I’ve known Brad for a few years now. He and I met in a TV writing class in New York City. And he’s done it. He’s a working TV writer. And that alone is why you should listen to him. Another good reason: he’s right. Now, I have always resisted outlining (though I’m coming around to it.) Brad was kind enough to write up a little something about HIS process of outlining. Oh, and follow him on twitter. He likes that: @BradBauner
by Brad Bauner
Tell Larry he has to outline – at least when writing TV.
INT. COFFEE SHOP – MOMENTS LATER
Explain how, when on staff, half of the job in TV is outlining.
INT. COFFEE SHOP – A LITTLE LATER
Offer up tips/tricks that help in outlining.
EXT. COFFEE SHOP – LATER BUT WARMER
Summarize and get a suntan.
Larry, you have to outline! Yes, I’m the culprit, the friend who told Larry that outlining was not an option but a requirement when it comes to writing TV scripts. Larry and I have been having the outlining debate basically since we met each other in a TV writing class a few years back.
I get it. Playwrights don’t like outlining…and that’s ok. I agree that an outline isn’t always necessary in playwriting. Though, in truth, I sometimes outline plays I work on as well. See, I like outlining. I feel more confident starting something when I have an idea of where I’m going. Mind you, especially in plays, I often do not end up where I would have expected. But whether you are a person like me or a person like Larry, there is one simple fact about the business of writing television: you have to outline.
Now, I’ve had one staff job on one season of a cable show (MTV’s “Underemployed” 10pm Tuesdays starting 10/16, DON’T MISS IT!), so I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who know a lot more about this issue than me, but I don’t think any of them would disagree with me on that rule (except for maybe Louis CK). I could go on for a while about all the benefits of writing outlines:
- they help keep storylines balanced (A story vs. B vs. C etc.)
- they help the writer not miss any steps in the telling of their story
- they help make sure the episode isn’t claustrophobic (you gotta go Ext. regularly!)
But most importantly, you need practice writing outlines because when you’re paid to write for TV, it’s part of the job. When you’re on staff for a show and you get a script assigned to you, the first thing you have to do is take the notes from the writers’ assistant – which can be totally organized or totally not organized based on the prowess of your WA – and make them into an outline. At least on our show, you then take that outline to the room and the room decides what works, what doesn’t work, what needs re-broken in the story, etc. Then you go rewrite the outline. Then, potentially after another round of room notes, you turn it in to the network. Then you get more notes on it. Sometimes you can go to draft after network notes, and sometimes you rewrite that outline yet again and turn it in to the network a 2nd time. It’s A LOT of outlining.
So, based on my limited experience, here are some tips I like to use when outlining:
- Start with cards – I like to use color-coded note cards. Each storyline gets its own color, that way you can easily ensure your colors are spread out evenly. On each card I write a location and a super brief explanation of what happens. By working this way, you can really see where the holes in your script are. You can see that a step is missing between the yellow card at the end of Act II and the yellow card in the middle of Act III. And you can make sure your act-outs are worthy of being act-outs. Yes, the cards are yet another step, but they will help.
- Keep it brief – Once I’ve got cards, I enter them into outline form then expand the descriptions. That’s all I think of it as…expanding the super brief descriptions into slightly more specific descriptions. People don’t like writing and reading outlines because they usually find them boring. When something is boring, keep it brief (exactly what I’m not doing with this guest blog).
- Describe how each beat impacts the next – This is maybe the best lesson I learned while working on outlines on our show. Each scene description in the outline should explain what’s happening in the scene and how what is happening affects the choices and actions the characters are about to make. In TV, each scene must motivate at least one character in that scene to make their next move in the story. Map this out in the outline and you will save yourself a ton of headache in the draft. And the story will be clear and easy to understand.
- Don’t forget the funny – Writing outlines for comedy is the WORST because it’s much more difficult to be funny in an outline than a draft. While often dialogue in an outline is unnecessary, if the dialogue is funny, put it in. It’s the best way to remind the reader (aka network person, producer, etc.) that the show will have comedy. Also, try to keep the show’s tone in the overall writing of the outline – this can also help keep the funny.
- Allow things to change – The downfall with this much organization is to feel rigid in what’s happening, and you can’t. I struggle with this constantly. You can’t say, “but it worked on the cards, it should work in the outline?” If it doesn’t work just right, don’t try to force it in. Switch it up.
In summary: Everyone should outline. It can only help you produce a good TV script and it will prepare you for the life of a working TV writer. Now time to leave the sun and go back to my writing cave.
Brad Bauner is a writer on MTV’s new hour-long dramedy, “Underemployed”, premiering this fall. He is a lyricist in the acclaimed BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop dedicated to developing new creative talent in American musical theatre. His plays have been produced by At Hand Theatre Company and the Plastic Flamingo Theater Company. His songs with composer Alexander Gemignani have been performed in venues all across NYC including Birdland, the Laurie Beachman Theatre, The Duplex and many others. He is an Associate Producer of Broadway’s Burn the Floor (2010), currently on national tour, and previously served as the Associate Producer for Post Street Theater and Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco. Brad has also served as the Associate General Manager of the smash hit STOMP.