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Home » Archives » February 2006 » Putting the "uck" in Starbucks
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02/14/2006: Putting the "uck" in Starbucks

I tried to make my own mocha frappe yesterday. I figured that if I just bought some espresso from Starbucks, I could take it home and mix it with really good cocoa powder, skim milk, Splenda and crushed ice... mmm. Well, it seemed like a fun idea at the time (It'll be extra chocolatey! Extra fat-free!). Actually it was disgusting. I think I got the proportions all wrong. It tasted very much like a script written without an outline.

Hah! That one snuck up on you, didn't it?

Once you know what your story is, what the basic events and emotional evolution is, it's so incredibly tempting to start writing. Each scene, you reason, will carry you organically to the next one. Besides, you know what your act breaks are, so if you sort of aim at them, they'll keep you anchored.

No! Turn back! You simply cannot write without an outline. I've read a few scripts written without outlines and I can always tell right away.

There's a way to ease into it. You can start by writing what TV writers call a "beat sheet." This is a skimpy little document. It just indicates location and the barest hint of what happens in the scene. A beat sheet entry for a scene might read:


Buffy and the others discover the apartment damaged, Giles gone.

You could start writing from there. But it would be even better if you fleshed out the beat sheet into an outline. This is an excerpt from my outline for the Buffy episode "A New Man":


Buffy, Willow, Xander and Anya walk into the courtyard, with Xander still telling them what happened: "It had horns. And hair. Tufty ears. Ugliest thing you ever saw." They arrive at Giles' broken door. They enter the apartment to find the destruction. Xander: "Guess I wasn't the only one it visited today." Buffy and Willow try to stay calm -- we've all been kidnapped by vampires and demons before. It doesn't mean that Giles is hurt. Anya finds Giles' torn shirt. Anya: "I think it ate him up."

This is a very short scene. In the final script it's exactly one page long. Other scenes occupy much more room. In fact, the outline for A New Man is fifteen pages long. With an outline like this, the actual script can be written in days if it really has to be. You've already used the outline to work out how you're going to transition in and out of scenes, in what order information is going to be revealed, and even some sample dialogue. It frees you up to make the actual writing a really fun stress-free process! And the script tastes right when you're done.

Lunch: a veggie burrito from Poquito Mas and a very bad homemade mocha frappe.


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