Thursday, February 18, 2016

The problems with detailed outlines in sitcoms.

It was something like two weeks ago when I visited Ken Levine's blog, where he was telling his loyal readers about the importance of detailed outlines. They are the key to being successful and if you don't like them, you shouldn't be a writer.

Here are some of the biggest reasons why I disagree and will argue that these outlines aren't necessarily that beneficial. When it comes to writing and producing network television shows, here's why detailed outlines might cause you problems:

1) It's not easy to make sense out of them.

When you'll read a detailed outline, amazingly enough, you don't get a nice synopsis of what the storylines are going to be about. There's no structural scene by scene description that would give the reader an easy access to know what's going on.

Instead you'll get two things: 1) walls of text that are difficult to read and 2) occasional test dialogue that won't go anywhere. There's absolutely no sense of pacing, rhythm or time whatsoever in these detailed outlines.

In my opinion nothing's more important than getting a solid feel for the script and how it's going to flow. When the outline mostly consists of sentences that have bland descriptions and 'temporary' stuff, how can you know that it's going to work?

2) Nobody wants to read them, including the network executives.

It's true that network executives want to be aware of what's going on with their shows. They want to be able to control their products and give notes so that they can feel more important about themselves and their careers.

At the same time, it's not a secret that they don't like to read these 'detailed' outlines that much. Who can even blame them when they get confused and start asking questions, when it's obvious that the writers aren't leveling with them.

If you want to keep the executives happy, it shouldn't be that difficult to create a proper format that clearly explains a) what the essential things in the script are going to be and b) when and where they are going to happen. 

3) Outlines make you think your story works even if it doesn't.

No matter how bad and weak your storylines are, most outlines will make them look at least semi-plausible. Thanks to the muddled format, it's almost impossible to tell whether the premise of your episode has enough potential or not.

In fact, the story logic problems in your outline might be so big that you could drive a truck through them - and you still wouldn't notice them. There's a really good chance that you didn't pay attention to them and that later you are going to be in trouble.

I mean, I don't want to sound like a jerk, but do the showrunners prefer detailed outlines because these outlines make it look like they have achieved something? Perhaps they like to think that they've worked hard and that their storylines are better than they really are.

4) You'll get the most basic storylines and resolutions.

Creating detailed outlines unfortunately has a lot to do with coming up with stuff that we have already seen a million times before. Too many times you get the most basic problems and then the most basic resolutions to these problems.

The reason this happens so easily is that 'detailed' outlines don't let you think (feel) for yourself enough. The chances are that you'll think too much on a macro-level and won't get any emerging ideas from actually feeling your characters.

For example, on Modern Family they have done like a dozen times 'storylines' that climax when one of the characters accidentally overhears someone else talking. Clearly this is a result of going through the same macro-motions over and over again.

5) You simply can't plan everything.

Finally, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with planning your episodes or in trying to make sure that all the right building blocks are there. It would obviously be stupid and irresponsible not to map ahead and not be prepared.
At the same time, in order to be able to come up with the best kind of stuff, you need to have the confidence to go out on a limb too. It's crucial that you have the ability to live in the moment, and that you'll let yourself feel and not just 'think'.

The truth is that if you want to write something that genuinely touches people, you need to be willing to take chances. If you're too willing to outline your scripts to death, the end result is almost certainly going to be that same old, same old stuff.

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