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


Film Courage: What are things you see most
beginning writers get wrong with writing an outline? Alan Watt, Author, Screenwriter and Founder
of L.A. Writers’ Lab: Plot. So many writers think that writing an outline
is figuring out their plot. There’s something very satisfying about
coming up with the plot. They are like Oh here…I’ve got it!But
here is the problem, again Einstein says you can’t solve a problem at the same level
of consciousness that created the problem. Every story begins with a dramatic problem. And what happens is (ever writer has had 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 are trying to make these characters
interesting but you feel like they are pieces on a chest board that you are trying to move
around. And so it’s important to understand that
story structure is not about plotting. Story structure is about the DNA of your protagonist’s
transformation. So what you really want to do is you want
to start to be curious about your protagonist’s dilemma because when you really understand
the nature of their struggle, nature of their dilemma, it becomes the source of your story
and it starts to pay off in silver dollars. It starts to give you all sorts of ideas,
images and scenarios that are going to become your plot. So here is what I would suggest, if you want
to come up with a great outline, the first thing we do in the 90-day novel and the 90-day
screenplay 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 the story is never the whole
story, if you start to outline your idea of your story you are 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 are going to surprise you. They are going to be alive. They are going to start doing things that
you might not have been imagined had you forced them into your prescribed outline. 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 in the outline whatsoever. Now that you’ve got all of this raw material
you start to see how they are relating. Let me give you an example, you would never
if you were writing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, what does he want? He wants to leave Bedford Falls in order to
have a wonderful life. The mid-point of that is where Mr. Potter
offers Jimmy Stewart a job. That would never…it you are outlining your
story that has nothing to do with what Jimmy Stewart wants. Mr. Potter is the devil, he’s the enemy. Why would he ever offer him a job, that wouldn’t
make any sense. But if you are imagining the world of the
story you come up with the mid-point structure questions which is how is your protagonist
experience temptation. It might occur to you that the devil would
tempt him with a big job offer. That’s where I feel like how I teach story
structure is different. I’ve been told it’s different than everybody
and it’s because there is no plotting at all. There are these structure questions, they
are experiential questions. We are exploring your protagonist’s experience
at key stages in the journey. I hesitate to say “the hero’s journey”
because then people get the fixed idea “Oh! You are teaching The Hero’s Journey.” No, I’m actually not. 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 reluctance at the end of the first act, the false hope (which we
just talked about) and now we’re talking about the mid-point, temptation. And then suffering toward the end of the second
act and then finally surrender at 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 reversal). Film Courage: As someone already figuring
out the ending in that before they are figuring this outline you said think about it for a
week. Think about 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? Al: Both…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 that I give my students
to experience the end and it’s a two-part exercise. I say imagine your protagonist 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 relating differently than they
were at the beginning and what do they understand that they didn’t understand at the beginning? Do that everyday, do that for 10 minutes every
day. And 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 these other characters, plot naturally emerges. But you are not figuring anything out. If you try to figure it out you are going
to get stuck. And then the second thing you want to do is
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 are always watching what is going on. And so when we sort of put ourselves into
the protagonist’s situation, sometimes the protagonist can be the least interesting character
in the. 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. It’s a different choice so that’s an action. I’m making a choice so your protagonist
has to take an action between what they want and what they need. So think in terms of let’s say I want justice
but I believe that when I get revenge justice will be done. So what I want is actually revenge, 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 are going to reframe out relationship with the theme (i.e., justice)
and so I’m going to put my protagonist in a situation where he can make a difficult
choice between what he wants (revenge) and what he needs (is compassion). In other words if it’s not a difficult choice
he would have made the choice in act one but 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
have to be an external battle, it can be an internal battle that gets dramatized. 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.” What she wants is for there 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 off to this exotic island for a week and frolic with him. But he’s not going to. 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 so that’s the battle scene but it’s
still active. She makes the choice of getting back into
the cab. So you want to find a way for your protagonist
to make a difficult choice between what they want which is always outside of themselves
(i.e., William Hurt) and what they need which is always within (I’m going to do the right
thing).

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

  1. He's right that when I outline, I think I'm figuring out the plot. However, due to my life with a day job, I am forced to think about the world long before I touch a keyboard.

  2. ABSOLUTELY!!!

    Okay, yes… I'm a GM (Game Master for the uninitiated)… AND that means I spend a HUGE amount of time doing mostly "worldbuilding"… That's the deal. It's something I'm pretty good at.
    BUT there's still a fair amount of story involved. From legends, lore, folk-tales, nursery rhymes (when that's a thing)… ALL of it comes from me. It is (after all) my job to build the world/setting… and then I get to integrate the Players' Characters, their backstories (however askewed those get…lolz) into that world and as the game unfolds I'm detailed with telling the Players' Stories for them.
    Dice take care of the "randomness" from having a skill or ability (I can do it) to the concrete tangible effort (I actually DO it this time)… They take away the burden of judgment from my shoulders and keep the "game" fair… because heroes have to struggle, or it's no longer a story about heroes, but a chore we did. (make sense?)

    SO I like this convo' about outlining, because I think I may have slipped into this same pitfall of concepts myself… probably why I don't fare so well in constructing a publishable work like a novel or screenplay… I can contribute plenty, easily… always have. BUT putting the thing together entirely on my own… not really so much.
    Games, are different… There's just so much that lies squarely on the Players to do… I can happily construct worlds, monsters, gangs and affiliations, politics, religions, cults, factions…etc…etc…etc…etc…etc… AND wait for them to find whatever is interesting at the moment and go after it. I tell THEIR stories… infusing the occasional tidbits of my own along the way as appropriate (or comically when completely inappropriate… because LOLZ damnit)

    BUT yes, I spend a LONG time considering the world I'm working on in a mental explorative sense before I've bothered to set the first pen to paper, pencil to diagram or grid, or typed even the first header for the first section of general concepts. ;o)

  3. He's so right cause boy oh boy i been kinda stuck. This is really good advice and it reminds me of one of the older interviews where he spoke about just creating the world that the story takes place in. Visualization really is important

  4. I agree with this approach for novel writing too. It’s how I approached my novel, and so much great stuff spilled out of how I envisioned my protagonist in his world.

  5. In my opinion he is partly wrong. It can depend on what kind of genre though, like thriller mostly needs to be thoughtout before hand. All in all it doesnt matter to differentiate plot between character, they are both the same thing. If you have a plot in mind, its fine, all it is – is how the main character acts on those obstacles by hitting all those beats along the way. Character is character, plot are just problems.

  6. The story world is always my main priority when preparing an outline because it gives you the foundation to which you can write your story in. The plot is a secondary concern, but if you don't have a world for the plot to live and exist in, you're left with very bland walls with no interior decorating.

  7. awesome advices !! now I'll start from the world of my story because honestly I'm not making any advice by overthingking the plot, you did it again Film Courage

  8. I found his notes on the structure of Act II (Midpoint Temptation, Suffering, Surrender) useful. Will we hear more about Act structure in other videos?

  9. Ive been having trouble with writing stories and I just finished Breaking Bad and realized how important the characters are, not the plot, but how these characters act by themselves and around others

  10. Another gem of a video. Honestly it is not possible to listen to one screenwriter and get all the info you need. Everyone has their own process and there is no definitive way to do it. There are various similarities and structure that has to be similar but each writer has their own way imagining things and solving problems. Artists by nature let the creative mind figure things out as needed. There are no insurmountable obstacles, it just takes time and thought.

  11. I love this: "the choice is between what they want, which is outside of themselves, and what they need, which is always within." Beautifully said, Alan!

  12. I've been doing this correctly at least; I stepped back from my outline to understand the world my characters live in first. Through thst I came to understand what sort of characters they would meet and how they could go about meeting their goal (whether they do or not.) It also made the world look larger and the story seem smaller (therefore more believable, in my mind) and make all the other side characters have stronger actionsthat affect the overall story rather than my main characters have to take the wheel the whole way through.

    Or something like that.

  13. You guys doing awesome job.. These kind of videos are very precious to intial screenwriters.. Thanks a lot 😇

  14. No skilled writer gives a damn about plot, structure or advice. They’ll whole their story their way and if you need it [advice] you shouldn’t be screenwriting.

    What most “screenwriters” get wrong is trying to leapfrog the short story writing, the essays and letters by jumping straight into “da cool shit”: screenwriting. Laughable.

  15. I am SO grateful that he gave an example! Especially with a film that almost everyone knows. Examples are so helpful when trying to apply a theory. It just opens up understanding so much more. When I am in the process of learning something, anything, I look for examples. Great explanation and example of the dilemma! He also said, ''If you try to figure it out you're going to get stuck.''  and then gave an example of how to not figure it out but to imagine your protagonist at the end of the story. I just got unstuck! Thanks so much!

  16. This makes me feel so much better about my weird process haha. I’ll have a rough idea for a story, but then I walk around on my lunch break for a week or two thinking about the characters and how they would interact, what they would say, how they would say it, if they would say it or not. I put them in situations leading up to the things I want to happen, and sometimes that develops the plot, sometimes not. I actually have most of it figured out in my head before I ever write anything down. If it sticks with me, I know I’m gonna be interested in writing it, if I forget about it, then I know it’s probably not what I wanna do.

  17. When I was creative writing I'd have the title, my characters in my series and the characters would basically tell me where to go with it. I never knew where the story would go. My characters did who evolved. I stopped writing at 50 stories as I found more fun with art. But found the same with my art. Get the supplies, had a picture in my head what to do with my animal and it never ends up the way I think it will. More over there, less over there, no that animal doesn't work etc.

  18. Wow..wow…wow… Thank you Film Courage and Mr. Watt. This just solidified a screenplay that I have written. It started with an outline, BUT I took on the psychological side of my protagonist and moved away from the plot. Just looked him up on iMDB Pro. I am definitely following him there and with more videos you make. I would more than love to meet and talk with him one day! Again, thank you Film Courage!

  19. Once I have a kernel of a story idea, I let it ruminate and brew in my head, forming the concept. The main character(s) and world appear out of that. Once I have the concept framed, I start the outline.

  20. Great video. I tend to imagine my world and character long before I write, but then my mind goes to the plot when I outline. This is a really articulate way of explaining how character suggests plot, not the other way around. I'll definitely try this approach in my rewrite.

  21. Plot isn’t the structure, it’s called story structure. Build your plot around your characters and themes so that the plot and the story go together

  22. Fantastic! I rarely take notes during a video, but I did this time. Now, my "difficult choice" is whether to completely rewrite my novel.

  23. Thank you for this. I've always had a conflict with making an outline for characters. This makes sense. Following.

  24. I'm writing a story right now, and quite stuck. Maybe someone out there can help?
    See, Jackie Chan wants to have a love scene in one of his movies. He never, ever gets to have one. Even Steven Seagal has had the honors of acting romantic encounters. Jackie decides to enlist the help of Bridget Chase to transport him to the set of the movie 'Arthur', because as everyone knows, Jackie Chan loves him no one more than that hot actress Jennifer Garner. However upon this Quantum Hollywood leap, Jackie is encountered by a Mandela Effect Traveling Nicholas Cage brandishing a devious mustache. Said Mustached-Star steals Jennifer by way of floating Pirate Ship. Jackie is devastated; so, Bridget decides with the right help they can track her down and retrieve her like all good leading men do. Together the two seek out the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band. More specifically, the Robot-Dog-Space-Drummer, Dook LaRue whom has Tom Hanks' face CGI-ed onto it. With a mystical drum solo by Tom-Hanks-Dook-LaRue-CGI-Face the two heroes are given the whereabouts of that infinitely hot actress and her current Alias. And, here is where I am stuck…
    I'm unsure as to whether Jackie Chan would kill Mustached-Nickolas-Pirate-Cage for the chance to sleep with Jennifer Garner. Or, if he'll be like Batman and defeat his enemy morally but release him for further/later devious deed and not partake of any congratulatory sex. Will Jackie's good boy antics, the same chivalrous behaviors which has excluded him from sexual encounters in movies, keep him from attaining his sole mission? Or will he make the necessary change to achieve his dreams of sampling those Garner titties?

  25. I dunno…. plot informs character, character informs plot. Start from either side, just as long as you do the other side with vigor.

  26. I start with, where is my protagonist in his/her life emotionally when we first meet them? I hardly ever outline, only one when I wrote a crime/drama and was a necessity to keep an inventory of the clues of the murder. I never know what happens after the first scene and that is the fun part, the surprise element, its like seeing a film for the first time. Love this guy, amazing examples to back up his argument. Will order his back. Thank YOU, Film Courage and please send my gratitude to Mr. Watt for taking the time and gift us with his knowledge of screenwriting.

  27. I really love the idea of not outlining in the beginning, but this "want/need" dichotomy is something I hope will be considered corny bullshit in 10 years. It's just not life! Your choices don't present themselves to you in that manner. Maybe your choice turns out to be exactly what you needed, but that's judgement ex post. The character needs to have two choices which would both be appealing to him and the reader.

  28. I have the opposite problem – good at creating interesting characters and worlds but not interesting plots

  29. He is absolutely right about the first mistake people make in an outline. I personally fell into this trap of plotting and ended up with dead characters, who were just serving the plot. With asking the right questions including making my characters have a dilemma instead of a problem, I was able to make my story very character driven and it's so much more interesting now. These interviews are so valuable in my writing process!

  30. 5:55 – you want a PROACTIVE protagonist, not a active one. You can be active, but not proactive = problem. And passive characters should be removed all together (unless they support the protagonist in specific way).

  31. For character-based dramas, it goes without saying that you should start with the characters, but I can't imagine a film like Inception or E.T. being written that way. These films are memorable because of the peculiar circumstances of the plot, which would probably work even if the characters had a different set of inner demons to overcome along the way.

  32. I think I see his point. I was stuck at the ending of my novel because the original planned ending no longer fit. I was in despair, trying to think of an alternative way to say what the original ending tried to say. I couldn't. I finally reversed my thinking by asking: What does the protagonist represent? What does he want to achieve? And what needs to happen to achieve it? It worked.

  33. I needed to hear this, thank you Film Courage and Alan! Alan, did you play the Food counter employee on Seinfeld where Kramer buys the 100 year old hot dog and you say "This hot dog has been here since the silent era… you'd have to be insane to eat it." =) One of the funniest scenes lol. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nwd6gztJTd8

  34. I feel bad for people in this field. I haven't seen a movie in like 2 years?!? I must not be normal. I would rather read a book or practice algebra than watching movies.

  35. That sounds great… for american stories, for the current way stories work, focused on character development. Many people act like that's the only way.

  36. I have a warm/cold relationship with this channel. On one hand, the interviewees are all consultants and teachers that make their living off of other writers. I don’t trust their rules or guidelines. But on the other hand, the interviewees are people that read and work on a lot of scripts and they sometimes make a very good point about why certain things happen. My policy with these videos is to be skeptical of rules or guidelines or anything that sounds like a PowerPoint presentation, but to listen out for interesting tidbits. Like his point here about how “writers often write passive protagonists, because writers are themselves passive people IRL” hits the nail on the head in regards to so many writers. Stuff like that flags me on what to watch out for in my own writing; to not assume that my thought process is the same as the protagonist’s. This is one of those channels that I’m skeptical of but begrudgingly check in on because it’s sometimes informative.

  37. John Updike said for a writer, the two happiest moments are when they get an idea, and drives around imagining the story, and when the finished book comes through his mail slot from the publisher.

  38. superficial
    i was also thought DRiFTING
    (90% perspiration & 10% inspiration)
    just write around in imagination you'll be amaze to see what you're left with

  39. It's not about plot, story, entertainment or characters in modern movies and TV. What is absolutely paramount and the main priority is forcing toxic feminism onto the audience as much as is humanly possible.

    All women must be strong, empowered, superior, supreme badass independent wahman that certainly don't need no man. All men (especially those nasty white heterosexual ones) must be portrayed as weak, inferior, stupid, evil, bullies and cowardly with no redeeming features at all and many times all character traits of Trump thrown in as a bonus prize.

    The females will always be inspirational and courageously brave. The wahman will either take a defiant stand or liberate herself and her fellow sisterhood from toxic masculinity, white male privilege, the patriarchy and also gender wage gaps!! She will be a complete Mary Sue character that is completely perfect in every single regard just like Rey and Captain Marvel combined. She will have no character development or growth and the movie will have no story at all but it will have is lots and and lots of feminism, misandry, gender identity politics and degradation of boys and men at every available opportunity.

    As we all know TV Shows and Movies must be about how great, superior and lovely all women are cos they have a vagina and how bad, awful and inherently evil all boys and men are because they have a penis. Thats all that matters folks!!! When it comes to entertainment these days it's clearly of the upmost importance that we send the message that all white heterosexual men are bad and all women are so perfectly strong and amazing! And we must ram this down everyones throats every 5 seconds over and over like a mantra until everyone believes it.

    Bring one gender down and destroy it to elevate and empower the other gender. Because thats what EQUALITY is all about!!!!

    And anybody that doesn't agree with the feminist indoctrination and propaganda thats not even being carefully concealed anymore is just clearly a Misogynist, a Nazi or a basement dwelling troll thats scared of strong empowered women

  40. After your script is produced and the film receives accolades from every direction, a handful of people who work for Wikipedia, IMDB, etc., will write summaries of your masterpiece. The idea of having an outline that lays out the plot is not a bad thing, your finished hit will be summed up by outlines on websites, and elsewhere. The question is, are you capable of picturing believable people engaging in believable interactions that will flesh out the plot you have imagined? Or should you use his method and write pages and pages of material that allows you to explore your characters and let the plot reveal itself? He wants you to write it all down so you can recognize the parts that are not believable, and discover the strand that is. I'm sure that there are writers who don't need to do that, and I'm equally sure that most people would benefit from using that approach. I don't write because I know that writing good stuff requires skill that comes only after lots of hard work, and there is no guarantee that the skill needed will ever be reached.

  41. so walk a mile in your protag's shoe–with the plot in mind–and the beats of temptation, suffering, transformation as contingency. got it, i'll get back to you in 39 years.

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