THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
Let's say you are in Atlanta and headed to Los Angeles and there are airplane
problems, so you have to drive cross country.
You have a week to get there - which gives you a little time for
sight seeing. Do you just hop in your car and start driving
without even consulting a map - stopping at anyplace that looks
interesting - and hope you actually get to Los Angeles on time? What
if your travels took you to San Francisco instead of Los Angeles? All of
those people waiting for you in Los Angeles would wonder where the
heck you were. Or what if you spent most of the week tooling
around the Southeast, and didn't have time to get to Los Angeles?
Even if you did have time to zoom to Los Angeles, you might end up
missing the Grand Canyon completely - a great place to spend a day
sight seeing. Too bad you spent all of that time touring the
world's largest collection of used tires in Texas! What if you
went WAY off course, and ended up in Central America? If you
don't use a map it's easy to get WAY off course - going from one
interesting location to another but not thinking about the
specific destination. Heck, you could end up driving in a big
circle and end up back in Atlanta at the end of the week!
Wouldn't it be better to bring along a road map? In fact,
wouldn't it be ideal to plan your trip so that it took you through New Orleans
and all of the other wonders this country has to
offer? You could design your trip so that you could spend a day
at the Grand Canyon and skip that junk yard of old tires in Texas.
Nothing wrong with the old tires, you'd just rather see the Grand Canyon.
Hey, if you plan your trip, you can take your time and
look at the scenery - maybe even plan an hour or two every day
for "impulse" site seeing. You know that by the end of the week
you'll not only arrive on time in California, but you'll have seen
all of the major sites in between.
That's the main difference between writing with an outline and
writing free-form. With an outline you not only are assured of
reaching the end of your story by page 110, you also have more
time to look at the window at the scenery. The reality is the
exact opposite of the perception. Writing without an outline
gives you less freedom - or maybe it's just temporary freedom...
the freedom to write scenes that don't go anywhere, so you have
to throw them away when you do your second draft. Because I know
where I'm going, I have more time to look at the scenery - I can
focus on WRITING and be creative in every scene.
If you can write *without* a plan and still reach the destination - great! There is no one way to write a screenplay, and some folks need structure and others do not. The *results* are all that matter, not the methods you use to get the results.
Some writers write a series of "discovery drafts" - kind of a bunch of site seeing trips *before* you go on your road trip... to scout the routes by just driving around. If that
works for you - do it! If you use that method and are *not* getting results - try something else. Results are what count! Some writers
can get to the destination if they know it ahead of time - if they know their ending they can write towards it and get there. If that's what gets
you results - do it! But many writers, at least when starting out, need a more structured approach or they wander around looking for the story... and maybe never finding it.
If you have the route to the conclusion and it works, that's the first step. Many writers never get this far - they have a bunch of scenes that don't seem to be related to each other, or are incidents in a character's life that do not add up to a story - just stuff that happens.
Once you know your destination, the next step is to figure out the best route - which is artistic. Selecting the best scenes, story beats, locations... and that is where outlines meet story and character, because the purpose of any screenplay no matter what the genre is to explore character.
OUTLINE FOR CHARACTER
In DUE DATE Robert Downey jr and Zack Galifianakis are on a road trip, and they must get to Los Angeles for the birth of Downey's baby. They can go anywhere... but can they really? Story explores character, and these are not two random characters. Downey is a guy with a very short fuse - he has anger management issues, and that is what the entire screenplay is about. The story begins with Downey being kicked off a plane - the reason why he gets kicked off and put on the no fly list? He gets mad at Zack... and when an Air Marshal tells him to put up his hands, he gets mad at the Air Marshal and starts mouthing off at him... and gets shot.
When Downey calls his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and tells her he was kicked off the plane (and shot), the first thing she asks is what did he say to the Air Marshal? This is not some isolated incident, this is who Downey *is*. And the rest of the script puts him in scene after scene where his anger issues are triggered. These scenes are the stops along the way in the screenplay... and the stops along the way in the road trip.
The reason why he's car pooling with Zach? That guy is the most irritating guy in the world, so who better to be stuck with on a long road trip? Downey's wallet with all of his credit cards and money and ID is in his briefcase... on the plane that has already flown to Low Angeles. He has nothing and no way to get back to Los Angeles... and Zach offers him a ride. Since he blames Zach for getting him kicked off the plane, it's only right that he provide transportation back to Los Angeles. But it's the road trip from hell. Where Downey is ultra organized, Zach is a complete mess. Downey is intelligent, Zach knows nothing but thinks he does. The characters were created for conflict - and conflict is what brings character to the surface - so putting these two together is a great way to explore each's character. They bring out the worst in each other.
The story is tied directly to exploring Downey's character - and each of the incidents is something that pushes his buttons (and we understand his point of view - I mean, Zach's *dog* masturbates). So Zach does a million things completely wrong which result in Downey losing his temper. And when Zach does something wrong, it causes *other* things that will test Downey's temper. Zach claims to have glaucoma, and needs to make an unscheduled stop to get some "medical marijuana" from Juliette Lewis. This not only puts them behind schedule, Downey has to watch Lewis' spoiled and violent kids - which creates anger issue problems. Zach spends all of their money on pot, so they are now broke - not enough money to buy gas! Downey has his wife wire money to them, but Zach uses his stage name and they can't pick up the money... and the Western Union office is about to close... and Downey gets angry at the guy behind the counter (Danny McBride)... which results in a fight.
Downey's anger and attitude *causes* the fight. Downey's character flaw *causes* the problems... and the story is Downey having to check himself before he wrecks himself. He must learn to control his anger enough to get himself across the country with this irritating guy. And we see him slowly learn to deal with his anger and see Zach as an ally instead of an enemy... and gets to Los Angeles for the birth of his child.
So character - and which scene best explores character - is an important part of picking your route. The other important part is "scenery". The guy behind the counter at the Western Union is a great example - Downey gets his ass kicked by a handicapped Veteran in a wheel chair. You want to find the scene we haven't seen before, the scene that is the most entertaining version of whatever that scene needs to accomplish. So that scene could have just been the guy closing the store and going to Chilis. But physical conflict rules - no matter what the genre. It's *visual*. So Downey is going to push it until there is an actual fight. Now, the guy could come out and he's HUGE. But we've seen that. We want the scene we haven't seen. The guy comes out in a wheel chair... and we feel sorry for him... then he kicks Downey's ass. We haven't seen that one that I know of, and it's also more interesting and dramatic than any possibility I can come up with. Great "scenery" is part of knowing your route. You can waste time at that pile of old tires in Texas.
So you make sure your route gets you to the destination - that it is a story and not just a collection of scenes, and then find the *best* scenes to explore the character which are also the most amusing. And if you are writing and come to that Western Union scene and come up with something you think is better (what if the guy is a little person... and kicks his ass?) you can do that. Still gets you where you are going and still explores character and is still entertaining.
I have an outline method that's related to the step outline. I
break the script down into 5 page segments. Most segments have 2
scenes, some have 3-4, some segments are scenes all by
themselves. I know where the act breaks are going to come, and
each of my acts has a "chapter title" that describes what's going
on with the protagonist. I think the protagonist's emotional
journey is the most important part of the screenplay - it's
integral to the way I structure my scripts.
Paul Schrader said in an interview once that he outlines page
by page, and if his script doesn't conform to his outline, he
changes the script. I think that's crazy. I've gone off my
outline so many times it's crazy - often throwing away the last half of Act
2's outline because I've come up with something much better. The outline is my guide, my road map,
not my boss. You don't want to
plan your cross-country trip down to the second like Robert Downey, jr's character! If I want to
spend an extra half hour at the Grand Canyon, no outline is going to stop me! You want your outline
to be flexible, and *you* want to be flexible. If you spot some cool place along the road you didn't know existed - explore it!
But when I stray from my outline, I don't stray that far. I
still have the same destination and I still have the same basic
plan to get there. I don't want to go so far off course that I
miss the Grand Canyon... or get completely lost... or make it to Los Angeles a couple of days late.
My new Act Two with the detours is *similar* to
the old Act Two outline. Most of the thinking that went in to the
structure still applies, even though scenes and locations may
change. I'm not going off in some other direction - that won't get me to my destination. I just take a side road instead of the highway.
I also use my outlines to help guide my pacing. I think pacing
is one of those important parts of scripts that nobody talks
about. I have a friend whose screenplays have terrible pacing.
The scripts are SLOOOOOW - they move like molasses and are a
struggle to read. He just doesn't have enough stuff *happening*,
and he also bunches up static talk scenes. His scripts may go 35
pages without anything happening - It's like driving for two days
without stopping at a single cool landmark! Miles and miles of
*nothing*. How boring! I don't want anyone sleeping during one of
my films, so I try to keep the story moving at a brisk clip.
Things keep *happening*. This is in the outline. Part of the
overall structure of the script - I *plan* to stop at interesting
landmarks a couple of times a day to keep the trip
interesting. That's part of the plan - marked on the road map.
One of the reasons why I do so much overall structuring and
outlining is so that I can focus on the small stuff while I'm
writing. I know where the *story* goes, so I can focus on the
scenes. I can come up with reversals and twists and
misunderstandings. There's so much involved in writing *anything*
that I think the more you plan, the more time you can spend on
the unplanned. You can get to your destination *and* have time to
look at the scenery if you plan your trip.
But it all comes down to whatever gets you the best results. Not what is easiest for
you or the method you like the most, but the method that results in a great screenplay.
Before you sit in the driver's seat - do you know where you're
going and what's the best route to get there?
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