The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello, and welcome to another installment of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig Mazin: Hello, John.
John: That’s Craig Mazin, my name is John August. This is our third installment of the show. We are now listed on iTunes, which is a feeling of kind of legitimacy.
Craig: Yeah, we are big time now. You know in my day, podcasts were carved into wax disks and sold.
John: And really it was the job of the fastest young man in the village to carry those wax disks from one village to the next village, and all that sort of noble tradition has really gone away since we grew up.
Craig: Yeah, you and I grew up in the 1500s in England.
John: Yeah, talk about the 1500s. My daughter has no sense of history whatsoever because kids aren’t born with that — they don’t realize that the world existed before they were born — and I remember showing her Curious George, one of the stories. Curious George is at the hospital and he climbs on this record player and starts spinning around, it’s like a merry-go-round and he falls off the record player.
Craig: Yeah, I remember that one.
John: And my daughter thought that was great and I am like, “Do you know what that thing is he climbed on?” She had no idea. “It plays music.” She is like “No, it doesn’t play music.”
Craig: Right. Why would it, it seems ridiculous.
John: So that was one of the charming good things about having a kid, but we have a follow-up question from last week and so I thought we would talk about it.
John: “I wanted to ask you about something that was touched upon by you and Craig during the last podcast on how to find a manager or agent. In the opening, you both mentioned that having children can be difficult for a screenwriter and at one point you even humorously stated that ‘children are the death of all screenwriters.’ You have got me thinking and I was wondering if you could elaborate on your experiences as a screenwriter before and after having your kid.”
He goes on to say that he and his wife are hoping to have children and —
Craig: Oh good, I thought they may be contemplating killing their children.
John: Hopefully yes, so it’s a pre-father wanting to have our experience as a screenwriter with and without kids, so what’s different about having kids than not having kids as a screenwriter?
Craig: Well, I suppose this should sort of go without saying, but having kids is a far more impressive achievement than writing a screenplay, and creating a human being is the most creative thing you can do. That comes first.
I mean, don’t get us wrong. We are not advising you to not have children. You should have children, but certainly when you have a kid, your energies and your tensions are divided. You are now living to support another person and they have their own demands of your time.
And I think we all walk around with a kind of tape playing, especially screenwriters. I mean if you are a screenwriter you have written at some point in your career a movie where the main character is a dad who is not spending enough time with his kids.
So that’s constantly playing in the back of your head as you deal with your own kids. And so you just don’t want to be a bad dad, you want to be a good guy, you want to spend time with your kids and you love them. And it just so happens that when you do all that stuff, sometimes you find yourself tired and kind of creatively exhausted and you don’t want to do it.
John: Screenwriting is inherently kind of a selfish activity because you are going off by yourself and insisting on some form of quiet time to just be staring at your computer and writing these things. And that works really well through a lot of your 20s where you can basically be selfish and you can sort of go off or you can stay up all night working on a draft because you are inspired to work all night. And with a kid, you just can’t do that.
If you pull an all-nighter, you have ruined the next day, and whereas in your pre-child days you could just do a cover and go be a zombie all day, if you actually have to get your kid off to school in the morning that becomes much more challenging.
Craig: Yeah. And there is all these opportunities for procrastination. I mean I love — my son plays baseball — I love going to his baseball practices and his baseball games and getting him ready for baseball and taking him to baseball lessons and I do love all of that. It’s also fantastic procrastination, but I get to procrastinate under the guise of being the best dad ever. Just very seductive.
John: Yeah. We also have the luxury and curse of having very little structured time, so at any given moment we probably could be doing parenting things. So there is no reason why you couldn’t drop off your kid at school every day and pick him up every day and be a room parent and be doing all those things except for the fact that you are supposed to be writing and being creative. So I definitely want to come down on the pro-child side, but it definitely is a huge adjustment.
And I find that I have to be much more rigorous about, this is the time when I’m writing, this is the time when the door is shut. When the door is shut, she is not allowed to come out and bother me because this is the time I’m doing that. And other times during the day where I really can go in and play, I’ll go in and play.
Craig: Yeah, I have an office that’s about 15 minutes from my house. And that’s made a big difference. I used to have, we have a little log cabin on my property that was built there way back in the old days. The guy who used to live there, I guess he wanted to gamble, and his wife wouldn’t let him gamble in the house, so he built a cabin. He’s a cool guy.
And so I used to have my office back there. And my son would just wander in, fling the door open, fling the bathroom door open, sit down, and start using the toilet with the door open while talking to me while I was writing. That was when it occurred to me that — he was young; I don’t want to give the impression that he’s 19, and he does that — and I realized I had to get an office. And I do feel like, if you have kids at home, there’s some kind of physical separation has to — I mean you have like a little, some kind of back house or something, right?
John: Yeah, so we built a room over the garage. And so for the first three-and-a-half years of my daughter’s life, she didn’t understand that when I went off to work, I was actually just going up 20 steps. And so I’d make the big show, like, going off to work. So sometimes she’d realize, oh, he forgot to take his car. But she didn’t put it all together. And then eventually one day she discovered, oh, he’s actually right out there.
And she had constructed some alternate narrative about why my assistant, who at that time was Matt, was working downstairs. He was just like a guy who was there sometimes. She didn’t understand that he worked for me, that he worked for us. He was just a guy who sat at a computer out there sometimes. So she would see him, but not understand that I was right upstairs, because I was being quiet.
Craig: Yeah. I tell people, if I meet somebody who’s right out of college, and they want to be a screenwriter, I’ll say, look, here’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is, I’m better at this than you are just because I’ve been doing it longer, even if you’re the greatest screenwriter in the world, still, I’ve just done it so often and I’ve navigated the system so often, I’m just, I have the benefit of that experience. And you just don’t have it yet and it’s going to take you time to get it.
On the plus side, you’re way less tired than I am. You should be able to write three screenplays for every one screenplay I write.
John: Yeah. You have, in your youth, in your 20s, you have, just, energy. You can just keep going. You have that sort of un-killable serial-killer-from-a-movie kind of quality where you can dust yourself off and keep going. And your energy does flag a bit when you’re trying to raise a kid as well.
With time and experience and craft, my first drafts are much better than my first drafts were when I was in my 20s. I really know how to do it now. So I don’t have to pull as many all-nighters because I can just get stuff done the right way the first time more often. But it’s a very different thing.
Craig: Yeah. So, have the kid, but…
John: Have the kid, yeah.
Craig: …But sorry, it’s going to put a crimp in. By the way, there’s a few other things it puts a crimp in. So add screenwriting to a long list.
John: Let’s go on and talk about our main topic today, which is outlining. We’ve been talking about WGA politics. We’ve been talking about career-y kind of stuff. But I want to talk really more, sort of words on the page, and sort of the daily thing of writing that screenwriters are supposed to theoretically be doing. And outlining is an important part of that.
And by outlining I mean it in a very general sense, all the sort of pre-planning you do about what’s going to happen in your script before you actually start, or even while you’re writing your screenplay. So it’s not the scene work, but the other work that doesn’t look like a screenplay but ends up becoming important for figuring out what’s happening in your story, when it’s happening, and what’s going on.
How do you start? Are you a whiteboard person, are you an index card person? How do you start beating out a story?
Craig: Yeah, I’m kind of an index card person. And I say kind of an index card person, because I feel like there’s actually a step before the index card person. I mean really, I’m a shower person. In thinking about it, all the fundamental breakthroughs that occur usually happen because I’m standing in the shower for 20 minutes thinking. And I don’t know why. That’s just where it happens, mostly.
John: That’s exactly where it happens for me, too.
Craig: Yeah. Shower. I don’t know, there’s something about that. And it’s sort of my little sacred place where no one can come in, and I’m alone, and I can just let my mind wander. And ideally I like to try to figure out the biggest things.
Beyond the idea of the movie, what does this main character want? What is the dramatic argument of the movie, the theme, whatever you want to call it, and what would be the most interesting story to kind of get this person from where they are to where they need to be? And I just start thinking there. But yeah, eventually I’d go to note cards.
John: The main ways I see screenwriters breaking stories is either index cards where each index card has one or two, or maybe it’s up to 10 words, that describe an important beat of the story. So, it’s not necessarily a scene, but it’s a thing that happened. So, if you write an action movie, it would be an action set piece. If it were a thriller, it might be a major reversal. So, some way of breaking down the important moments of your screenplay.
And those could be, you might have 30 cards for a movie, you might have 10 cards for a movie, you might have 100 cards for a movie. If you have 100 cards for a movie, you’re probably making too many index cards.
Craig: Too many cards.
John: Too many cards. But cards, here’s what I’ll say that’s good about cards is that it’s very easy to take up a beat and move it someplace else, and sort of lay them all out on a table and figure out how stuff works. A lot of people like to tape them up on the wall, or use Post-It Notes. When I do index cards — and I don’t always do index cards — I really like to have a big, flat table that it’s just much easier to sort of move them around. And, if you’re having to write with somebody, the table is good, because you can both stand there and take a look at this map that you’ve laid out. It’s like, this is how we would go through it. So, that’s index cards.
You can also do different colors for different kinds of beats. So, if you have action beats that are always on red cards…
Craig: Yeah, some people — and they color code them for the characters, so you can see, I haven’t been with this character in a long time.
Lately, what I’ve been doing is kind of short-circuiting the card thing entirely, and actually just recording my voice. I’ll sit with my assistant, and I just start talking through what I want to do. And I record it, and in talking, just as in the act, the physical act of writing, you can start writing.
There’s something about talking it through, where you can arrive at things, it unlocks you a little bit. The enemy of writing is silence, and inactivity. So, talking it out loud seems to be a big help. Now, I’ll take that, she’ll sort of take everything that I’ve recorded, summarize out the crap where you know, I’ll say, “You know what, not that — this,” and then she puts it into Microsoft Word and now I have an actual outline outline.
John: And then 20 years from now it’ll be like The Raiders of Lost Ark sessions, and someone will unearth the original audio and the original transcripts, and say, like, “Wow, that is how the Hangover III got figured out.”
Craig: Right. Except the opposite of that, in terms of its interest to people. Like, “Wow, this is the least interesting recording of notes ever.”
John: And that’s one thing I was using more when I was doing TV shows is the whiteboard. And the whiteboard is sort of ubiquitous in television-land as you’re figuring out your episode. You might be figuring out your season arcs, and you’re really figuring out this given episode, what’s happening in your episode. Generally, if you’re writing as a room, or all the writers in the room are trying to figure out how to do stuff, they’re all staring at one whiteboard, and they have everything marked down in terms of this is what’s happening.
Usually one or two people are empowered with the ability to write stuff on the whiteboard, but others…actual, just simple screenwriters use it too. I know Joss Whedon is a big whiteboard fan. You feel free to sort of erase and make a mess on a whiteboard in ways that you might not if you were doing note cards. Like oh, I have to rip up this note card and do it again. On a whiteboard, everything is sort of possible. And you can sort of scribble and draw arrows, and move stuff around.
Craig: It just seems like it would get so messy. Constantly erasing and doing and erasing and doing. Because I like to — with note cards, I use a bulletin board and thumbtacks, and obviously this is all academic, people should do whatever they want, but I like that I can, with my thing lately, is that I can make two columns. Because actually, I’m like, I don’t know why, I’m one of the few people in the world that makes the columns go columnar instead of rows. I don’t go across, I go up and down. So, as the Act One proceeds, it starts at the top of the board and slowly goes down.
And then — oh, you do that too? Oh, okay. So, that’s … so, I have one column that’s whatever the scenes are, and then to the left of that, I do a column and next to each scene, I have a card that sort of explaining why that scene matters. What is the purpose of the scene, what is the character intention. How is the story actually advanced in a way that has nothing to do with the plot, but the relationship between the characters, or the internal life of the character, and I found that that’s really useful, because it forces me to always think, “What is the point?”
You know, it’s one thing to sort of say, “I have to get from here to here, let’s have a big chase.” Okay. Well now, how could that chase actually be purposeful for advancing the character ball. And I don’t know how you’d fit all that crap onto a whiteboard.
John: It sounds like you’re writing a lot more information on each of those beats right from the very start. Let’s say, you were working on something that’s happening at the end of the first act. So, you have an idea for what the action of that is, and you’re sort of — the idea of the location: there’s going to be a big event at a carnival. So does your card say carnival, and then you have a second card that has all the detailed information about what’s happening there?
Craig: Yeah, no, I would do one card that says “Carnival — Maxwell realizes that the bottle toss game is rigged.” And then next to that I would put a card that says “Maxwell realizes that he should never have trusted So-And-So. He should have been listening to So-And-So all along; she was right.” So this way, I understand, it’s sort of like one column is what, and one column is why.
John: That does make sense. It’s a lot more detail than I ever got, and I would ever get into with cards. I’m always the person with a Sharpie, and I write three words on a card.
Craig: Oh, Okay. I see.
John: So, it’s a very different way of going about it. And I’ve seen whiteboards where they really do kind of get into that kind of detailed information, and so there will be a headline in blue marker, and then detailed stuff below it and you have to really squint to see sort of what’s in there.
John: And it’ll be one of the assistant’s jobs — like the writers’ assistant’s job — is to take iPhone snapshots of all the boards at the end of the day, and transcribe those as notes.
Craig: What I’ve been doing lately is having my assistant actually write the content of the note card on a little Word template with some sort of Sharpie-ish font. And then we can print them. And then if we want to change something, you know, I can just scribble on the card, or I can just ask her to change it, and then she can change it and print it again. Because, you know, we’ve sort of all caught up.
But, the truth is, whatever — I mean, this is my whole thing about outlining: for everybody who is sort of wondering, “Should I do it?” Listen: however you want to outline, outline. If you want to outline in great detail or less detail, it doesn’t matter. But I do think it’s really important to at least approach writing with more than just, “Okay, I have an image of a woman walking through a forest. Fade in: Forest — Morning.” These are how bad screenplays are written.
John: I will agree with you that many bad screenplays are written with just like, I have this one kind of idea, and no idea how to extrapolate from it. What I will say is that a lot of the screenplays where I’ve had the most detailed outlines, I’ve been most frustrated by the final results, and that I kind of got sandwiched in by the outline. And so some of my very, very favorite stuff I’ve written never had that level of detail or thought. So, some of them feel very organic because literally, it was like, it’s what the movie wanted to do next, versus what I as the author said should happen next.
Craig: Right. And I do agree that, I guess the way I would put it is this: You should always feel free to ignore your outline. But if all you get from your outline process is the beginning, the middle and the end, then I think you’ve already done your job. That’s … you should have some sense that you know roughly where you’re going. And if you want to play discover as you go, absolutely.
John: I’ll usually start writing the first 10 or 15 pages of a script. Then I’ll jump forward and write some stuff in the middle, and I’ll always try to write the last 10 pages of the script pretty early on in the process. Because I find that I have a lot of enthusiasm when I start a project, and part of the reason why I think that people’s first acts of screenplays tend to be so good is they have a lot of enthusiasm, and also they went back and re-wrote those first act of 30 pages a lot.
But, I have a lot of enthusiasm. I have a lot of excitement about this project. And, as I get near the end, I just have a desire to get the damn thing finished.
John: And so, I end up just kind of racing through the end, and not this last 10 pages, would otherwise not be written with the detail and care that they might be written with otherwise. So, by really focusing on those last 10 pages quite early on, I get a good sense of … it lets me write towards the middle, and it also makes that ending as rewarding as I think it could be.
A lot of times, I’ll get through this script, ultimately I’ll have to rewrite those last 10 pages.
John: But at least I knew where I was headed.
Craig: I don’t do that. I’m definitely a very linear kind of guy. In fact, I really can’t leap ahead. If I arrive in a spot where I feel like something’s wrong, I never just leap past it, I always sort of go back and try and figure out where this went wrong, because I sort of feel like — at least from my experience — whatever the little problem is now, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger and it’s just going to wobble more and more and more. So, for me, I just write really religiously in the order of the script.
But, I have to know what the ending is, so I guess that’s why I … in a way, I’m doing what you’re doing with my expanded note cards, I guess. Because that is me, sort of caring about the ending. I always know exactly what the ending is. If I don’t know what the ending is, I’m dead.
John: I’ll at least have a beat sheet, and by beat sheet, I mean, like, these are the main things that happened in the story, and sometimes I’ll do that as a spreadsheet document just so I can have neat columns and line stuff up. And one of the things I’ll do with the columns, is — especially if a movie has a lot of characters in it — I’ll keep note of which characters are in which scenes. I found this especially helpful for TV, in that you want to make sure that you’re really using your cast smartly.
So for like a TV pilot that I’m writing, I want to see: Where did I introduce this character? Did I get them in before this act break or after this act break? And so an outline that shows, “These are my scenes, this is where I think the act breaks are” — which in TV are really hard act breaks — “and this is where my characters are showing up,” is very important, especially in a pilot where you’re really introducing all these characters for the first time.
When Jordan Mechner and I were doing the Ops pilot, we would send back and forth a spreadsheet to really show and we could sign off like “You do scene 23 and I’ll do scene 36,” and pass off that way.
Craig: That’s how I worked with Scot and Todd on Hangover II. We sort of would assign chunks, because we knew what those chunks were supposed to accomplish. Then you swap them.
That’s the other thing: if you’re working with a partner, I don’t know how you can avoid outlining unless you’re literally sitting side by side playing the piano together, which is very strange to me.
John: There are some writers who do work literally side by side. I met a writing team — I can’t remember which one now — that they always write in the room together. And they essentially just have one computer that’s being shared with two monitors.
They’re a comedy team, so they have to write facing each other so they can see each other, but they’re facing their own screen. And either one of them has full control over the screen at any time.
Craig: That is weird.
John: Yeah, that feels like a three-legged race to me. But everyone works differently.
Craig: Yeah, whatever works.
John: Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, friends of ours, are never in the room together. One of them works on a draft and sends it to the other person who writes it, so 100 different ways to work.
Craig: Yeah, whatever works for you.
John: The outline that we’re talking about so far is really outlining for your own purpose. But sometimes you’re required to share those things with other people.
John: And that’s frustrating.
Craig: I kind of don’t. To be honest with you, I just don’t. I always say “Look, I have an outline and it’s in my own weird reverse Polish notation and you wouldn’t understand it.” I’m like “I wrote it in reverse mirror writing.”
So I’m happy to talk through what I’ve come up with. I always feel like they deserve that much, but I don’t hand out outlines.
John: I’ve generally avoided them, avoided handing in any sort of outline. But on a recent project with a director, it became really the only way to communicate with him was to say like, “This is really what’s happening.” And because he wasn’t available, I couldn’t give him a written document. There was just no way to get feedback on what was going on.
John: So it’s tough because you feel like you’re doing writing and you’re spending a lot of time writing for someone else’s ability to interpret what it is you’re trying to do. And so you end up having to, sometimes, generate, you know…
Craig: It’s busy work, a little bit.
John: It’s busy work, that you’re generating false details that might not really be the way you’d approach that scene when you really get to it.
John: But you’re doing it so they can understand. And of course, the unfortunate aspect is they always have that outline. So if you vary from that outline it’s not going to be what they expect. And maybe they’ll love what you did that’s different, but if they don’t love it they’ll be able to point back to something you wrote before and say “Well, I thought this worked really well.”
Craig: Well, when you’re dealing with a director I feel a little different about it because theoretically they are sort of more closely aligned with some narrative sensibility and hopefully they can work through your outline with you.
I will say there’s one great benefit to sharing, even if you don’t give a document but you talk through a story. One of the great benefits is everybody does agree on it, or hopefully has agreed on it. And people can change their minds. But there’s a difference between, “You know what? We changed our mind,” and, “We didn’t expect that and we hate it.”
And if everybody agrees that it should go this way and you deliver that and they say “Okay, now that we’ve read it I think we all together made a mistake,” that’s a very different conversation than “What is this? What did you do? Why did you write it this way?”
And so I like to make sure everybody is on the same page. And if you do change something significantly, let people know. Just say “You know what? I think I’m going to change this significantly and here is why.” Get them on board before they read it and reduce the shock factor.
John: I should also…what’s the opposite of preface? I should post-note this last part of the conversation and say this is very much feature screen writing that we’re talking now. In television a lot of times you really do have to write out an outline that a bunch of people are going to read and give notes on and approve or not approve.
And it’s really maddening if you’re coming from a feature perspective because you’re used to being able to have a wider range of options ahead of you. But because of the schedule of American television at least, a lot of decisions get made based on outline level. And so the network and the studio could come back and say just basically throw out your next three episodes’ outlines, and you’re back to square one.
Craig: Yeah, I actually understand that. I mean, you’ve got so many episodes you have to produce, even if you…just now from the network side, just as a show runner, you have a staff, you have people, you have to assign tasks to them, if somebody’s outline isn’t quite right, and you know that you need a little extra help with the script that is right. You just need to know what the stories are, just to map out the season. Even just that you know you don’t have three action-y stories in a row if you have the kind of show that sort of goes back and forth.
I remember, Star Trek, I liked The Next Generation. I watched a lot of those. And there were some that were sort of war episodes, and there were some that were kind of science-y episodes, and then there were ones that about character. And I could see where you wouldn’t want three of any particular kind in a row.
John: Absolutely. I’ve just been watching the most recent series of Torchwood: Miracle Day — it’s the American BBC collaboration on it — which has been really fascinating. And it’s because it’s only a 10 episode order, I find myself doing things that’s not quite really fair. Which is saying, well, they knew there were only these 10 episodes, so they could have done things a lot differently.
And 10 episodes is such a weird in-betweener. Because it’s not like…if it’s six episodes, then clearly they could pre-write the whole thing, and block shoot it, and do sorts of special things. At 10 episodes, you’re kind of making a real TV show. You’re probably into production while you’re still writing the next ones, so you’re not quite sure what’s going to be working and what’s not going to be working. I have this temptation to write a blog post that’s sort of like, takes a look at everything that actually happened over the course of the season, and sort of proposes a different way of blocking it out.
Because, like all TV shows, you have an instinct about sort of when you’re going to make reveals of certain key information, and this felt like they missed some really good opportunities, too, or they delayed a little too long in revealing certain key information.
Craig: Hopefully, we’ll get our first angry response from the show Torchwood.
John: That’d be great, because I enjoy Torchwood, and I have enjoyed watching it. But it certainly had some ups and some downs.
Craig: So the quote is “John August enjoys highly flawed series Torchwood.”
John: Oh, I love highly flawed series. I am the only person who will confess to watch every episode of V, the remake of V.
Craig: The new V. Because I saw the old V, and the old V was awesome.
John: The old V was so good. With its barely concealed Nazi insignia.
Craig: I think at some point they stopped even trying to conceal it.
John: It’s just kind of gray.
Craig: Yeah, it was awesome.
John: Yeah, and Diana…and so, the challenge, of course, with the new V, is that they had me, because first of all, it was V, because V is fundamentally great. And Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost, she’s some sort of witch. I cannot not watch her. So, she could — I’ve said it before — she could just be boiling water all episode, I’d happily watch 60 minutes of that. It’s terrible.
Craig: I’m not — I haven’t seen any Torchwood. I’m going to, just as a counterpoint here and for the creators and writers of Torchwood, I think you guys did a fantastic job. I don’t know what he’s talking about.
John: Trust me, Craig literally doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
Craig: I literally don’t know what he’s talking about. I did not know there was a show called Torchwood. [laughs] So, there you go. I have the television-watching habits of a 90 year old woman.
John: Or, a father in his early 40’s.
Craig: That’s right. So I can tell you all about Phineas and Ferb and Adventure Time and cool shows like that.
John: All right. So, I think we’ve discussed the hell out of outlines.
So, outlines, as a summary and bullet point: Many ways to do it, the most common being index cards or whiteboards for generating the stuff of outlines. A lot of times, they’re a written document. You know, you could do it in a sort of spreadsheet-y format, you can do it as a just a text document. It’s whatever helps you sort of figure out and remember how you’re supposed to get through a story.
The one point I did sort of want to make, is — because I am a lot more sort of on the fly, off the cuff sort of changing stuff as I go along — as I finish a day’s work, I’ll always be that like, these are the next three scenes that happen. Because sometimes those aren’t what I had originally planned, but as I’m writing scenes, I have a very good sense of where I want to go next in this story, so I’ll always leave myself at the end of the day with some breadcrumbs for like, this is the trail of what happens next.
Craig: I usually, when I finish writing for the day, I curl up in a little ball and cry.
John: That’s another equally valid choice.
Craig: Thank you.
John: And thank you, Craig.
Craig: And we’ll see you guys next time on Scriptnotes.