Most screenwriting writers will have experienced the treatment/outline writing dilemma, whether it’s for a feature, short film, TV episode, audio drama, or any other preliminary blueprint for the final version.
The process is sometimes: outline (a present tense, 1-3 page outline of the story); treatment (up to 20 pages with all the major beats and character arcs in place); step-outline (the writer’s scene by scene breakdown of what happens in every scene). And then you write the script.
At any of the stages, it’s important to edit, tinker, shunt scenes around, cut or add scenes, and I find, the more prep I do at an early stage, the more fun I have with the writing itself. It’s the fun and energy that I want to get on to the page because I think it’s the fun that connects with the reader. So if I’m giggling or tearful when I’m writing, those emotions may come across to the reader. That’s the plan anyway.
When script editing, I often see outlines – and scripts – with overlong first acts, as the writer gets into the story. Then there’s a muddle in Act 2 because they don’t totally know where the story is going, or where the beats are, and then there’s an unseemly rush at Act 3 to climax and resolution.
I suggest that if you attempt to turn an outline that’s like this, into a treatment, then a step-outline, and then a script, the script will always be a mess.
The solution is beautifully simple. Once you have worked out your basic story – with the appropriate number of story beats – start writing the present tense outline FROM THE BEGINNING OF ACT 2 TO THE END OF ACT 2. This will feel counterintuitive but I promise that it works.
When you have written that part of the story, if you’ve covered roughly six pages, you know that your Act 1 needs to be three pages long, and the same goes for your Act 3.
This means, when you turn your outline or treatment into a step outline, it will still be in proportion – and when you write your script, novel or other narrative – the same elegant balance will be embedded in the story structure.
This is the second post in my ‘short cuts and dirty writing tricks’ series of posts. The first was about structuring emotional arcs. If there’s some aspect of writing that you’re struggling with, please drop me a line and if I have an appropriate short cut or dirty trick, I’ll blog about it. No promises though – I don’t know everything!