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Screenwriting 101: Everything You Know About Outlining is Wrong

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.

The key is to always be willing to adjust. To view both character and plot as malleable. To continually frame the debate, to ask the proper and challenging questions: of yourself, of your cast of characters, of your plot, of your story.

This process of constantly arguing with your story and risking the wasted time of the blind alley and false lead will maximize the chances that you will, eventually, after the hard work of composition and recomposition, create a uniquely voiced and logically self consistent fictional universe.

It will maximize the chances of what I call the happy accident of writing. Of true writing that includes discovery and risk, and the surprising reward of writing what you did not plan on writing. Of truly channeling the truth of your story and your characters.

If you write what you set out to write, you are not writing. You need to put yourself in a place where you are open to discovery, to risk and failure. You need to let the act of composition teach you something you didn’t know. It’s a mark of things going well when you reread your work the next day and don’t recall writing a sentence. When you surprise yourself.

It is only by creating the circumstance amenable to composition, opening yourself to learning as you write, that you can hope to find your own voice and the voice of the characters carrying your story. It is only then, as you pry open your presumptions about your plot, that you make room for the specific genius of your story to enter. And only then can you hope to create a screenplay that it is impossible for your reader to put down.


The general (and misguided) emphasis on plot and structure has led to an abuse of outlining. Many believe (are taught or have read) that they must have a complete outline of their story before they can beginwriting scenes.

I believe this view of the outline is more than wrong, it can be destructive.

A meticulous outline can give the false impression of completion; it can induce you to write to the outline rather than from it. This can result in a scene or character that has been manipulated and strained in order the fit the shape dictated by the outline.

Some proponents of the outline go to extremes. They recommend what has come to be known as “step outlines” or “beat sheets.” Theformer strives to list not simply the plot points and twists that the story will take, but the steps to reach each. The beat sheet strives for even more detail. The writer is expected to know and put down each minute dramatic moment.

If you expend that much imagination and energy on the outline, why not write the screenplay? Why not struggle through the decisions and discovery in the dramatic form—with characters in a space, speaking in voices, with desires and ambitions enacted? Getting too detailed in your step outline may have the undesirable effect of making your story static. And, more dangerously, it may limit your imagination. If you write to fill an outline, the field of possible choices, however unconsciously, are narrowed. The presumption becomes that moving from A to B—two points on the outline constitutes success.

There is, in this attitude, no room for discovery.  In my experience, screenplays written from the top down, from meticulously detailed outlines, have a sameness, a suddenness, all plot or all concept, all flash and no depth. They have no center.

Here are my thoughts on outlines:

-An outline stands as an ordered record of what you know about your story at any given instant.

-It should change and deepen during composition. It must remain malleable.

-The outline is a list of what needs to happen. It should be, in the broadest and most flexible way, a tool to enable dialogue between the fable and the construct, between author’s intention and audience’s expectation.

By emphasizing the flexibility of an outline rather than its comforting structure, by always remembering the symbiotic relation between outline and composition, between character and plot, you will be freed from constraint, will have a tool to battle writer’s block, will become more open to discovery. You will be in a better position to write a complete and consistent screenplay rather than a description of an imagined movie.

Treating the outline as a malleable and fluid tool will help to remind you that the story you are molding from the source material grows out of your writing, it does not determine your writing. It will give you access—when you are blocked or confused—to that earlier step: the original impulse or idea, the fable that first sparked your imagination and begged for articulation. The outline should never get in the way of your access to the rich chaos of fable. By continually reaching back to your original impulse, to the untellable fable, you will find fresh and unexpected solutions to the problems that arise while forging story into plot, fable into construct.

I am not saying do not outline. I am suggesting that in the early stages of composition your goal is to get just enough of a sense of the story’s shape, to hear just enough of the characters’ voices, to begin writing scenes.

So, yes, start an outline. Don’t be surprised if the events and chronology of Act I and II are a whole lot thicker than Act III. Don’t fret. Just jot down what you know as you learn it.

An outline should reflect what you know about your story at any given moment. It should contain the landmarks that you know will be in the finished screenplay. It should get filled in as you learn more. You should think of it as a tool. It is not for public consumption (any more than your notes and research are for others to read).

Rather than think of the outline as a shorthand description of your story, think of it as a list of current decisions taken in the transformation from fable to construct. Doing so will open up the creative space. It is important to emphasize that an outline reflects the current state of your understanding of story.

It is also important to constantly remember that the fable is larger than the series of decisions taken in order to render it tellable. That is to say, when you are stuck and staring at your outline, and trying to break through a particularly difficult block—it is important to recall that the outline is just one possible solution, that you can return to the fable and make a different decision—that the story is not stuck, the plot is. If the outline gets in the way, change it.

Guy Gallo has been a professor of Advanced Screenwriting at Columbia University for the last 20 years. “Screenwriter’s Compass: Character as True North” is out this month from Focal Press.

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