Thursday, July 31, 2008

Outlines, and sample script pages.

Twice recently, I've written a brief outline for a production company (an outline is a a brief document designed to roughly lay out idea for the series, or film, that thus far exists only in the writer's head), and had it turned down, or nearly turned down, for including too much detail. And I've only just worked out where I went wrong.

Specifically, I not only wrote a four page document detailing characters, plotlines, and tone, but went on to write a few pages of script, some sample scenes giving each character a few lines of dialogue. So the four page Word document was accompanied by a three or four page Final Draft document that acted as a trailer, a teensy snippet of the joys to come. Ha! I thought. My extra time and effort will certainly play out in this instance, ho yuss.

No. Wrong. Bad. Mistake.

Both the producers loved the treatments. And the treatments are designed to be loved. The ideas for both series are big bold concepts that are sort of in fashion right now, but not so much that they're played out. The characters are described as likeable, but not sentimentally so. They're slightly odd, but not wacky. The tone riffs on some of the big recent successes in the appropriate genres, but not so much that there's the whiff of day-old Cornish Yarg producers get when they hear 'like The Office, but more sort of quirky' for the fifth time that day. Fresh takes are balanced with tried and trusted character arcs in a harmonic fashion that would make a Zen master weep. Were a samurai to write such a document as part of his calligraphic workout (samurai had to balance out their swordsmanship with flower-arranging and penmanship, well cool I reckon), whole armies would weep to see the complexities hidden in simple brush strokes. I give good outline.

But then they read the sample script. And both producers said, within a day of each other, 'yeeeeeeeah, you know, I kind of had a different tone in my head, so when I read the samples, they didn't quite.... work'. And there lies the nub of the matter, sitting there like a big... nub.

When you write an outline, you're selling something. Tone, character arcs, soundtrack, whatever, you're trying to build a picture in the mind of the person reading it of what the final result is going to look like. The finished product has to lie shimmering just beyond the horizon, a glorious vision of what could possibly be. At this point, you are basically a big ho, and a big ho does not promise the client the dance of seven veils, then at veil three drop to her knees and... well, you know what I'm saying. You do the dance of the veils, promise worlds untold, then retreat back into the darkness and await the call.

Of course some writers don't do outlines at all. Steven Moffat said in a recent interview with Jason Arnopp:

"I’ve always stuck to this theory, apart from one occasion when I was very tired: you never write a storyline and you certainly never submit one. Or at least, I haven’t had to for years and I rebel if asked! You write the script, and you write it in order. Because if you ever find yourself in a situation where... (thinks for a moment) You want each scene to justify itself and be good at the time. The ride has to be good at every point. You can’t be justifying things because they’ll be interesting later. If that makes sense! You could have the best idea in the world for the second half of the episode, but if the first half of the episode doesn’t have an interesting way of getting there, you’re screwed. So if you write everything in order, you know that it’s good."

Which of course lead to a half hour existential crisis on my part, because I cling to outlines, frankly (there's a blurring here with storylines, which aren't entirely the same thing, but close enough for our purposes), and I don't entirely mind writing them. Am I doing it properly, I thought? Am I some kind of producer's lackey, a Gollum to their Frodo, only taller and with great hair?

Not that S. Moffat was doing anything other than describing his own way of working - and when I walked back out of the sea and read the next sentence:

“It's probably worth adding that lots of brilliant writers... do outlines, and swear by them. I think - I'm a bit hazy - that Paul Abbott is one of them, and he's the very best. Everyone's different, and the 'no outlines' things is just personal preference."

... I chilled out a bit.

In fact, the reason I'm quite happy to do outlines and/or storylines is because my mind is constantly aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention. And I'm not great at structure. Consequently, when I started writing for Bob the Builder (all roads lead back to Bob, mainly because he built them), having to write a detailed outline for each episode so the animators could work out how many puppets could fit in each scene and whether they'd have to build any new props came as a great revelation to me. When I actually came to write the script, no longer would I constantly have to rip up great swathes of dialogue because I had forgotten that the previous scene placed the two characters currently having a nice chat with each other, hundreds of miles apart.

I suspect also that S. Moffat is blimmin' steeped in structure. Just watch episodes of Press Gang, or Coupling, and the larking about with structure is built in at an almost molecular level. Moffat eats, drinks and breathes structure, like a Doozer. Which is, I reckon, why he doesn't need to worry about outlines. But why I do.

Anyway, producer 1 has passed on the outline, producer 2 is sending the other one up the line to development, but without the sample pages. And I will never write sample script pages again.

Of course the other possibility is that the sample pages just weren't very good. But that simply doesn't bear thinking about.


Dan said...

My issue with outlines... WITHOUT them: I often find a script hits a brick wall and you'll curse yourself for believing (again) that you have the whole story fleshed-out in your mind, ready to roll. But, WITH them: I find they drain the "spark" of the idea swimming around in your head, so that when you get to the script it all seems "old" and passionless.

There's no real answer, is there! You either need to be a non-outlining genius like Moffat, or a personality type who relishes the mechanics of outlining. Maybe more writing blogs should tackle outlining/treatments for guidance in this matter...

James Henry said...

I'm leaning towards using outlines for television scripts, but not for film scripts, mainly because you have tighter time contraints with television. Film seems a bit more flexible somehow.

James Henry said...

'Constraints' even.

Oli said...

Mmmmmmm... yarg. Not enough cheese gets wrapped in nettles these days.

Generally, if I can get an outline into a page - not artificially, but it just if it can be told in a page, I'll write something I'm happy with. Over-outlining and under-outlining both kill me proper dead.

Dan said...

Oli, yes I think length is a key issue. A one-page outline would work best. I know some people do these step-by-steps that last a page per act -- the whole script minus the dialogue pretty much. Maybe it's just me, but that would kill me stone dead.

James, funny you say films are less in need of an outline. Surely the opposite is true! If you get stuck on page 25 of a TV script, it's not the end of the world. But a block on page 75 of a film script? GOD! Surely an outline is more necessary the longer the script will be?

James Henry said...

Yeah, I know it sounds odd, but I tend to already have a vague structure in mind with a film script, and writing down too plot beforehand can really deaden the final result.

With telly on the other hand, you've still got lots of story to tell (as in further episodes), so you can really structure the first ep, but still leave yourself lots of room for further episodes. Joss Whedon recently said that 'a television series is a question, but a film is an answer', which neatly explains the difference, I think.

Dan said...

Ah, I see. Well, whatever works for you, I guess! :) Nice to know a "proper" writer doesn't use outlines, though. There so much talk about outlines, beat sheets and colour-coded index cards being pinned to walls, that I sometimes think I'm unusual for preferring to "mentally boil" ideas before launching into exploratory drafts. Too much prep kills the spark for me.

James Henry said...

Yeah, different strokes for different folks, certainly.

Of course there's an argument that the more stages there are between initial concept and script, the more opportunities there are for producers and script editors to get in there and muck about with it. Not doing outlines is certainly a way for Moffat to make sure what gets on screen is as close as possible to the initial idea in his head.

Anonymous said...

It took me years - YEARS - of endless genius 40-page pitches for things, covering every single aspect of the show, to realise that a deft one-or-two pager does the business far better.

Because Producers and Executives are Not Like Us.

A) they are stupid and read with their mouths open and lips moving, crayon pointer moving slowly across the page.

B) they like to feel involved, so you give them something they can imagine themselves into, rather than something fixed and perfect and done.

C) actually, an idea that's really working and has earned its simplicity can probably be boiled down to that magic one-page anyway

D) they really are stupid. Unless they work in Children's, in which case they are often very bright.

Mike Booth said...

Hi James

I'm enjoying your blog, and this post is great because I'm trying to write a treatment at the moment.

Thing is, I'm really bad at them. Scripts, I can do, but the selling part flummoxes me completely.

Don't suppose you fancy posting an example of what a good treatment should look like (obviously for a fake project you have no intention of really doing)?

All the examples I can find online are American and therefore a bit breathless and excited, which as an Englishman I find off-putting.

James Henry said...

Spacemonkey: yes, especially on floor six of the East Tower. They are the wisest of all.

Mike: hmm, let me leaf idly through my back catalogue and I'll get back to you. The bad news: a certain amount of breathlesness and excitability does help.

Mike Booth said...

I'll have to take a class in how to sound bouncy, then.


Unknown said...

Story generally depresses me. i thought maybe I simply wasn't any good at it until we were talking to Adam Chase about Friends and he said that sometimes they'd break a story in an afternoon, more likely in a few days, but sometimes in months.
Stories are hard.

Also: I know the "mind is constantly aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought [...]" quote is from Blazing Saddles but does anyone know if it's original to the film?

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