In my previous post, I mentioned part 3 would cover the differences between outlining for television and outlining a book. I think the experience of outlining for TV has helped my book outlines, so hopefully you’ll get something out of this too. A little background first. About a year and a half ago, a producer at MTV asked me to submit pitches for a scripted television show aimed at teens. Each show had to contain some element related to music. I gladly jumped at this chance, but of course, I knew next to nothing about writing for the screen. So I found a video editor who dabbled in screenwriting, and we formed a partnership. We met over many lunches and IM chats and bounced tons of ideas off one another. Eventually, we whittled everything down to 10 solid TV show premises. We wrote these things called one-sheets, which are very close to query letters except they contain a logline and three paragraphs each summarizing one of the three acts of the pilot. (More on one-sheets and querying in a future post. I am positive practicing on so many one-sheets led to me writing a query that yielded a 100% request rate.) I delivered these to the producer. She chose four of the one-sheets and asked for revisions as well as what’s called a TV bible. A TV bible contains a detailed outline of the pilot (about 8-10pages), 2-3 sentence summaries of the next twelve episodes, plus character descriptions. This post will focus on the outlines I wrote. (To wrap up this story, the writer’s strike and the failure of MTV’s first scripted show KAYA led to their decision to stick with unscripted dramas a la The Hills, thus killing the pitches I had out. My screenwriting partner and I have met with other producers regarding our pilots, but I have nothing concrete to share on this front yet.)
I learned very quickly that outlining a TV pilot differed greatly from outlining a book. The biggest difference was the lack of inner monologue. My outlines always contain what all the characters are thinking so I can utilize it and figure out ways to convey this during my first draft writing. Corey, my screenwriting partner, insisted we eliminate all thoughts from our outlines and find a scene or action to show it instead of tell it. Of course I do this in my novels, show vs tell is not a new concept to us writers, but it was new to my outlines. That was the kind of stuff I always left up to the first draft writing. I’m pretty sure this is why my outline for Rhythm & Clues became so detailed compared to the very basic one I used for my The Art of Selling my Sister revision. It’s always why I now plan out every scene I’ll need in advance.
Without going too deep into screenwriting and acts and commercial breaks, we first went about listing all the scenes we would need for the pilot. We labeled them A story, B story, and C story to make sure we had enough scenes for each subplot and each act had a good balance of storylines. The A story is your main plot, the conflict that drives the entire episode. It’s what your protagonist wants and the obstacles in her way of getting it. B & C stories are the subplots. They stem from the main plot and parallel it while still focusing on their own conflict and resolution. A lot of screenwriters execute this stage of plotting with notecards laid out on a table they can easily rearrange. Because Corey and I mostly conducted our meetings over IM, this wasn’t an option for us. We achieved the same feat using track changes and versioning in Microsoft Word.
We also had to include cliffhangers leading into commercial. These are essentially the same thing as chapter endings in a novel. We found this part the most limiting, because often the scene we wanted to end one of our acts wouldn’t quite fit in the spot we tried to cram it into. You can’t have too many scenes in one act and not enough in another. It’s a little different in novel writing because chapter lengths are arbitrary. A chapter is as long as it needs to be. Not the case in screen writing. An act must not exceed a certain length of time because of advertising sales. We solved the act-ender problem in a variety of ways. Sometimes we had to find a different cliffhanger. Sometimes we had to cut scenes or combine the purpose of two into one. At one point we had to eliminate an entire subplot and save it for a future episode. This is usually the stuff novel writers change in revisions. We had to figure it all out in advance.
After we figured out the correct order of the scenes and the breakdown of the acts, it came time to flesh it out. We devoted a paragraph to each scene. We conveyed ideas through actions, so the outline read in a very active, visual voice. It resembled closely to episode recaps you might find on Television Without Pity or some such sight. Essentially, it was a cut down version of our story. It didn’t have dialogue, that we saved for the script, but it detailed every character, their goals, and the actions of the scenes. We made sure that character development came through via actions.
I hope you get something out of this. I know I have. And I can guarentee it’s helped with my writing to figure as much in advance of the first draft as possible. It’s much easier and a lot less daunting to revise an outline than it is to kill a beloved scene you wrote and polished, but no longer fits within your story.