The Word for Writers
How to Outline a Book or Screeenplay on a Single Sheet of Paper
by Marilyn Ellsworth
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[Previously printed in 'ScreenTalk Magazine' and 'The Hollywood Screenwriter Magazine,' and referred to in the filmology book PRACTICAL DV FILMMAKING by Russell Evans, 2002, ch. 4:4 'Screenwriting.']
Everyone has a story to tell. Whether we write for pleasure, emotional therapy, just to communicate an idea or for a living, writers need keen organizational skills. In the organization of most everything, "Divide to Conquer" is one of the greatest tips you will ever receive. Divide and group everything into its least complicated form. In the following technique, you will see how every concept in a movie outline was reduced into one to three words in order to fit the entire outline onto one two-sided sheet of 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper, replete with working codes.
My first screen script developed from all the above because it was my own true story. One day my son and I were discussing problems within the domestic relations legal system in our state. I was then the founder of a state-wide legislative reformation movement to correct the ills within the court system. Our family had recently been traumatized by the death of a young member who overdosed to avoid being used as chattel by the courts.
The Bible teaches that lies actually become murderous instruments to the spirit of a person. Therefore, I contended aloud that the courts' complacency toward them was an act of "more than murder," in my son's words, in that young man's death. It stood poised to kill an entire system of justice for one and all. My story told of the Florida's courts' disregard for facts or statute in one case and of my determination to change those penchants. Nothing can stop a timely idea in the clutches of a determined people. More than three million people supported the agenda I proposed. I felt that interest generated a need to know the story behind the movement.
That term, "more than murder," rolled over in my mind for more than five years before I decided to write a movie about it. By that time, my legislative endeavors had resulted in 16 new statutes and vast revisions to old ones. I finally had something to say. "More Than Murder" became the title of my first script. An agent contracted with me almost immediately upon seeing the outline, and I attribute that to careful planning as well as having something important to say.
Sorting through what could be told of a true story to get to should be told was a major problem, limited to a maximum of 200 pages, the standard length of a feature film. To do this, I wrote a list of all the important elements of the case history and ended with about 200 of them. Accuracy being essential in relating any true story, I checked the list against the documentation to be sure my facts were straight, and placed parenthesis around all the data that could or should be lumped together. Beside those I wrote key phrases and character sketches I wanted to use to relate the story. For days I just mulled over these facts to let them form their own story link, frame by visual frame, in my mind. I imagined the sequences over and over until the shortened version formed.
I was a professional writer, but since I was not a "professional script writer," having no formal training in the craft at that time, I bought a second-hand, script-writing book for a quarter: "Writing For Film and Television" by Stewart Bronfeld. It was, by far, the best buy I've ever made to date.
It gave me all the essentials of formats, time and page restraints, set layouts and camera shots. It also gave me the key to orchestrating the emotional pitches of the story, which is an ingredient most books I've read since that time omit. Most television screenplays are created with basically six commercial stops that subtract approximately 18 minutes of story time from each hour of story.
I must admit, I prayed a lot over the information before I began. I wanted it right. I wanted it educational as well as entertaining, applicable for every person who watched it. And I wanted it to touch their hearts, personally, because, good and bad, it was my own story.
The first thing I had to do was create a quick and easy resource for including and double checking all my facts onto a single sheet of paper. This idea was a logical, calculated deduction. Using a standard sheet of paper, and leaving a blank one-inch header-space across the length of it that became the "top", I cordoned off a grid of three lengthwise columns on each side of the paper.
In the top one inch I titled the script, wrote the copyright information, and dated the left side. Below that I wrote a one-sentence summary that introduced the movie theme. These one-liners are used by agents and producers to interest others in the script with the least amount of words possible. I chose a Biblical quote, "Any story sounds true until someone tells the other side."
The right side of the one-inch space I reserved to write a directory of the codes I would use throughout the outline. I abbreviated each characters name, and logged those two-and-three-letter codes there. This became my visual work-board for framing each step of the script.
Between the two sides of paper I had six horizontal rows. I wanted to create my script for a two-and-a-half hour made for television show, hence, the six divisions on my paper to allow plans for commercial breaks at the end of each row.
Across the width of the paper, I divided those rows into five cubes each, for a total of fifteen cubes per side of paper. Each long row of five cubes was to represent a twenty-five minute block of story time. Twenty-five minutes divided by five (blocks) leaves each cube representing approximately five or six minutes of story time. It's an industry fact that each page of script represents roughly a minute of finished story so I knew I would be limited to about six pages to tell each portion of the story represented by a block of outline.
I like fast-paced, multi-faceted stories, so I used two main characters, two sub-ordinate supporting characters, and many bit parts to keep four story lines interacting. This method of organization helped me keep tabs on interlacing the parties and their activities.
I wrote the outline using five to nine lines of three to five key words to express each separate thought within each block, expressing six to ten thoughts on each cube. For instance, the first cube said, "Open w/ wedding. Ph call interruption. Threats & promises," etc. That translated into five or six pages of formatted script per cube.
I used the right side of the header to note how much time and how many pages each cube represented, by this simple equation: "200 pgs divided by 6 breaks=30-33 cubes @ 5-6.5 pgs each." This is especially important if you are a prolific writer and work on various overlapping projects with different criteria. You will need the gentle reminder to jog your memory whenever you change projects, and especially if you must stop often for long periods of time.
Once you've determined where in the story you want to start and how the story will end, the middle is easy to develop. The limits of true stories are the facts themselves. However, to meet the time requirements of movies made for television, there is an added consideration involved with telling a true story: that is, one must never omit an important fact that can change the value of the truth being told into quasi-fiction. Such an omission has both legal and ethical ramifications I can't cover in this article.
As I created my outline, I plotted each five-cubed row of story to include the basic elements of storytelling: drama, action, suspense, reflection, and decision. I planned each ending scene so it could be broken into for a commercial break, but if unbroken it flowed directly into the next area of the story well. That makes the script ideal for television or the big screen.
To tell the voluminous facts in the smallest amount of space in the script, I regularly used montages throughout. In the outline I capitalized what I wanted to include in each montage in one-word "snapshots" like "MOVED," "CRIED," "BREAKS," "PLAYS," etc. I coded "montage = CAPS" in the top inch of the paper.
When I had the entire story outlined, I made three copies to double-check my completion of thoughts and actions. I colored each theme with magic markers:
1. First, I color-coded every person's parts as I checked the story, to be sure I recorded all their pertinent activities and statements.
2. Second, using another copy, I color-coded all the actions. For instance, if I introduced a piece of evidence in the first cube, did it show up appropriately used later?
3. The third thing I checked was statements I wanted to include, points I wanted to make, and issues I wanted to address.
When I was certain I had coordinated all the information, to relate the side of the story I wanted to tell, I began to write the script. It began with a disclaimer, intended to be used as a story "hook." That's a thought that immediately involves the reader or viewer and keeps them interested.
Mine reads: "This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. There was no protection for the innocent." Then the story could flow from scene to scene easily. Using standard screen script indentation, and character capitalization, I looked at page count only to keep my information contained within the maximum number I had set for pages per cube.
Sometimes I could keep within five pages the story outline allotted. If I went a little over, I'd mark another cube where I thought I might be able to shorten the story. Here's a key I try to abide by. It's one of my personal apothegms. "Whatever you would say, Wisdom would say in half the words." I could have used all of 2,000 pages, but I did it in 208.
All told, the creation of that first script took less than two weeks from start to finish.
1. About an hour to make the list of things I thought should be included in the script.
2. Another two days were spent checking my initial list against documentation, making a cross-referenced set of the documents for posterity and make notes;
3. Two days to create and double-check my outline;
4. Five eight-hour days to complete typing the actual script; and
5. About three days to check my formatting and print the script out. Not bad considering that it was my first full-length, movie script writing endeavor.
There is no doubt in my mind that any writer can perfect this technique. It has great benefits, due primarily to its miniscule size. It can be taken almost anywhere for convenient reviewing on breaks from other jobs, at doctor's offices, in the grocery line, rocking the baby. If you use legal paper and leave one end blank, you can mail it to yourself in its own wrapper to secure a certifiable creation postmarked date. That way, even if your final script is infringed upon along the production way, you can definitely determine the day you created it. Finally, this one neat page fits inconspicuously into your (hopefully) voluminous scrapbook.
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