To outline, not to outline? That is the question I frequently ask myself whenever I sit down with a fresh story idea that I am so desperate to write.
Truth be told — I hate outlining. I hate outlining because I only feel like a writer when I am actually writing, lost in my story, up in the creative clouds, my fingers clicking furiously on my keyboard.
Outlining feels like school. It involves research, details, and diligence. It doesn’t feel juicy or passionate or anything remotely fun. But here’s the thing: outlining might not be a barrel of laughs, but it’s an extremely useful tool when crafting your screenplay. In fact, many working writers outline their screenplays before even attempting to write, FADE IN.
But like most things in life, it helps to know the bad and the good before you make any decisions. So, below, we offer the pros and cons of outlining.
Pro: It Guides You
An outline is your blueprint, acting as your North Star as you navigate through your story. It helps you to stay focused and on track, which really helps us writers refrain from going into panic mode when things go awry — which we are known to do. The outline pulls you back to safety during those scary times when you veer off course and write yourself into a corner by reminding you where you need to go.
Con: It Stifles Creativity
A heavy-handed outline could be construed as a fill-in-the-blank guide. It’s what some consider writing from the top down, creating from story and plot, down to characters and behaviors, when really, story – at least the good ones — should spring from characters, and the only way that can happen is if you spend time writing them in the moment, making discoveries and figuring out who they are, and what they truly want.
Pro: It Fights The Fear
There is nothing scarier to a writer than a blank page. The horrifying blank page is enough for any writer to procrastinate into oblivion, forgoing their screenwriting dreams for a security blanket of an unhappy day job, a long Netflix queue, or both. The outline reassures the writer that she has a plan and a course of action, which creates confidence when combating the evil blank page.
Con: It Makes You Feel Confined
A thoroughly detailed outline can cause a writer to feel uneasy about straying from their well-thought-out path. Because he has spent so many hours on his extensive outline, the idea of changing it or redoing it seems so daunting that he continues along with his original story despite feeling it can improve in other ways. However, if he decides to redo his outline, then, well, he has to redo an outline and that is not fun.
Pro: It Helps You Write Faster
When a writer has an idea what needs to happen in a scene, at an act break, or a particular plot point, then when she sits down to write at her computer, she won’t waste a lot of time with false starts and stalls or wading through the painfully sagging Act Two. With a goal in mind, she can churn out those pages faster, which means she can get to rewriting even sooner.
Con: It Keeps You From Writing The Story
Outlining often means conducting a lot of research, and in writer’s terms “research” is just a fancy word for “procrastination.” Yes, research is important for your script, but not if it’s holding you back from actually writing your script. In some cases, though you might enjoy plotting, planning, and researching the heck out of your story, when it comes to writing it, you no longer feel so passionate about it because the “joy” has been so diligently sucked out of it.
The takeaway? Outlining can be as detailed or as sketchy as you want — or need — your script to be, so long as it gets you writing your first draft, which is the whole point anyway.
Brianne Hogan is a freelance writer and screenwriter (and sometimes actor) based in Toronto. She has a degree in Dramatic Literature and Film Studies from NYU, but has probably learned more about the art of screenwriting from watching Netflix all day. Her byline’s appeared in Creative Screenwriting, Elle Canada, HelloGiggles, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @briannehogan.