writer’s ears are “Go to outline.”  This means the studio likes your idea, and they’re paying you commencement money.

Remember, you’re starting to “build the house” here, so you’ve got to layout everything from top to bottom.  There’s no guesswork to the structure (though you aren’t going to figure out the color scheme or the carpeting or the bathroom fixtures yet).  Every scene location has to be figured out… every beat… every plot twist… every act break.  And you will be hinting at the dialogue here and there, as well.  There are some cheats at this stage (“Indiana gets into a big fight with five Nazis, but he dispatches them with ease.”), which means you will have to choreograph that fight when it comes time for the script.

Two Outline Styles

As you can see you can get very detailed at this point – or you can fudge a lot of points.  And that leads me to the next question:  What kind of an outline does the studio want?  Well, there are two basic kinds.

  • The Beat Outline – This is the quicker, shorter, sketchier way to lay out your story.  It pretty much describes where a sequence takes place and what happens plot-wise and emotion-wise.  But there are not a lot of details or dialogue.  You’re just listing what happens “Beat by beat” – thus, the Beat Outline.  As I said, writing this way is quicker, but it makes more work for you at the script stage.
  • The Full Outline – Studios tend to like this fuller version more – probably because this doesn’t read like a script, it reads like a short story.  It’s prose in nature, telling the story from an omniscient viewer’s standpoint.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the full outline approach, because it asks the writer to work in prose when the ultimate goal is to deliver a script.  (That’s kind of like asking a sculptor to do a drawing of his proposed statue instead of a clay model.)  It’s all a bit counter-productive.  However, the fuller version is much, much easier to translate into a script, because it’s a longer document.  A lot of the small stuff gets sweated out, so the script is a smoother ride.

Beat Outline Sample

Let me show you examples.  Here’s a Beat Outline version:

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

Excitement

  • News of Pop Star’s arrival spreads from kid to kid
  • Hopes of meeting Pop Star are voiced.

Underdog vs. Popular

  • Each boasts she is the bigger fan
  • Try to top each other
  • Popular makes the biggest boast!

Big Fib

  • Daunted, Underdog blurts out they she & Pop Star are BFF’s.
  • This stuns everyone and shuts up Popular.

A Challenge

  • Popular recovers and challenges Underdog for proof.
  • Proof = “Bring Pop Star to my house tomorrow”
  • At stake:  Loser will forfeit her fan collection.
  • Underdog agrees…. (Gulp)

=====================

Full Outline Sample

Now here’s the Full Outline of that same scene:

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

News of Pop Star’s arrival travels fast as the young girls clump together, buzzing excitedly.  “Wow, I can’t believe she coming to OUR town!” “I heard she has a meeting here or something.” “How do you know?” “My mom’s cousin’s neighbor’s best friend works at the Bismark Hotel, and she said Pop Star made a reservation for tonight.”  “Gee, maybe we’ll get to see her!”

Meanwhile, two eager females (UNDERDOG and the ever-pushy POPULAR) get into an argument over who is The Biggest Pop Star Fan Ever.  Underdog brags that she has the hugest collection of Smiley memorabilia, and she whips out a poster of the songbird to prove it.  Popular counters by displaying her Pop Star fridge magnets.  Underdog shows off her limited-edition silly bands.  Popular tops her by flipping open her backpack, revealing a collection of Pop Star statuettes.  Popular goes on to add that she will top off her collection by sneaking into the hotel and getting Pop Star’s autograph!

Daunted by Popular’s boast, Underdog one-up’s her by blurting: “Oh, yeah?  Well, Pop Star and I are friends.”  Everyone gasps – Can this be true?  Popular squints unbelievingly.  “I’m supposed to believe that nobody you and super-star Pop Star are BFF’s?  Hah!”  “We are,” stutters Underdog.

Popular challenges Underdog to prove her claim.  “OK.  Meet me at my house tomorrow morning.  Either bring your ‘friend’ or bring all your Pop Star memorabilia – which will become mine!”  Another girl steps in.  “And what if she does bring Pop Star?”  Popular chuckles: “Then I’ll give her my Pop Star collection.  But I know she’s lying.”

Underdog swallows hard – then shakes on it.  It’s a bet.

=====================

Combination Outline Sample

I tend to write is a combination of both styles – for the exec who likes to skim.  Basically I do a full outline, but with paragraph bullet points.  So the scene would begin like this:

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

NEWS SPREAD FAST

News of Pop Star’s arrival travels fast as the young girls clump together, buzzing excitedly.  “Wow, I can’t believe she coming to OUR town!” “I heard she has a meeting here or something.” “How do you know?” “My mom’s cousin’s neighbor’s best friend works at the Bismark Hotel, and she said Pop Star made a reservation for tonight.”  “Gee, maybe we’ll get to see her!”

GIRLS MAKE BIG CLAIMS

Meanwhile, two eager females (UNDERDOG and the ever-pushy POPULAR) get into an argument over who is The Biggest Pop Star Fan Ever.  Underdog brags that she has the hugest collection of Smiley memorabilia, and she whips out a poster of the songbird to prove it.  Popular counters by displaying her Pop Star fridge magnets.  Underdog shows off her limited-edition silly bands.  Popular tops her by flipping open her backpack, revealing a collection of Pop Star statuettes.  Popular goes on to add that she will top off her collection by sneaking into the hotel and getting Pop Star’s autograph!

A CHALLENGE

Daunted by Popular’s boast, Underdog one-up’s her by blurting: “Oh, yeah?  Well, Pop Star and I are friends.”  Everyone gasps – Can this be true?  Popular squints unbelievingly.  “I’m supposed to believe that nobody you and super-star Pop Star are BFF’s?  Hah!”  “We are,” stutters Underdog.

Etc.

=====================

By indenting the prose, I leave the bulletpoints exposed so that the reader can skim the document, picking up just the Beats if wanted.

Exploding Your Outline

OK, so whether you do a beat outline or a full outline, at some point you are (hopefully) going to get the next official order:  “Go to Script!”  That is often daunting.  At every stage you’ve had to expand your submissions.  You started with a one sentence springboard… then went to a one-page premise… then sweated out a 10 page full outline (for a half-hour script)… and now you’ve got to come up with a 30+ page script.

So here’s a trick for “writing the script” quickly…  just EXPLODE your outline.  In other words, you’re going to format your prose outline into a full-blown script format.  But you won’t use one ounce of brain power to do it.  Here’s how:

Format Everything as Action

Import your outline into a script document.  (I usually just type over an old script so that all my formatting is already in place.)  Since the bulk of your animation script is action, the first thing I do is to use my Action hot buttons.  (Depending on your computer and your software that might be Alt-A or Control-A or whatever.)  I format the entire outline as Action.  So the first two beats of my outline above will wind up looking like this:

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

NEWS SPREAD FAST

News of Pop Star’s arrival travels fast as the young girls clump together, buzzing excitedly.  “Wow, I can’t believe she coming to OUR town!” “I heard she has a meeting here or something.” “How do you know?” “My mom’s cousin’s neighbor’s best friend works at the Bismark Hotel, and she said Pop Star made a reservation for tonight.”  “Gee, maybe we’ll get to see her!”

GIRLS MAKE BIG CLAIMS

Meanwhile, two eager females (UNDERDOG and the ever-pushy POPULAR) get into an argument over who is The Biggest Pop Star Fan Ever.  Underdog brags that she has the hugest collection of Smiley memorabilia, and she whips out a poster of the songbird to prove it.  Popular counters by displaying her Pop Star fridge magnets.  Underdog shows off her limited-edition silly bands.  Popular tops her by flipping open her backpack, revealing a collection of Pop Star statuettes.  Popular goes on to add that she will top off her collection by sneaking into the hotel and getting Pop Star’s autograph!

=====================

Now everything is left-justified.

Next I’ll go through the entire document and hot-button my SCENE HEADINGS.  So…

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

will turn into….

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

=====================

If you want to keep your Beat topics, fold them into your action.  Otherwise, just erase them.


Formatting dialogue

Next it’s time for the Character and Dialogue hot-buttons.  With some adroit clicking (and quotation mark erasing) you will end up with a passage like this:

EXT. PLAYGROUND – DAY

NEWS SPREAD FAST – News of Pop Star’s arrival travels fast as the young girls clump together, buzzing excitedly.

GIRL #1

Wow, I can’t believe she coming to OUR

town!

GIRL #2

I heard she has a meeting here or something.

GIRL #3

How do you know?

GIRL #2

My mom’s cousin’s neighbor’s best friend

works at the Bismark Hotel, and she said

Pop Star made a reservation for tonight.

GIRL #1

Gee, maybe we’ll get to see her!

[Sorry, the blog software doesn’t allow me to format this stuff exactly like a script.  But you get the idea.]

=====================

Look at you!  You’ve got a half page of script without doing any skull work.

You can use the same trick on non-dialogue passages as well.  Let’s go to the next paragraph, shall we?  Here, we’re going to pick out the implied dialogue.

GIRLS MAKE BIG CLAIMS – Meanwhile, two eager females (UNDERDOG and the ever-pushy POPULAR) get into an argument over who is The Biggest Pop Star Fan Ever.

UNDERDOG

brags that she has the hugest

collection of Smiley memorabilia.

… and she whips out a poster of the songbird to prove it.

POPULAR – counters by displaying her Pop Star fridge magnets.

POPULAR

<***something witty>

UNDERDOG – shows off her limited-edition silly bands.

UNDERDOG

<***Oh, yeah, check THIS out! (or

whatever)>

POPULAR – tops her by flipping open her backpack, revealing…

POV DOWNSHOT – A collection of Pop Star statuettes.

POPULAR (OS)

Goes on to add that she will top off her

collection…

POPULAR – pulls out one of the statuette and holds it up, sneering at Underdog.

POPULAR (Cont.)

…by sneaking into the hotel and getting

Pop Star’s autograph!

REACTION SHOT – of  Underdog.

=====================

Easy-peasy writing

A week ago I couldn't spell "screenwriter," and now I are one!

As you can see, it’s easy to reformat the dialogue and the action stuff without really thinking about it.  But it’s also easy to get carried away and start to throw stuff in.  That’s great!  That shows that you’ve got your writer’s hat on after all.  For example, I knew that Popular wouldn’t just hold out her fridge magnets – she’d say something as well (sumpin’ nasty).  So I threw in a dummy line of dialog (prefaced with 3 asterisks so I can search for “fix areas” later).

Also, I could tell that the statuette reveal was going to require more than one shot, so I threw in a POV DOWNSHOT and broke up the dialogue.  Now I know I said that “exploding” your outline requires no writing, but if you’re inspired, go for it!  (Just don’t get bogged down.)  The point is to move from outline to script as quickly as possible.  By next adding TRANSITIONS (“Wipe to”) and PARENTHETICALS  (“snarling threw his teeth”), you will wind up with a script that will be about ½ the length of your finished script!  And you haven’t actually ground any mental gears to do it.  You can walk away from the script at this point and go get dinner feeling like, “I’m almost done!”  (You aren’t, but it’s fun to tell yourself that.)

So there’s the EXPLODED OUTLINE.  Happy scripting!

Jymn

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Exploding Your Outline

  1. Pingback: Jymn Magon Explodes Story Outlines

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s