What Screenwriters Get Wrong About Outlines – Alan Watt [Founder of L.A. Writers’ Lab]

Transcript of video

Film Courage  0:00  

What are the things you see, most beginning writers sort of get wrong with writing an outline?

Alan Watt  0:05  

Plot. It’s so many writers think that writing an outline is figuring out the plot. Okay. And it’s, there’s something very satisfying about coming up with a plot, there’s something great Oh, I’ve got it. But here’s the problem is that, again, Einstein says you can’t solve a problem. At the same level of consciousness, the creative problem, every story begins with a dramatic problem. And what happens, every writers have this experience, you get really excited by your premise, and you start writing it and you get halfway through, and then you get stuck. And then you’re trying to make these characters interesting, but you feel like they’re just, you know, pieces on a chessboard, that you try to move around. And, and, and so it’s important to understand that story structure is not about plotting, story structure really is the DNA of your protagonists transformation. And so what you really want to do is you want to start to be curious about your protagonists dilemma. Because when you when you really understand the nature of their struggle, the nature of their dilemma, it is going, it becomes the source of your story. And it starts to, it just starts to pay off and silver dollars, it starts to give you all sorts of ideas, images, scenarios, that are going to become your plot, okay, but if you so here’s the, here’s what I would suggest, if you want to come up with a great outline. The first thing we do in the 90 day novel, The 90 day screenplay is, is we spend one week imagining the world of the story, and doing absolutely no outlining. Because what happens is, I would say our idea of our story is never the whole story. If you start to outline your idea of your story, you’re going to get stuck, it’s going to become kind of a superficial thing. But if you allow yourself to lose yourself, in your characters relating to other characters, they’re going to surprise you, they’re going to be alive. And they’re going to start to do things that you might not have imagined. Had you force them into a prescribed outline. Okay, and so that’s the first step is imagine the world of your story. Allow your characters to be relating to each other in ways without imposing any structure, any outline whatsoever. Now that you’ve got all of this raw material, and you start to see how they’re related, I’ll give you an example. You would never if you’re writing, it’s a wonderful life. What does he want? He wants to leave Bedford Falls in order to have a wonderful life. The midpoint of that is where Mr. Potter offers Jimmy Stewart a job that would never if you’re outlining your story that has nothing to do with what Jimmy Stewart wants. Okay, he’s That’s Mr. Carter’s the the devil, gaze the enemy? Why would he ever offer him a job? That wouldn’t make any sense? But if you’re imagining the world, the story, and you come to the midpoint structure question, okay, which is, how is your protagonist? How does your protagonists experienced temptation? It might occur to you that the devil would tempt him with a big job offer. Okay, and so that’s where I feel like the way I teach story structure is different than I’ve been told it’s different than everybody. And it’s because there’s no plotting at all. There’s these structure questions that are experiencial questions. Okay. So we’re exploring it we’re exploring your, the your protagonists experience at key stages in the journey. Okay. I hesitate to say the hero’s journey, because then people get this fixed idea, oh, you’re teaching the hero’s journey? No, I’m actually not I’m teaching. What I’m teaching is that story structure is an immutable paradigm for a spiritual transformation. And that there are key stages that one goes through including the, you know, the reluctance of the end of the first act, the the the false hope, which we just talked about, I’m talking about now the midpoint, temptation, and then suffering at toward the end of the second act. And then finally, surrender the end of the second act. These are all experiences reluctance, false hope, temptation, suffering, surrender. They have nothing to do with plotting and we’re not talking about a reversal. You know, so as someone already figuring out the ending in that in that before they’re beginning this outline you said, think about it for a week or whatever. Think about the the crux of the story. What is it really about? Are they also figuring out the ending or is it revealed sometimes after you do the outline, but it can get revealed after you do the outline, I don’t like the word figuring out because I don’t think we figure anything out. But I have an exercise they give my students to to experience the ending and And it’s a two part exercise, I say, imagine your protagonists transformed at the end of the story. How is your protagonist relating differently to other characters? At the end of the story? How are they related differently than than they were at the beginning? And what do they understand at the end of the story that they didn’t understand at the beginning, okay, and so and then do that, like every day, do that for like, 10 minutes every day. And what you start to plant a flag for your protagonist at the end of the story, you start to experience your protagonist at the end of the story. Character suggests plot, when you start to experience your character relating differently to the the these other characters plot naturally emerges. But you’re not figuring anything out. If you try and figure it out, you’re gonna get stuck. And then the second thing you want to do is you want to imagine the, if you want to imagine the climax of your story, remember that we want our protagonist to be active through the whole story, you want to have an active protagonist. And the challenge for writers is that we tend to be sort of passive observers, we’re always watching what’s going on. And so when we sometimes put ourselves into the protagonists situation, sometimes the protagonist can be the least interesting character in the story. And so you want to find a way to make them active. The structure questions are always going to make your protagonist active. At the climax, you want to think about the difficult choice your protagonist makes between what he or she wants, and what they need. Okay, it’s a difficult choice. So that’s an action of making a choice, I’m thinking you’re protected has to make an ad take an action between what they want and what they need. So, so think in terms of like, let’s say, I want justice. But I believe that when I get revenge, justice will be done. So what I want is, is actually revenge. Okay, I want them to pay. And what I need is to have compassion. Okay. So in other words, the end of the story, the climax of the story is we’re going to reframe our relationship to the theme, ie justice. And so I’m going to put my protagonist in a situation where you can have to make a difficult choice between what he wants revenge. And what he needs is compassion. That’s that. In other words, if it’s not a difficult choice, he would have made the choice in Act One. But it’s, uh, it has to be difficult. And it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes we call it the battle scene, the climax of the story, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t have to be an external battle. It can be an internal battle. Okay. So so it doesn’t have to be it. It can be an internal battle that gets dramatize, like if you think about Holly Hunter, in broadcast news. The battle scene is her staring at a plane ticket on a bench at the airport. Because William Hurt says, here’s the ticket. And she’s she what she wants is there to be his she wants her to be integrity in broadcast journalism, but what she needs is to have integrity. So when William Hurt crosses the line, and fakes a tear in this interview, she’s furious and she wants him to take responsibility for it so that she can go after this exotic island for a week and frolic with him. But he’s not going to and and so she is forced to make a difficult choice within herself. Am I going to get on the plane with William Hurt? Or am I going to get back in the cab and and so that’s the battle scene, but it’s still active, she makes the choice of getting into the cab. So you want to find a way for your protagonist to make a difficult choice between what they want with there’s always outside of themselves, ie William Hurt, and what they need which is always within I’m going to do the right thing.

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