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Joining the dots

Starting a new screenplay can be a daunting prospect. You’ve had the idea in your head long enough, now’s the time to transfer it to paper. But what about the groundwork – the fleshing out of the bare bones before you begin?

I used to think that writing an outline was a waste of energy. Why sit and write a detailed breakdown of the plot and the characters when you can thrash it all out in the first draft?

I’ve since learned there are more than a few good reasons.

The creative process is a strange thing. Given free rein it can take you to the most fantastic places. Being wild and undisciplined it knows no boundaries of either time or space. But without the hand of restraint it can quickly burn out and leave you the author frustrated.

Every writer who has ever finished a book or a screenplay knows that you need two things to succeed: structure and routine. Without these, the work simply doesn’t get done. But the blank page presents its own problems – especially when you’ve made a cracking start on the first ten, only to run out of inspiration.

An outline helps prevent that from happening. Instead of relying on your instincts and forging ahead regardless, it pays to take the more structured approach. And the detail needn’t be onerous, as long as it gives you something to go on. The names of your principle characters, and a brief biography. A synopsis of the plot, and any dramatic incidents.

In the end it’s down to the individual. Everyone finds the approach that works for them. But having some grasp of the material early on is one way of ensuring continuity and keeping motivation levels high.

First drafts are often disappointing, filled with poor dialogue and weak characterisation. An outline is a kind of safeguard, to prevent too many gremlins from spoiling the party.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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