Making a Show: Outlines

MCMSunday, March 1, 2009

Aw hell. I saw another post that I wrote back in September 2007 that shows my state of mind while making RollBots, and I feel the need to re-post. This one has to do with the script outlines you write before you get to make an actual script. Please keep in mind that I was in the middle of giving up caffeine at the time. The bit about Line Producers still stands, though...

So: Outlines.

An outline is a short version of your script. Whereas your script is about 30 pages, your outline is only 9. In it, you set out the major scenes, the action, and whatever dialogue you think is really really important. It gives the Story Editor (praise be unto him) an idea where you want to go with the episode. The reason the outline is 9 pages is so that the Story Editor can read your script and say "holy Mary mother of God, no!" and not feel too bad at making you re-do it all.

I've never had to re-do one, but I think that's the reason.
I also think I may have just jinxed myself.

The other thing about outlines is that it gives the production folks an idea where you're going with the story. It's amazing how things get broken down, analyzed, cross-referenced and re-assembled in the blink of an eye. When you write about an incidental background character named "Doctor B" in a story, the immediate question is: "Is this the same Doctor B as in episodes 104, 109, 116 and 121?" To which your answer should always be: "Uhhhhh sure."

So when you pass your outline by the production folk, they are looking at it to see how completely insane you are. You may think that inventing a fantastic new set piece with elaborate action and wonderful potential for drama is what screenwriting is all about. You poor, silly creature. That's only true if "the set" is an existing asset. Otherwise, your outline will be hit with a gnarled hammer, you will be told you're horrible pond scum, and you will drink yourself to sleep. Or so I hear.

Now after writing a few outlines, you start to understand how the production limitations work, and you try and accommodate them up front. New character? Nah, we'll stick to the base cast. New location? I think we can make it work if we stay in the principal location. Special effects? We can do without this time. Why, when you're done with this episode, you'll will be a celebrated hero of the production! Victoire!

And yet, as you write your super-efficient episode, you realize that you're second-guessing all your good ideas. Your action sequences become stationary wordplays, your comedy becomes insightful prose... you find that your story is starting to resemble a stage play, or worse yet, a one-man play. Your characters sit around being philosophical and very, VERY occasionally threatening to go out and... and... wait, OUT?! Ha ha ha, no! It's just a ruse, of course. Wasn't that a clever twist? I can smell an Emmy in the making!

And when you're done, you've got a 3-page outline which makes Dorothy Parker look like Ronald McDonald. You send it off to your friend in the UK for a critique, and you never hear from him again. The suicide rate in your town doubles after you lose a copy at a bus stop. The dark cloud of Misery follows you around until you finally decide that you have to re-do it, and this time forget how your creative flamboyancy will cause the Line Producer to have his third aneurism in a month.

You write the second version in easily half the time it takes to write the first version, and the few remaining birds in the trees start to sing with joy. The Story Editor compliments you kindly on such a quick turnaround, though you suspect you're missing the sarcasm in the email.

Sometimes you want to show the Story Editor your original outline, but you're sure it contravenes the Geneva Convention.

From there, the outline runs the gauntlet through producers and broadcasters until it is cleared to become a First Draft, at which point you have to figure out how the hell you're going to pad 9 pages into 30. In the process, you will inevitably invent 900 new props and characters, each of which will cause the Line Producer's lifespan to decrease by 10%.

(Incidentally, Line Producers stay alive by sucking the life force out of small kittens. Never let a Line Producer babysit your cat.)

By the time you're finally getting the hang of outlines, all the episodes in the season are done, and you really want to do one more, just so you can show off a little. This is where professional scriptwriters come from. Series creators don't get to do this, because they've got too many other things to do to write for another show. Or so I'm told. Also, we don't get to go to the bathroom more than twice a day.

So that's outlines. Just like colonoscopies, they're an important part of your life. And that's all I can think to say.

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