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I used to think I could find my story by simply writing. Armed with only a seedling of an idea, I'd write about 30 pages—the first act—and get stuck. I usually knew how I wanted the story to end, so I'd write the last 10 pages. But the middle was a mess. I couldn't figure out how to get my hero from point A to Z in a logical and compelling fashion.
I was confusing the brainstorming process with the writing process. True, I needed to kick around ideas, discover my characters, and develop conflicts and dilemmas—in other words, find my story. But once I'd written scenes or characters I liked, it was hard to throw them out when they didn't work. I found myself trying to fit the story around the parts I liked, and I'd hit an impasse.
Then I tried outlining, and it was bye-bye to writer's block.
Many writers fear wrongly that outlining will stifle their creativity. But in fact, it can lead to amazing breakthroughs. It's much easier to try out wild ideas and test, add, and discard story elements—plot, subplots, characters, and so on—when you're not attached to specific scenes, characters, and lines of dialogue.
Outlining comes after you've developed and tested your concept. Whether you use file cards, a step outline, or another method is up to you, but your outline should include the major events of the story. In a three-act structure, they would be:
1. Opening scene/s
2. Inciting Incident
3. First turning point at the end of Act I
5. Second turning point at the end of Act II
On the first run-through, stay focused on the primary story as you hit these marks. Include the subplots only when they influence these story events. Then go back and brainstorm connecting scenes and add the subplots. Keep your outline concise—one or two summary sentences per scene. For example:
INT. LAB – NIGHT
Hunched over his microscope, David pulls an all-nighter trying to crack the case.
As you work, keep asking questions. Is the central conflict compelling enough to carry the movie? Would the story be better if a different character became the hero? Is the climax powerful? Go through the outline trying different possibilities.
If you get stuck, then you probably need to solidify your central conflict, develop your characters, or do a little research. Take a break from outlining to brainstorm or gather the information you need. You may find your concept shifting as you outline. Don't worry, just take another look at it. Can you improve on it? Once you've elevated your concept, go back to outlining.