– 6 min –
What became clearer and clearer to me as I talked with my friend last week about the story, is that we kept talking about it in chunks. And I realized that the first thing I would have to do, is write down what chunks of story I really had so far and break up the story in actual sequences and scenes. Chunks. To make it more visual, tangible. Like a coat rack. Little did I know that that is also referred to as outlining the story, a step I had not yet taken on this journey, at all.
I know the year is young, but I almost want to name it the discovery of the year! I am a fan for life! And there are different ways to do it. The most common one is to do it with index cards. Either digitally or on paper, and the concept is simple. It’s like you write out the contents, the table of index of a book. Each chapter has a name, and with outlining your story, you also add a little bit what the ‘chapter’ is about. Because my story is still a bit unstable, I decided to work with the closest thing to actual paper index cards and what I have worked with many times before: Microsoft’s PowerPoint. Especially because the slides are so easily movable and you keep a good overview. I know screenwriting software has similar functions, but I just wanted to work with this ‘simple’ tool, because I already know it and without all the extra things I don’t need or want right now. (And no, I am not some rigid person who refuses to learn new technology or is afraid of it. Come on, you know me by now.)
And as soon as you write out what you have on these ‘index cards’, and I chose to use one card for each scene and sometimes a little sequence instead, it really becomes so clear, right in front of you in one nice overview, what you have and more importantly what you don’t have. On the FB page of the Immersion Screenwriting Course I compared it with a puzzle. “It’s like you have your puzzle box, with on its lid your story’s movie poster. And in your hand the pieces of this puzzle (scene index cards with brief description). As you lay down the pieces you have so far, and (re)arrange them, you immediately see the story visually, and more importantly the gaps and the missing links”. What I’ve done so far is not be bothered with ‘fill-in scenes’, but just the bigger scenes, which might consist of more little scenes as part of this bigger ‘scene’. I figured, first look at the real overview, the real coat-rack of the story, before diving into the nitty-gritty.
So far, I have about 30 ‘big’ scenes (not to be confused with big in the sense of plot points). And if you would multiply that by 2, thinking most of these will be 2 pages at least, the story would come to at least 60 pages so far. And if I am aiming for 100 pages, it’s a lot more than I thought I had and I haven’t even written out the separate little scenes yet. Or ACT III. So, it would seem that I have much more than I thought and a movie is full quicker than you think. And then you stumble upon a question in the screenwriting page on FB, someone asking how many scenes a movie should have. Before knowing all that I know now, because of the course, I would be reading the answers with my full attention, not knowing anything about it, but now, gratefully, I know that any answer with a number in it, is an incorrect one, and probably given by someone who doesn’t know a flying fish about screenwriting. And with now almost 20.000 members, we all know that there are more people in that group knowing little about it than there are very experienced writers in it, and a whole bunch of others in between. When you’ve read many screenplays, 20 at least, like we have for the course, you know the only right answer to this question is this: it differs greatly. Take a Tarantino movie with almost all of it in one setting in The Hateful Eight (2015) for example, and compare this with any of the Bourne movies. There is no set number. Some responses on the page were that it should be between 30 and 40 scenes, without even mentioning its genre. Well, mister, I have 30 scenes so far and they are not small scenes, but neither are they scenes in which a whole movie takes place. Or are very long. It will be way more than 40 scenes, I know that for sure already. But I get it. It’s not entirely an ignorant question, because in this too, just like the page numbers of your script, it is important to keep a good overview and don’t add more scenes than necessary. Today more than ever, we skip so many steps in an action sequence for instance. Compare it with the older movies, where someone went somewhere with the car, they drove somewhere, they got out of the car, they closed the door, they walked into a building, opened the building door, walked to an office, opened that door and went into that room, while it all had no meaning to the storytelling. But this was done mostly because the makers back then were afraid people didn’t make that connection what happened in between, if they skipped all these steps. And of course in the case of the action sequence with our unfortunate girl Marion in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), getting ready to go out of town and her drive out of town did have meaning and that’s why we see more of that than you might in another movie. But we get it. Don’t overwrite. But don’t think about the numbers upfront either. The nice thing about the index cards I wrote out is that I didn’t look at what number I was, until I was finished writing what I had. And only then did I count the cards, to make a rough estimate about how many minutes I had so far.
Now, not every writer makes an outline. Some might not even know what it is. I was one of them. Some say it stalls their creativity. They just want to write whatever comes to their mind and the story will just lead them where it wants to go. They will say “this Oscar winner doesn’t outline, so neither do I have to”. Whatever will support their opinion. Of course you will find supporting evidence, because that is what you’ll be looking for, and ignore perhaps the reasons why it is good to outline and its benefits. And also conveniently not look at the personality of that person who doesn’t outline. What might be good and working for one, doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. You might think that I am completely on the side of outlining, now I know what it is and am very fond of it, but I am not all for it. I don’t think it’s a must for every story, in the beginning. Some stories might need a more fluent and spontaneous, let’s-see-where-this-goes, approach. Some stories spring into existence with bits and pieces and are not aided by trying to constrict them in a mould. But I still think it will be good, at one point or another, to lay out the complete story in some kind of outline. Your view can get quite clouded when you’re only in it from up close. It is always good, with anything really, to take a step back and look at the overall picture. I haven’t done this much yet in this field, but trust me when I tell you that from that ‘distance’, only then can you really see the gaps and missing links. It’s a known fact with most things and people, that when we remain too close to it or them, we don’t see clearly anymore all that is part of it or them. And yes, your audience will see it, feel it, know it, if there is not a right balance, if things are too much or too little. Your audience, which includes you, is smarter than you think. They will notice.
One thing that happened after I indexed the story, is that the missing pieces became quite clear. And also the amount of them. And that, as I wrote before, ACT III is momentarily MIA, missing in action. And as great as I find outlining, it is also a brutal moment of truth. And keeps being that wall of truth, as you progress with the story. If you can. Where before I was not worried about ACT III not filled in yet, this wall of truth, this puzzle with its missing pieces is a bit confronting and has me a little bit worried now. Does the story have enough pillars? And are they strong enough? Inciting incident, check. Break into ACT II, check. Mid-point reversal, check. ACT II climax, all-is-lost moment, ½ check. ACT III, no checks.
So, our next step is pretty clear: to find those missing pieces. Boy, I do hope they exist and I can find them.