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Friday, May 2, 2008

Outlining, Spreadsheets & Charts, Oh My!

For a long time, I shied away from outlining my scripts because I pictured those crummy outlines we had to make in grade school:

I. Marie Antoinette

1. Her Childhood Dreams
a. Empress of the Universe
b. Giant Candy Garden
c. Big Hats

2. Her Academic Training
a. Setting a Proper Tea Tray
b. Curtsy and Air Kiss
c. Bon Bon Appreciation

I know that sounds ridiculous, that one could possibly outline a story that way but that was always the mental picture I got so - I didn't outline. The resulting scripts were not good.

Coincidentally, a dear Canadian friend sent me an Excel Spreadsheet she uses to outline the other day and Rouge Waver Christina mentioned in the comments section that she uses a spreadsheet as well. I have tried the spreadsheet thing but my (dis)comfort with Excel makes it a distraction for me.

I actually outline in a couple of different ways. It depends on my mood. As it should depend on yours. Mostly, I just use what I call a Sequential Beat Sheet:


Sequence 1
In which blah blah blah

Sequence 2
And then blah

Sequence 3
Therefore, huge, surprising BLAH


Sequence 4

--and so forth.

But another way I like to outline is to take a 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper and turn it sideways (landscape). You'll need a ruler for this, by the way. Across the top of the page, I pencil in columns numbered one through twelve. Relatively roomy columns. Then down the side, I make corresponding rows - as many as I wish, because I'm the boss, applesauce. And so are you.

So in these corresponding rows, I generally put the names of my main characters. Then I might have a row dedicated to The Magic Pumpkin Seed - in other words, if you have an object, a curse, a ghost or even a point of view you'd like to track over the course of the script, make a box for it.

So now you can go down and across and for each sequence fill in, briefly, what's going on for that character. You can use this chart in any way you like. To chart character arc, to chart the level of tension in the narrative, to simply chart the location and knowledge of each character (say if you're writing something complicated and procedural).

So that's what I do. Because I have never been an index-cards-on-the-wall person, either. Many professional writers swear by that. Most television staff writing rooms include huge white boards.

I have seen many writers make fancy Excel spreadsheets but at the end of the day, it's the same difference. If you feel totally comfortable with spreadsheet software - use that. Index cards, whiteboards, cocktail napkins in pencil - whatever works.

But mainly, Wavers, don't allow yourself to feel confined by the word "outline". Just like everything in life, you learn, you observe and then you make it your own.

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Emily Blake said...

I roll with the index cards because they're in pretty colors that I can put up on my bulletin board. It's easy to get inspired by your story when it's all pretty and organized on the wall.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Honestly, I do exactly what you do...except I just keep it all in my head. :)

So that explains all the gooey stuff seeping out of my ears...