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by Guy Gallo
March 23, 2012 1:23 PM
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Screenwriting 101: Everything You Know About Outlining is Wrong

For those who believe screenwriters need to know exactly where the story's going to go, Columbia University screenwriting professor Guy Gallo says: Nonsense. In this excerpt from his new book, "Screenwriter's Compass: Character as True North," Gallo explains how exploring your story as you're going through the writing process will help guarantee that your screenplay has a unique voice and a real story to tell. 


Prior to actually doing the dirty work of composing a scene we have an amorphous idea of story. We hold in our heads an amalgam of images and thematic urgencies and story elements. As we sit down to actually put the characters in motion, enacting needs and desires, describing the behavior of the scene’s actors, we often, too often, do so with the story needs dictating the limits and shape of the scene. This is what I would call writing from the top down, writing from the story and plot down to the character and behavior and gesture. Too often, when this approach is taken (and it is by far the easier or more obvious method) the scene feels stilted or, worse, forced.

Composition creates story. If you trust your vision, if you trust your characters—then you can write the scene first and foremost with an eye to the needs of the scene. And the story will find expression. It may even find new or different expression than the one you expected. But it will be true to the characters. It will tell, in every given instant of your screenplay, what needs to be told. Not what you thought needed to be told. There is a difference.

The details of character gesture and speech, the minutia of behavior and background action, are not simply texture and color, they are not simply illustrations of character and story. Discovering truly authentic and compelling details actually generates story, reveals character. When we discover the correct word, the correct gesture or movement, location or weather, we are not filling in the blanks of some preexisting idea of plot and story. We are, in fact, creating the story in its articulation.

What follows will give you ways of thinking about scene construction and character development that will help you move from story to event to plot—creating the arena, the landscape, in which dramatic action can occur. And ways to begin the colloquy between author and character.

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  • Phillip | September 8, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    Thanks for the insights. The generalized tone isn't always helpful..... my bio epic covers many years and historical figures, which requires a detailed timeline of events and an outline to organize the chaos. But yes, there are many ways in which that outline could hold my back and limit my creativity. When writers don't utilize an outline, the plot stays shallow and exposition gets crapped out through the dialogue.

  • Shai | March 27, 2012 5:21 AMReply

    I like step outlines. I hate beat sheets.

  • John Harden | March 25, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    The "Everything you know is wrong" headline is inaccurate click-bait. The message here is softer, more like "don't be a slave to your outline." I'd say it depends on the kind of script you're writing. A murder mystery, for example, probably needs a pretty tight outline. A relationship-based drama, maybe not so much.

  • Dave | March 25, 2012 4:40 PMReply

    Yet another pretentious crock of prescriptive bull.

    Please don't tell me how to write. I'll do it my way. You do it your way. He'll do it his way. And she'll do it her way. That's how it has always worked and that's how it will continue to work.

    "If you write what you set out to write, you are not writing."

    Beyond ridiculous.

  • Anna Maria Elisa Manalo | March 25, 2012 11:03 AMReply

    Great site for upcoming films and screenwriting info. Thank you!

  • Shawn Whitney | March 25, 2012 12:02 AMReply

    I'm a bit puzzled by this advice. I mean, I'm glad that in the end the writer comes back to saying that an outline is a good thing but is it really the case that the key problem faced by writers is too much planning? Not in my experience. I'm an executive story consultant and a screenwriter. I read several scripts every week and the usual problem with new screenwriters is a distinct lack of planning and focus, with stories that meander or make little sense. Developing a method of planning through in detail would go a long way to resolving this. Nor is meticulous detail in an outline - or a beat sheet - the enemy of story. Knowing, provisionally, how your story ends and the road you need to follow to get there frees you to explore unexpected paths precisely because you have a map back to the highway.
    But what is more disconcerting about this entire discussion is that not once does the word theme appear. In those instances when I do get scripts that read like they've been written by a machine - with every plot turn in the right place to the page but without any life in the story - it is almost always because there is no greater purpose to the story. Everybody does what they are supposed to but without a theme ("love conquers all", "to thine own self be true", etc) to organize the action and the arcs of the characters there is no basis for stakes - for either the audience or the ensemble. There's a reason you're telling me this story other than wanting to get paid, you're trying to convince me about how to live the good life (as Aristotle would say). And lack of a coherent theme is, along with poorly planned story structures, the most common problems I see in scripts.

  • M. | March 24, 2012 5:11 PMReply

    I do think the bit about a "false sense of completion" is true when writing feature outlines that are very specific.

  • M. | March 24, 2012 5:06 PMReply

    I think this advice applies more to some genres than others. With a film like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or any number of action/espionage thriller films - the outline has to be meticulous. There are so many details that tie together/ clues etc. that discovering it along the way could be a waste of draft after draft. Additionally - in television, the outline sells the episode to the network and it must be right on the money. So, sure, you should be open if your intuition pulls against your outline in your draft, but I think this advice is not across all genres, certainly.

  • Dan Delago | March 24, 2012 3:37 AMReply

    I agree... an outline should be malleable. It is also the reason that writing a screenplay is so much fun for me. I like to discover things about my characters that only reveal themselves through their journey in my story.

  • Michael | March 23, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    Structure is tantamount to good storytelling, even if it's non-linear and unconventional, a strong narrative is the essence of good storytelling. Character can dictate story, drive story, create detours and unexpected story revelations, but, in my opinion, your story and your characters should never be left "dangling" due to lack of story sense on the part of the writer.

    I feel that much of what is produced today in film and television lacks a solid sense of good storytelling...not all, but plenty. I'm reminded of the words to a George Harrison song: "If you don't know where you're going...any road will take you there." That's a nice sentiment for the "happy wanderers" among us, but in the context of writing and screenwriting, "any road" is not the ticket for me as a writer and a storyteller.

  • tcampbell | March 23, 2012 4:11 PMReply

    The title of this article is disingenuous. Though the ideas in the article are accurate and well written, the presentation of the ideas is harmful. It is the tone that offends me. The article purports the idea that most screenwriters work slavishly from an outline. A screenwriter works from a mercurial outline and script draft -- a change in one document causes a direct change in the other. Whether a writer types these changes into the other document or not, a change has indeed occurred. The present draft of a script and its present outline are rigorously linked. As there will be many drafts of the actual script, there should be an equal amount of drafts of the outline. Character, plot, structure and story are all intricately linked. None stands without the other. And so do outline and script.

    "...plot is the structure of the main character towards the achievement of one goal." -- David Mamet

  • Shannon | March 23, 2012 4:07 PMReply

    Oh god, thank you! This makes me feel so much better about it. I've been stuck on the beatsheet/outline aspect for so long BECAUSE I felt like it had to be complete before I can write the script when really it is best to figure out your plot while going through the script process. So thank you for this lovely article!

  • Adam | March 23, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    Thank you for this well written article. I couldn't agree more. It's much more comforting knowing what the outcome will be, but if everything was mechanically predetermined then it really wouldn't be art.