Happy Wednesday to you! I got the opportunity to write about writing for my MFA program this last week. They occasionally ask alumni questions about their program. It was in answering their questions that got me thinking about a struggle that I have with writing. And it’s a battle that many writers face…
To outline or not to outline… That is the question. I know it may seem dramatic to twist Shakespeare’s quote on suicide to discuss outlining. It’s just that it’s a battle that could drive people to that point. I recall James Mangold (Logan) and Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) at this year’s Writer’s Guild Foundation’s (www.wgfoundation.org/) “Beyond Words” event talking about not outlining. In fact, James whipped himself into a frenzy about how outlines were the root of all evil even though he couldn’t past page 50 without one for many a draft. Greta Gerwig said her approach was the same on “Lady Bird” While Aaron Sorkin said that he didn’t use outlines when he ran the writers’ room for “West Wing.”
I think I remember their passion a lot more for I have long had this same struggle. It’s that I’m what they call an “intuitive” writer. I research, write notes, and start typing my story. My structure would come out through the editing process. I also struggled with finding out well within my draft whether or not it had a conflict that could support the page count of a feature film.
But it was really during my MFA that this battle came to a head. You see it was because they pushed structures and outlines. It was quite a battle to use them throughout the program. My stories fit in them except I felt like they killed their spirit and flattened out my characters. It felt more like I was twisting my characters into pretzels to get certain plot points to happen rather than making sure they remained interesting. I even convinced myself during my first attempt at my thesis that I couldn’t outline. It didn’t matter that I had already written several. I convinced myself otherwise.
As a way to help myself, I asked for an example since my advisor wouldn’t accept a partial outline. The challenge with the sample was that the story had massive plot holes readily apparent in the outline. I could also tell that the story did not have a conflict strong enough to support the page count of a feature film unless a miracle was going to happen on the eventual pages. It’s true that those are judgmental and harsh thoughts except that those are the same things that I demand of my scripts that fail more than succeed. That was especially for something that was supposed to be as important a script for my flipping thesis.
So… I came up with what I thought was a “brilliant” solution. I wrote a draft and an outline at the same time to prepare to show my advisor. It’s just that you should read that I spun on an outline and draft for several months until I realized that my protagonist was the thing not strong enough to support the page count. My discovery came a little late in the game for I figured this out close to when my thesis class finished. I started a new script but decided that I would try my thesis again.
The only difference was that my program had changed its format for thesis to use a well-known book with a clearly defined structure. I basically said “fuck it,” burned that structure in my brain, and modeled the ton of supporting documents required to prepare to go to draft. My other big thing was to figure out that my thesis was a homework assignment that would be done when I completed the requirements of my assignment.
And it was in taking the pressure off of having to write the perfect outline that I was able to just bang them out. I had to do two since I started with two brand new ideas when I began thesis again. The process didn’t feel like Hell on Earth like they did my last attempt at thesis. An interesting part about the structure my school embraced was that it was about character moments rather than standard plot points. It’s true that those can be interchangeable except plot can also be separate from character. That would be a great topic for another blog post…
My point was that I finally could see the value in outlines. I also didn’t have to give my characters lobotomies in order for my outline to work. They simply gave them to themselves for my scripts needed a shitload of work even after they made it through the thesis process.
I’ve also reached a crossroads with outlines. It’s that I can write scripts with them without feeling like I need to slit my wrists to do it. And I also have fun writing scripts without them. Both ways have their values…
What about you?