Should A Screenwriter Outline Their Screenplay? by Adam Skelter

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Adam do you outline every story that you write?

Adam Skelter, writer, director, story artist: Yeah…I’m pretty thorough with outlining. I’ll spend quite a bit of time outlining before I even write the full…like I’ll usually have a complete full outline and then jump into the story. So I’ll have a really specific idea of the objective of every single scene and ultimately it saves me time.

When I first started writing I was anti-outline. I kind of had the attitude, you know the young attitude I’m just going to write and my gut’s going to tell me what’s right and what’s meaningful and stuff like that and that works for a lot of writers.

But I noticed I hit a lot of dead ends and I became emotionally attached to those dead ends and then it became very hard to rewrite and then it drove my stories off the cliff.

And so little by little, (honestly that Ron Mita 24-plot-point-thing) was huge because it was so simple. You could literally just sit there and plot out a story in an hour and you could have a really good idea about where it was going. And then from there…for me that’s where you go from discovering your story to actually becoming a craftsman (or craftsperson), where you are working on the story and start to take control of it and you take a step back. It’s almost like a render machine, you’re rendering your story before you ever sit down and write it. So then the script really just becomes kind of like secondary artifact of all the work you’ve put into it. So yeah, I spend a lot of time outlining.


“The whole process of writing is an experiment. Art is an experiment. “


And it’s…a lot of people thinks that it takes away from the creative process. Usually that’s kind of the writer saying “Well, I want to be in the audience, too. And I want to experience and be surprised by it.” But outlining doesn’t take away from that because when you sit down you’ve outlined, you’ve got your outline right here. And then when you’re writing, you put yourself in the moment, you’re in the skin of the writer or the character. And you are experiencing it and then if your gut tells you to try something different, try something different, see where it goes. So you are still…you know…gardener versus architect, Pantser Versus Plotter kind of thing. I call it The Assassins Versus The Berserkers. Basically the planner versus the person who just sees what happens next. And I think it’s important to understand the consequences of the choices you’re making. But the whole process of writing is an experiment. Art is an experiment. The only thing that rules it is do we make it emotionally resonate for somebody else? And as artists we get to decide how much that is. How we build that relationship. If we want to do it for a living, than we become responsible to those people who are investing in us and that’s when you want to be able to have control of your craft. That’s when you want to be able to climb the mountain, know how you’re going to get up there, meet a deadline.

There aren’t a lot of producers that are going to be like “Alright, we needed this three months ago.” And you are still just kind of like wandering in the weeds. But a lot of the process of writing is just experimenting into the weeds, going into the weeds and then stepping back. And the trick is just not panicking when you’re in the weeds and saying “Okay, this is part of the process. Let’s step back and look at the outline and see if it’s going to work.”

So for me it feels like a map, it feels like you’re zooming in. And you can do the street view where you are in the character and you’re driving along and you’re like “Yeah, I feel this, I’m going through this street.” And that’s when you’re writing.

But then you pull back, you zoom out and you see the overview of where you’re going and that’s the outline.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: So do you think without an outline a writer backs themselves into a corner a little bit?

Adam Skelter: I mean we’re all vulnerable to that, even with an outline we’re vulnerable to that. But again, I don’t believe in any right or wrong

There is this one writer Bob Sáenz. He’s amazing, he says he doesn’t outline, he’s successful, he writes great stuff. He just wrote Extracurricular and it’s fantastic. I read the script and it’s so good. And he doesn’t outline, but he knows how to write. He gets to where he needs to go and he knows how to tell a story. So it’s like what works for you is fine. The important thing is to be able to sell it to the producers, to engage the people that need to be engaged. You are writing for readers largely, so you want to learn the language of what they expect. But within that, it’s whatever gets you there. I don’t think you have any obligation but generally speaking the average person would benefit from taking the time to plan where their story is going to go, have a good idea of where it’s going to end and work toward that.

Film Courage: In the past have you introduced that 24-plot-point system to some of your students and were they surprised?

Adam Skelter: Yeah, in my first video [on Adam’s Youtube channel The Art Of Story] I introduce the 24-plot-points and then I break it down into acts, and then sequences and then scenes and then everything like that…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here)


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