Four Alternatives to Outlines


The best movies feature great characters, exciting visuals, and emotionally compelling storytelling.  These are the ingredients that will combine together to form  the “world” of a film.

But none of these elements will be conveyed by an outline.

If you make an outline before creating the world of your film, you run the risk of using the outline as a tool to generate ideas.  But an outline isn’t well suited for this task.  The outline is a roadmap for your story, and if you use it as your blank canvas for generating story ideas, you can fall into the trap of creating vague plot points and subplots that aren’t motivated by the main narrative.

It would be like drawing a map of a place you have never been.

I’m a big advocate of using alternative techniques to build the world of your film first, and then using these elements to help plot your way through an outline.

Take the journey first, then draw the map.

In that spirit, here are some methods I use to generate ideas for a script before I commit to an outline:


The Short Story Version
My biggest problem with outlines is that they tell you nothing about the tone and feeling of the movie.  Writing the movie as a short story solves this problem.  A short story also gives you the opportunity to flesh out unique characters, and try out different stylistic choices that can’t be conveyed by an outline.  Additionally, writing the movie as a short story will give you an early warning about plot elements that seem to work in your head, but don’t function well on paper.


Visualizing the Trailer
Have you ever seen a trailer that looks amazing, and then the movie itself sucks?  You leave the theater thinking, “Why didn’t they just make the movie from the ad?”  Visualizing the trailer for your film (hopefully) keeps that from happening.

By visualizing the trailer for your movie, you are forced to identify the most interesting and emotionally effective points of your story.  Then you can focus on building your screenplay around these elements.  Considering the trailer will also ensure that your tale is visual and compelling.

A cynic might say that visualizing the advertising will cause you to write overly-commercial screenplays, but the reality is that interesting movies usually have interesting trailers.   Knowing how the marketing for your movie will “feel” is an important part of selling your idea to investors, distributors, and ultimately an audience.


Questions and Answers
At some point while you’re writing a script, someone will ask you, “What’s it about?”

I found that during the process of answering this question, I’d often make my story sound more emotional and interesting that what I actually had written down.  So I’d go back to my script and start tweaking.

Later I realized that I could use this technique to work through the script from the beginning, and figure out the best ways to make my stories as exciting and interesting as possible.  Forcing myself to figure out big questions like theme and character motivations would give me an early jump on identifying what elements of the story were important to me — and it’s also a useful way to work through problematic plot points.

The other huge benefit of using this ‘question and answer’ method is that it helps to keep your story logically consistent.  I try to write down any questions that I have while I’m writing (such as why one character is acting a certain way towards another character).  Then I can make sure that if an audience had the same question, it would be resolved in a satisfying way.


Outlining in Reverse
Okay, this one sort of goes against my anti-outlining policies, but hear me out.  Sometimes you have a very clear idea about the climax and ending of your story, but no idea how to begin.

Cheat.  Start at the end, and then unravel the story backwards.  This method is especially effective for writing mystery-type stories, because you can start with the solution and then knot up the various threads and subplots.  Outlining in reverse carries many of the same faults as outlining in a standard fashion — you don’t really get a sense of the tone or characters within a story — but it’s a good method for moving forward with your script when you feel that the story has lost momentum, or the various plotlines are straying too far from the main idea of your movie.


Those are a just a few of the methods I use, but there must hundreds of other ways to generate ideas and storylines for a movie.  What are some of yours?

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