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:
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.)
(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.
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. 😉