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03/24/2007: That Darn Mella
When you're actually on the writing staff of a show, an outline isn't just something you write for yourself. You actually write it for the show runner and for the studio and network executives to read so that they can have input on the story at this stage. This means, of course, that it's a somewhat more polished document than what you might put together for your private use.
An outline written for this purpose often starts with a short summary of the episode, condensed into a few sentences. I always spend a lot of time on this, and not just because I want it to be compelling and clear. The best summaries capture the "what it really means" of an episode.
Here is a bad summary for an imaginary episode of an imaginary show:
Mella and Ben get in a fight over her immaturity, and she storms out of the house late at night. When she gets locked out of her car in a scary downtown neighborhood, she is protected by the local homeless population until she can call Ben, which she does reluctantly. He picks her up, but the fight continues.
Here is a better one for the same episode:
Mella storms out of the house when Ben suggests she's immature. When she's locks herself out of her car in a scary downtown neighborhood, she doesn't want to call him, knowing she's proving his point that she can't take care of herself. Only an encounter with the local homeless population makes her put her own ego into perspective. She calls Ben, losing the fight, but knowing she did the prudent thing. She lost the battle, but she just might have won some maturity.
First off: bleah. I don’t know what this imaginary show is that I just cooked up, but I can't say I'm that interested in it. Mella sounds like a load, and the homeless thing? A bit precious, no? But I think you can see the difference. The second summary traces her emotional arc, and tells you how each event leads into the next and what it all means.
It's often the writing of the logline, the forced condensation of the story, that brings it into focus for me. You're forced to drop out all the embroidery and just concentrate on that strong central line. This, ultimately, can actually affect how you write the episode, since you've been reminded of the importance of making that line clear and vibrant throughout the whole script. Wouldn't you rather sit down to write with the second summary in front of you than the first?
Even if you're just writing an outline for your own private use, I recommend coming up with a good strong summary you can keep in mind.