Writing the Dreaded Outline

The outline (AKA story/beatsheet/treatment) is the scene by scene development of the events in your teleplay. In my career it also has been the major thinking and planning phase, the most crucial step in the writing-for-television process. Yet over the years, while working on various shows with other writers, in my workshops, online classes, and when reading spec scripts for the various TVWriter™ contests, one thing has made itself abundantly clear to me:

For most writers structuring/plotting a script is the most difficult part of the whole writing process. (For me, the hardest part is the meetings, but that’s another story.)

This, of course, brings up an obvious question:

How can we make outlining easier? As in faster, and with as little accompanying brain damage as possible?

For the first seven years of my career, working as a freelancer and then staff writer on various action/drama series, I had the benefit of various support groups – namely the story editors and producers on any given show – when it came time to plot an episode. We’d get together in the office of the highest-ranking writer involved and slog through the story from beginning to end. At the least, it took hours. Too often, it literally took days.

Then, armed with a general idea of what happened to whom, and when, I’d go home and flesh out the details of each scene.

When I started producing the NBC series POLICE STORY, however, I couldn’t do that anymore. For one thing, for most of my time as showrunner (although we didn’t call it that in those days) I was the only writer on the staff. So there was no one to hash things out with. For another thing, for all of my time there, well, I didn’t have the time to concentrate on structure because there was so much else – most of it non-writing – to do.

So, over my time on POLICE STORY, I thought about what my compadres and I had done, storywise, in the past, and used my experience to come up with the most efficient way possible to get outlines for the show done. Once I had it, I stuck to it. Because it works.

I call my system the QDD – Quick, Down & Dirty Plotting Technique, and it’s a way of combining three different and equally valid approaches to storytelling and, in doing so, come up with a story about three times as fast.

The three approaches are:

  • Story-Driven Plotting
    Develops the storyline using the scenes essential to the story’s genre supplemented by scenes that present relevant and just plain interesting action and/or drama pertinent to the idea set forth in the Logline and Leavebehind
  • Character-Driven Plotting
    Develops the storyline using the backgrounds and personalities of the characters as bases for their behavior within the context of the setting and problem set forth in the Logline
  • Act Break-Driven Plotting
    Develops the storyline using the TV act breaks as starting and stopping points for building climaxes, twists, and turns

By using all these approaches together, I am, in effect, doing the thing non-writers always expect (but writer-writers think of as impossible): Forcing my story to tell itself. I do this by making the elements that already exist do the work for me whenever I can.

First, I use the already-existing act structure that all TV episodes have – by writing around the commercial breaks. Or, for non-basic cable networks, the old traditional beginning-middle-end structure a guy named Aristotle popularized awhile back.

Then, once I’ve gotten those scenes down as existing story points, I start filling in what I need to get to them. And I follow that by refining the existing scenes so that they reflect the characters’ personalities and their individual approaches to what’s happening.

In other words, I don’t waste my time agonizing over what happens next because I don’t plot linearly. I plot the high points as they come to me and then fill in the blanks.

Confusing? Okay, let’s go into detail. From here on, I’m assuming you’re writing on assignment, for a producer-showrunner to read, but everything here still applies when you write on spec.

Say that you’re plotting a 1-Hour Action/Drama episode. (Because of my background, I’m most comfortable in the Hour element, but the same technique works for 1/2 Hour Sitcoms too.) To work out your plot using QDD, think about the characters, especially the series’ regulars, like this:

Josh – Male Lead with ABC physical & personality traits

Don – Second Male Lead with CDE physical & personality traits

Jade – Female Lead with FGH physical & personality traits

Ashley – Second Female Lead with HIJ physical & personality traits

Then visualize a time-line based on the overall story idea that you should already have firmly in mind (because if you didn’t no one would give you the writing assignment…and you shouldn’t give it to yourself either). To put it another way, concentrate on the beginning, middle, and end.

You’ve probably already come up with an event or action that will kick off the story and get it in motion, so make that the first scene. Similarly, you should also have an idea of what the middle action will be – twist, turning point, whatever – so make that your middle scene. And no one – no one – should ever write or try to write without knowing the final climax and its result, so that will be – you guessed it–the last scene.

What? You’re clueless about how your story ends? Stop right there, brother or sister. No writing allowed till you do. Because how can you figure out how you’re going to get someplace if you don’t even know what place you’re heading for? Think about it for awhile. Come up with the most intriguing and surprising ending you can and then come back here and read on.

You’re back? Fine. Now let’s add the commercial break act structure to the line:

(I’m using the teaser and four act version here because shows that use five or even six acts are really just adding another break or two between Acts Two and Three.)

Using this structure, your original opening action now has become the Teaser. The Middle Scene has become the end of Act Two. And the Final Climax-Big Finish scene has become at the very least the end of Act Four, and, more likely most if not all of that act. Since these days a 1 hour episode usually has about 25 scenes you’re off to a rolling start because you’ve already got at least 3.

I say “at least” because your Teaser will probably break down into 2 different events (and what’s a scene if not an event in the “life” of your story?), and your Big Finish will probably break down into 3 or 4 different events. Now add the Tag, which you know will be a wrap-up, and you’ve actually got 8 scenes. Take a bow. Just a tick under 1/3 of the plotting has been done!

Let’s continue working from the Act Breaks, but now we’ll combine those with some Story-Driven elements. Experience tells me that since Act Two ends at a climactic moment the first scene in Act Three will be the aftermath of that moment.

Experience also tells me that the last scene in Act Three will be the Final Discovery of the solution to the episode’s main problem, usually accompanied by new facts that show how vital it is to put that solution into effect. In other words, all hell’s about to break loose so “We’ve got to find him/her, now!” (Or “See you in court!” Or “He needs surgery–stat!”)

This means you also know what the first scene in Act Four will be. It’s the run for the fence or the area where the next crime is about to occur, or the final visit to the main suspect, or the moment in the hospital waiting room or operating room (or both) before surgery begins, or the last-minute attorney-client confab before the last day court is in session. Add up these new scenes and we’re up to about 11 or 12. And we haven’t broken a sweat yet.

Continuing in the same vein, now is a good time to shift your attention to the beginning and end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. Act One almost always begins with the series’ regulars and their introduction to or reaction to the events of the Teaser. My experience with the needs of a good TV episode story also says that Act One will end with a deepening of the problem set up in the Teaser, most effectively if that also creates a crisis for one of the regulars.

And that means Act Two will start with that regular character’s response to the heightened situation. He or she will be doing something to deal with it. This gives us 3 more scenes. We’re at 14 or 15 now—more than halfway home.

If you’re visualizing the timeline, you probably realize that what’s left now is to fill in the gaps between the various events. The first way to do this is to make sure you’ve included all of what I call the “Obligatory Scenes” for this show.

These are the scenes that always appear in a particular genres and are always included in this particular series. Every police procedural has the First Evidence-Gathering Scene, the Talk With the Medical Examiner Scene, the Let’s Get This Jerk to Confess Scene, and, often, the Uh-Oh, the Hero’s Trapped By The Main Suspect scene.

Medical shows invariably give us the Surgical Mistake Scene, Self-Doubting Doctor Scene, and Crucial Surgery Under Adverse Circumstances Scene (AKA “A power outtage won’t stop us! Nurse, start the generator!”).

And, in law shows: Plea Bargain Scene, There’s More To Getting Justice Than Getting Money Scene, and You Can Take This Job And Shove It Scene.

(Actually, the Self-Doubt and Take This Job And Shove It Scenes are pretty much staples in all genres, aren’t they?)

Many new writers automatically object to these scenes as cliches. They are cliches in the sense that they’ve been so overused. But they’ve been overused because they’re powerful and effective and never fail to move the audience. That is to say, they work. And what writer in his right mind wants to avoid scenes he or she knows will work?

When I talk about scenes that always appear on particular shows, I’m talking about things like the Uh-Oh, Our Computer Connection’s Gone Dead scene on LEVERAGE, Michael Weston’s Plan Fails But He Improvises A Better One, on BURN NOTICE, Daniel the Psycho Neurologist Consults With His Imaginary Ex-Girlfriend on PERCEPTION, that kind of thing.

Those scenes are there because those who make the shows, those who present the shows, and those who watch the shows like them. They’re part of what makes these series hits. They work, so use them.

Most of the time, by adding Obligatory Scenes you’ll come up with another six or seven events for the appropriate places in your time-line. This brings the total to at least 20 scenes, maybe more. You are soo close to being finished. Have I told you to take a bow?

At this point, it’s time to check out your timeline and see what, if anything, is missing.

Does Act One have any holes left? If so, fill them in with a scene or two that build toward that Act One-ending problem. Use your knowledge of the backgrounds and personalities of the characters involved to help them drive those scenes where they need to go.

Do Acts Two and Three have any holes left? Fill them the same way. As for Act Four, if you’ve done this right it should be done, over, finito.)

Wait, what’s that? Your series always has a subplot? The easiest way to handle subplots is to combine the with character moments. Time your subplot so it gets one or two scenes per act, coming to its main (and probably only) climax near the end of Act Three, right before the main story peaks, and getting worked out either during the Big Finish of the main story or in the Tag.

(You may have to do some adjusting to the main story–omitting some scenes that upon a second look aren’t as important as you thought they were–in order to fit the subplot in, but if the series you’re writing your spec for always uses B stories, you’ve got to use one too.)

Hey, look at that–you’re 100% done! Take one more bow, buddy, and get ready for the rough stuff because now’s when the real work starts.

By real work I mean writing. This is the time to sit down and put in the details. Sweat over the best way to say something. Hone each numbered scene down to three or four sentences, one to tell yourself and your reader where you are, one to tell yourself and your reader what’s happening physically, one to tell yourself and your reader what’s happening psychologically, and, maybe, one to explain the other three. Four sentences that are as short and easy to read as possible.

Ah, you can do it. Piece of cake. After all, you’re a writer. And writers write!

Oh Wait! Some Last-Minute Outline Tips

Don’t worry about writing your Outline in any specific font or page set-up. However, always double-space between scenes. Unless you don’t care mind if nobody else will read it.

Don’t say too much. Don’t pile on the details or try to structure each scene. Just give the pertinent information the scene will contain and move on.

Don’t say too little. If your hero is going to escape from jail by making an explosive out of a paper dollmake sure you say that and not just, “Chuckie escapes from his cell.” This will make your showrunner happy, and if you’re writing on spec it’ll keep you from forgetting what your genius get out of jail card was.

Remember that conflict is the essence of both drama and comedy and try to include as many conflicts within the context of the story as you can.

When plotting a 1-Hour Action/Drama episode or TV Movie or a pilot for a 1-Hour Action/Drama series keep the visual component in mind. Alternate between interiors and exteriors to keep things lively and give your work a feeling of being “opened up.”

Whenever possible make your first scene in a 1-Hour Action/Drama episode or TV Movie or a pilot for a 1-Hour Action/Drama series an exterior to show that you’re capable of making full use of the film medium.

Make certain that your Teaser really teases. It has to both hook viewers and make them want to see more and tell them what the central problem of the story will be.

Don’t move on to writing the Teleplay until you’ve solved every possible plot problem. If you’re not completely comfortable with the Outline you’ll find yourself being stuck when you start the script. This is the most common cause of “Writer’s Block.”

Write informally. This isn’t a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation or even a term paper. It’s entertainment!

Even though you’re writing informally, write literately! Use correct English! Spell everything properly! Be someone in whom the reader can have confidence. No typos!!!


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5 thoughts on “Writing the Dreaded Outline”

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to detail the way to write an outline. Not only am I bookmarking this page, for backup, I am also copying the URL and pasting it into my TO DO file – bolded and italicized!

  2. C’mon, LB, you loved our outline meetings at QM! I used’ta watch ya rubbin’ your hands together in glee while walkin’ away, and talkin’ to yourself: “Damn! I really broke Sanford’s balls this time!!! HAH!!! HAH! HAH!” gs!

  3. I have now slogged through your arduous system of breaking a story including this article and your book (“dreaded” being the most accurate word used). I stared at endlessly blank pages, but slowly they filled up with letters and words and sentences, and then they started making sense and then it became interesting and then it became really good. Overnight success! Thanks a million!

    1. Whew! joyismyname, you had me worried there for a minute. You’re very welcome.


  4. Larry, very well done as always! However, it’s my belief, and always has been that we — WRITERS — must “WRITE TO TELL A STORY, AND NOT SELL A STORY!” I know…sounds like a ‘Mound of BULLSHIT’ …and that’s because it is. But then…so is writing a… Well, the same thing.
    LOOK! There’s the WRITER of…whatever. You try to do it, Mr. CREATIVE-MAN! Or WOMAN!
    You see, it’s telling a piece of yourself! A piece you never dreamed you’d tell!
    You do that…and you’re a writer. “Simple, you say?” Then “Go on — Start WRITING!” gs

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