Outlining and Bacon

person writing on white paper

Outlining will not save your bacon—it will just help you make the bacon in the first place.

Every form of writing will have its own outlining standard (novels, articles, dissertations, screenplays, etc.). And within each category of writing, every writer will have his or her own preferred style of outlining.

The important thing is to have a system for planning your creative work.

In all my interactions with other writers, the most common grievances that come up again and again are:

  1. Not having time
  2. Not knowing where to start
  3. Getting lost in the middle
  4. “Writer’s block” (the vague catch-all for every creative affliction)

Structure comes more naturally to some personalities than to others. Not all of us put the same pant leg on first every morning. (I recently realized I always start with the left. This realization dawned upon me when I almost fell over by starting with the right leg one morning.)

While structure isn’t vital for every part of your life, however, it’s interesting that all of the aforementioned writing problems can be addressed by introducing structure.

(Addressed, not necessarily solved.) Organizing your time can actually help you become more efficient so that you finally do find time for your writing—it doesn’t create time, but it sure can help make the most of what you’ve got.

As I’ve delved further into the screenwriting process for my 8-part limited series, my appreciation for structure has deepened by leagues. For those of you unfamiliar with television writing, the key to creating a successful episode is having a well-built beat sheet. A beat sheet is basically the writer’s road map for what has to happen at each point in the story, so that the audience can be properly introduced, hooked, amused, devastated, and exhilarated—and all within 60 minutes. Yikes!

At first the rigidity of the beat sheet felt restrictive—like I was trying to squeeze my fabulously unique story that knows no limits into the premade mold that only uncreative people use. Well, I was wrong. In fact, the “formula” used in outlining only exists because it is the pattern that most effectively holds an audience’s attention. If you have ever watched a solid movie or show, chances are you could go back through the script and pinpoint where each of the key beats happened. Because these outlines work.

But beyond keeping the audience happy, outlining will make your life as the writer easier.

Which would you rather do when you hit a problem: rearrange a couple of bullet points in your master outline, or have to rewrite eight pages because you realized they shouldn’t happen in that order?

Some of us tend to buck outlining because it feels unnatural. Let’s just remember that there are plenty of healthy habits that will at first feel unnatural. Trying a new approach will usually be a little uncomfortable, but the habit of outlining is actually more like an exercise—it builds muscles of organization and rhythm so that the more you do it, the smoother and stronger your writing process becomes. It took me two and a half weeks to flesh out my first beat sheet for my television series. Yep. That’s pretty slow. But the next one took me only one week. And the third one… well, I had basically started outlining Episode 3’s beat sheet before I wrote the last line of Episode 2. That one was done in two days.

And as I evaluate the actual episodes themselves, I can already see that Episode 3 is much sleeker than Episode 1—in large part because the repeated outlining process has helped me understand the critical elements of each episode.

So if you haven’t given outlining a go yet, or if you have Post Outline Stress Disorder from previous experiences… get back in there and give it a shot. Depending on your writing form, check out some different outlining techniques and find which one works best for you. It will be clunky at first, but by the time you are well into your project, you’ll be glad you have a replicable pattern to follow. And so, by the way, will your readers. 😉

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7 Comments on “Outlining and Bacon

  1. when I almost fell over by starting with the right leg one morning.)…….and that, my dear is what led to the invention of the kilt……

  2. I’m in the ‘just write’ camp too. While outlining serves a purpose, I’ve found that I can’t actually move the story forward if I don’t first write everything down on paper. It’s much easier for me to mould things into shape than to try and outline a story into completion. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    • Good points, Stuart– if you don’t have a body of content to work with already, it can be difficult to give form to the idea. Often what I do is write a few key scenes right off the bat to get the juices flowing– and then I’ll step back and think about how they fit into the big picture. Sometimes it’s a combination of approaches that achieves the best result! Best wishes on your projects!

    • Interesting question– although I think in my case, it might be because I balance better on my right foot? So putting the left leg through first lets me stand on the right foot first? Just a guess, because I’m hesitant to call myself left-brained, given my aversion to math and all that lol.
      Would you consider yourself more left or right brained?

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