Hi friends. It’s that time again where I ask you to do all the work because I am an idiot.

A query from loyal reader Zak:

“I was wondering if you could kind of delve into how you outline.  I’ve tried a ton of different ways, but can’t seem to figure out a really effective way for me to break into a story.  I know everyone is different and that one method isn’t for every writer, but I always enjoy hearing how other writers (especially ones working in the industry) go about their business.”

Yes, Zak, I’d love to delve into how I outline, because in doing so, I shall expend no energy and simultaneously end any relevant connectivity to this subject: I do not outline. In fact, I do as little prep work (which I shall now call “prewriting”, because that’s what it feels like to me) as is humanly possible. And yes, I AM incredibly lazy, but this is not WHY I work this way. To understand the why, let’s examine how other writers work, and then deconstruct/reconstruct to come to a FUCK ZAK YOU TRICKED ME INTO EFFORT.

As we’ve discussed here many times and as has been discussed ad nauseum on the Internets since the beginning of time (roughly 1993 by my count) and as you so simply pointed out in your email, Zak, different writers have different processes. Those writers who are on the opposite end of the spectrum from me note, outline, treatment, note card, white board and use every single program and facet of Final Draft like they’re fucking CIA analysts. And I have to admit: I envy those people. First of all, I lack not only their dedication, but also their intelligence and attention to detail. But going about writing that way also feels, to me, less like writing and more like indentured servitude. It takes all the fun out of it for me. It also leaves me feeling as though, if I go outside what I’ve prewritten for myself, I’m doing something wrong. That in turn forces me to stick to what I’ve come up with, which in turn leaves me feeling trapped, which in turn leaves me feeling that I can’ creatively wriggle free of any restraints I’ve written myself into. In case you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of turning. Basically, I have a slew of psychological problems.

But I digress to a simpler way of putting it: writing is perhaps the only thing in this world I feel as though I have a spiritual connection to, and the more “planning” I do, the less organic it seems, and the more like a chore it becomes. On the flipside, the LESS planning I do, the more I feel as though I get into a rhythm and, for lack of a less hippie-dippy term, I can let the best story flow out of me.

Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must vomit at my own pretense.

There, I’m better.

That’s not to say that research and/or planning are always something that I can get away from. They are VERY much not. Pitching requires me to often have to put together materials for producers to weigh in on before I even get into the room to talk to someone about it, and that can be a laborious process packed to the gills with tedium. It’s also part of the job. However, once all that’s fleshed out and decided and the check is in the mail and it’s time to put billions of 1s and 0s to virtual paper, I usually abandon all prewritten materials, keep the rough details in my mind, and work comfortably from a place of far less structure. Oddly, in these situations, I always hit something very close to the mark of what was planned anyway. And no, I’m not going to examine this further, and I’m happily ensconced in a lovely If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It state of ignorance.

Similarly, I’m currently engaged in research for my next spec. There are a lot of materials to go through. But I’m lucky to be able to distill them down to a couple pages of scattershot notes, and that’s what I’ll take into battle with me when I finally get into it. If I stumble, I either write my way out of it or return to a mass of highlighted books and papers to jog my memory for a detail or two. It always ends up working out.

Now, we’ve come a long way to get to a very fundamental point, Zak: you might have to try a lot of different shit to arrive at the process that works best for you. And as it appears you’re still searching, why not gauge opinion for the vast majority of writers – those that work in shades of gray somewhere between the Low Prewriting Effort Pole (me) and the High Prewriting Effort Pole (SO not me)?

So I ask of thee, writers professional, pre-professional and novice alike: what is YOUR process? What are some of the things you’ve implemented in your prewriting routine? What advice can you offer those like Zak that are still clearing the best path?

Feel free to leave your comments below, or shoot me an email and I’ll update this post with any responses I receive. And Zak, thanks for writing. I promise next time you ask something I will know everything and we won’t have to being all these other jerks into the fold.


  1. jason benoit says:

    I am a planner. I’m a lists fir me the most creative and laborious party is the outline, treatment, scriptment. I’ll rework that over and over again with detail and dialogue bc for me it helps me pretend I haven’t committed to the actual script yet. But by the time it’s ready the script practically is already written and I work more efficiently but also much quicker. I literally take the outline/scriptment and black marker sections out as I complete them in the script. It’s like a progress bar to myself so I can see the finish line and also where I’ve come from.

  2. Amos says:

    Not sure if this will help, but I’m currently experiencing something that might help:

    I’ve always been more of a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’m currently working on something more mainstream and with certain genre expectations, so the producers I work with asked me to write a full outline for them. It was like pulling teeth, but I did it.

    Now that I’m actually writing (nearing the end of the second act in the first draft), I realize I’ve gone off the outline lots of times, but having written the outline really helps me understand the full shape of the movie.

    As I’m writing, I keep focusing on the idea (there’s a video of Trey Parker and Matt Stone articulating this beautifully) that there should be a causal chain to the scenes. i.e., scenes are linked by “therefore” instead of “and then.” As I’ve been writing, it’s been generating ideas for what comes next, and I’ve just been writing those notes right at the bottom of the script document itself. It’s sort of messy, but extremely helpful. When I sit down for my next writing session, I can always say, “Oh, here’s what I do next. I figured it out last time.”

    Not sure if any of this makes sense, but it’s been a really helpful way to blend being an organized, planned out writer with the seat of my pants writer I naturally want to be. Figuring out the shape first, but really figuring out how the details all fit together in the moment.

    No matter what, my projects always involve a long period of emailing myself hundreds of ideas as they come to me, many of which will never go anywhere. But for Christ’s sake, write everything down.

  3. Here via Twitter and the urge to procrastinate on my current project. Can a novelist/non-screenwriter chip in?

    Outlining/pre-writing/whatever you want to call it is a way to create a very abbreviated first draft. You want to talk *lazy*? It is the outliner who is the laziest of all, because why write 10,000 words that have to be thrown out while you feel around for the proper character and plot when you can take out an index card and jot “Make Rosebud a sled?” instead.

    I’ve tried many kinds of pre-writing, from solid outlines to index cards to random jumble of notes, and the random jumble seems to be the most productive for me. You can start with anything related to the story that you think the concept requires–strong silent hero, ninja scene in Buckingham palace, sled thrown into flames–then build outward from there in a non-linear fashion until the characters make sense. At that point, an outline of story event can be put together.

    Personally, I almost never outline the ending, because I’m lazy and I know the actual drafting process will change too much.

    When you start writing your first recognizable draft, that’s actually the second draft and, as with any new version, better ideas will occur to you as the characters change and story detail accumulates. I personally find it easier to replace the ninjas with a newspaper if that original idea–which once seemed so right! everyone loves ninjas!–is just a few notes in an rtf file.

    Alternately, many non-outliners seem to do all their outlining in their head, without writing anything down. Anyone who can do that, and keep track of it in their memory, has a very generous muse.

    However, it’s possible that Zak struggles with outlining because it’s not a good tool for his creative process. If brainstorming a variety of story choices ruins the act of writing, he’ll just have to do it the non-lazy way: in full draft mode from the start.

  4. Chris says:

    I think I’ve done too much work to be considered a novice, and gotten paid far too little (zero counts as little, right?) to be considered close to a professional.

    Honestly, I spend a LOT of time conceptualizing. I start with an idea, a world, something. And it’s always very abstract. It’ll be a theme, or an idea, or a character, or even a line of dialog. But I start with that thing – that amorphous, undefined THING – and try to build out. But I DO NOT WRITE THIS PART DOWN.

    So maybe I’ll think about a guy in a coffee shop with another guy, and he says in voice-over “I knew he was there to kill me.” It’s a compelling start – that line, that framing device, conflict, stakes. But it’s not a thing. So then I start thinking about where it fits, how I get there, or where it goes.

    I usually reach a point where the world/story in my head starts to be too big to manage. So then I do some kind of extemporaneous writing. Maybe I’ll write an essay about a theme, maybe I’ll describe that character and his life to this point. Because then you’re putting the IDEAS out there, but you’re not limiting yourself to the structure of something like an outline. I like this because it makes it work – like Geoff said – organically. Also, writing a script is its own fucking work. It’s liberating to open up a blank page and just write 1000 words on what you want the script to FEEL like, rather than a beat-by-beat breakdown. Maybe the guy has a kid? Maybe he’s married. Putting it out there helps it take shape.

    The story I always go back to – I had writer’s block in the middle of a TV pilot. I needed to write – I needed the creative output – but I couldn’t write THIS. So instead I just put my frustration into words. I just started “Why is this so fucking hard to write?” and wrote 1000 words or whatever. And in the midst of this, I found a different way into the story I was avoiding writing. And everything cleared up for me, I understood thematically something I didn’t get before.

    So I find it really liberating to just put ideas out there but not conform them to something as regimental as an outline. Because if you do the essays, etc, it’s freeing. You’re not married to anything.

    But most of the time I REFUSE to touch a keyboard when I’m starting out. Because then there’s an expectation. Go drink some tea and take a walk. Let your ideas form and grow, don’t lock yourself down to the daunting task of staring at a screen. It can trap you.

    That’s the two cents of (again) a guy who spends way too much writing for the amount of money it hasn’t made me. So take from it what you will. I also feel like it’s self-important to write about writing, but I think looking at your process and other peoples’ helps. And I think most writers struggle with the best way to shape their creativity and tell their story.

  5. Eitan says:

    I go through various stages of outlining. I’m attempting to make these go a little faster, as I can get caught outlining/brainstorming for a month or two before I write a first draft. This is good because my first drafts are largely coherent and the story’s fleshed out. It’s bad because it takes so long and I end up having to change a lot of things in my first draft anyway, because it’s a first draft.

    Largely I find it saves me time in the long run because most major changes happen in the outline stage since it’s quicker to change “they run through the mansion” to “they run through the graveyard” than it is to actually rewrite a five page long chase sequence. I like my method but there is room for improvement.

    Anyway, here are my stages of writing:

    1) A giant document with loads and loads of ideas. This can be bits of dialog, research, scene ideas. I type and type. If something pops out as absolutely amazing I can put it in bold or otherwise note that this is something I should hold onto. Other than that it’s about generating a lot of ideas. I also try to put a theme into writing at this point.
    2) A four line outline. I break this up into Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3. Just generally what happens in each. He meets the girl, he hates the girl, he hates her more, he realizes he’s loved her all along.
    3) A more fleshed out short outline. At most this is half a page. I try to get a good feel for what scenes are in each act.
    4) Slugline outline. This is my favorite writing tool. I crack open Final Draft and write sluglines for each scene followed by a brief description of what happens in each one. INT. HOTEL LOBBY – DAY Molly and Charley con the check-in guy into giving them way too many free cookies. This forces me to come up with actual scenes and not cheat by writing “They get away from the bad guys.”
    5) First draft. Basically just removing the scene descriptions in each slugline and adding in the script.

    During 2-4 I read, revise, and redo my outline a few times. By the time I’m putting down a first draft I’ve got the story close to where I want it. Sometimes I write down snippets of dialog in the outline, if I’ve got something really good.

    I’ve heard the slugline outline is great for co-writing as it’s easy to split up scenes.

    While I don’t really want to cut any steps out I’m trying to get to the formal outline a little quicker. When brainstorming and writing short short outlines it’s tempting to really get introspective and hung up on details that may not matter down the line.

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