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Down ‘n’ Outlines.

Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash

The deal was closed. All initial meetings in the books. There was but one obstacle that stood between me and my tapping out FADE IN on a blank piece of virtual paper and weeks of writing bliss. A simple outline. Roughly a week’s work at the very most. At least that’s what I’d said when Pauly Producer inquired how long it would be before he’d see something tangible.

“How many pages do your outlines usually run?” asked Pauly.

“Around eight t0 ten,” I said.

“Perfect,” he replied. “Just enough to see the big moves.”

“Talk to you in a week,” I concluded.

Now, I have no set practice for building an outline. Sometimes I vomit out pages of non-sequential notes, organize them, paste them into pages, and go from there. Other days I’ll set up my slab of cork, color code a bunch of cards and start tacking them to the board. Or it can be as simple as starting at the computer, whacking out the story from a to z, then revising for my wee audience of maybe three or four readers.

A week passed. I delivered the outline via an emailed pdf file. The next morning, I get the first call from Pauly.

“So this isn’t so much an outline as it is a bunch of ordered bullet points.”

“Think it pretty much says where I’m going with the movie,” I said.

“I getcha,” said Pauly. “I see where you are. Maybe we can flesh it out a bit more for the studio.”

“Flesh it out? Or clarify?”

“Just think there’s some stuff there that might confuse.”

“I’m all for clarity. Send me your notes.”

“On the way.”

The next day, his notes arrived in my in box. I read through them, applied them to the outline. Draft numero two was turned around within a couple of hours and after an afternoon perusal, Pauly was back on the phone with me.

“Thanks for making the changes,” said Pauly. “I do think, though, for the rest of the reads, it’s gonna need more rounding out.”

“The outline,” I confirmed.

“Yes. They’re going to want more detail.”

“I understand,” I said. “But that, you understand is the nature of outlines.”

“How’s that?”

“Outlines aren’t a very good vessel for details,” I explained. “The more details you put in, the greater and more profound the absence of detail becomes.”

“They become more aware about what’s not there?”

“It’s like trying to add color to a pencil sketch. The more you add, the more it looks like a painting by numbers.”

“Understood. Lemme pass it over to the studio and get their thoughts.”

“Remind ‘em it’s an outline. Not a screenplay.”


I wanted to get to the writing. But I was seasoned enough to know that I’d be foolish to start committing to script before everyone had signed off on the outline. So the wait was on. I wouldn’t hear from the studio for at least a week.

Make that two weeks. And where TV people love to move things along with concise and efficient conference calls, some movie folks love the in person interface. Something I also would prefer if it weren’t for multiple parties having to sync their schedules via assistants paid to puppy guard the boss’s calendar.

Ten days later…

Finally, I get to sit down with all relevant parties. The initial ten-page outline had blossomed to fifteen at Pauly’s request. And now with Mr. Veep and his sidekick, Creative Carl, I found myself pitching the movie all over again so the group could apply the story they bought to the organized pages that lay in front of them.

“The part in your pitch, where the wife says ‘divorce is like heartburn, only you need lawyers to cure it,’” said Creative Carl. “I don’t see that in the outline.”

“Because that’s dialogue,” I answered. “It’s probably in the movie. But I try to keep dialogue out of the outline.”

“But I love that line,” said Creative Carl.

“I’ll make certain it makes the script,” I said.

“Can you find someplace for it in the outline? I think it could really help.”

“If you really need it. I suppose I can accommodate.” Of course, I knew that it really had no place in the outline. But if it gets me to the next step, what the hell.

“Thanks,” said Mr. Veep. “Now, in the second act, I don’t see how the hijackers get from idea stage to the part where they execute the actual heist.”

“It’s in there,” I said, flipping to the exact page and paragraph.

“You mention it, I know,” said Mr. Veep. “But can you give me more?”

“More what?”

“Stuff. Detail. How it all unfolds.”

“Depends on how long you want the outline.”

“We don’t care how long it is as long as we see the whole movie.”

“The whole movie?”

“Yes. I know. That’s for the script. But give us what you got.”

“See what I can do,” I said, sliding a sideways glance at Pauly, who pretty much knew what I was thinking, but non-verbally encouraged me to wait until we stepped onto the elevator.

“What I tell you?” I said after the elevator doors closed.

“They want more so you gotta give ‘em more,” said Pauly.

“Of course they want more. They want a Goddamn screenplay. So let me get to it.”

“Just fill in the holes in the outline.”

“But that’s the nature of outlines,” I reminded. “If they weren’t filled with holes, they’d be finished screenplays.”

“Can’t you just give them a little bit more?”

“You’re missing the point. The more detailed the outline gets the more lost the studio will get.”

“You don’t give them any credit.”

“They don’t give me any credit,” I shot back. “If I could detail the movie in only ten or twenty pages of outline, I’d save myself about a hundred pages worth of work.”

“No studio’s gonna green light an outline.”

“No shit.”

“Just do your best,” encouraged Pauly, “And I’ll push to go to script.”

Three weeks, multiple outline drafts, and thirty pages later, I was looking at a forty-five page outline that was an odd mash-up of plot, narrative writing, and snippets of dialogue. It was a kitchen sink approach, every inch of it evolved from fear of the unknown and fueled the unimaginative demand of more, useless detail.

“I can’t give this to them,” confessed Pauly.

“I can’t see why not,” I said. “It’s exactly what you’ve let this turn into.”

“I know, I know. I should’ve listened to you.”

“You’re a professional,” I reminded. “When it comes to outlines, less is always more.”

“Christ. Is there a twenty page version of this forty-five page thing we could give ‘em?”

“I suggest you let me revise my original ten-pager, hand it over with a strong recommend that you let me go to script ASAP. In ten weeks we’ll have a screenplay—chockfull of detail—which everyone will feel comfortable pissing on.”

“Don’t know why they didn’t let you go to screenplay right after closing the deal. We coulda had the script by now.”

I bit my tongue instead of verbally recalling for Pauly the first post-deal discussion we’d had regarding the outline. Eight to ten pages. Just enough detail to give the studio enough road map to go to script. Instead, I risked giving them rope enough to hang me.

Does this mean I’ve stopped writing outlines for anyone other than myself? Of course not. Because I don’t possess the gold, I don’t make the rules. I just put up with the bank as best as I possibly can until I get permission to go to script.

If, perchance one day, I figure out how to write the magic outline, I promise to pass it along.

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  1. James Moran says:

    Oh, this. All of this. Also “we’re not getting a sense of the characters”, “the humour isn’t coming across”, “it’s not scary”. No, because it’s an outline. Gah.

  2. MGE3 says:

    Recently had a similar experience when I was told a 9 page outline didn’t show enough character and conflict. I fleshed it out to 14 pages, and they wanted every scene. I told them it’s a blueprint — they’re not supposed to actually see the walls, just know that they are there.

  3. Kristine Smith says:

    You would think those execs would understand the outline process by now. Isn’t that their job?

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Their job is not to understand the writer or even development. There’s is to manage the process to production.

      • Kristine Smith says:

        Thanks for the clarification. Sounds more like managing editorial, shepherding the film through the process? Which makes me wonder why they want any detail at all, but I assume it may just be for reassurance.

        • Doug Richardson says:

          It was more insult than clarifier. They used to understand more about the writer process. Now they know only how to replace them.

  4. Mr. Brimm says:

    You could write a novel and then adapt it. 🙂

  5. ChRiS says:

    Is it “normal” to show the outline to the producers before the actual screenplay?
    I always wrte thirty page outlines, as a “gameplan” for the screenplay.


  6. herocookie says:

    Love it. “We just want to see the whole movie”…


    • Doug Richardson says:

      Wouldn’t you? With surround sound and digital effects?

      • herocookie says:

        I pitched to direct a movie and the studio exec was like, “I LOVE your vision. I just wish you could film it first, show it to me, and then I could hire you.”


  7. Christopher Kubasik says:

    “But that’s the nature of outlines,” I reminded. “If they weren’t filled with holes, they’d be finished screenplays.”


    • Doug Richardson says:

      Love it Christopher. You’re feeling the pain.

      • Christopher Kubasik says:

        I’m utterly convinced the notion of the treatment/outline is a shell game so execs can get the screenplay before having to pay for a screenplay.

  8. Robin the Boy Wonder says:

    F@%ing outlines. They s#!t me to tears. Necessary evil, unfortunately…

  9. polfilmblog says:

    “I’m still brainstorming this, babe, to really get into the meat and gristle. You don’t want something off the top of my head?”

    • Doug Richardson says:

      If I recall in Hannibal, Anthony Hopkins was quite pleased with the top of Ray Liotta’s head.

  10. clive says:

    To be fair wasn’t this your outline.Another writer with the same story could emphasis different plot points, motivations etc. Treatments, outlines, synopsis, step outlne, log line. They do tend to blur. Then you go onto colours with the script don’t you?

    I wonder how writers used to do it without the tools and scrivenor and cut and paste? The count of monte christo had to have a plan surely? Christmass carol, what a great plot. You can’t write that stuff by the seat of your pants?

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