Outline Development

If you’re not running your writing with an outline, you’re either a genius talent or a lazy bastard… either way, I don’t like you.

You probably didn’t even bother to read my article Outline Basics. Shame, shame, shame, I know your name.

For the rest of us hard-working mortals, outlining is a critical step in the creative process. As I discuss in the above article (and Storycraft for Comics) outlines arrive first, in the simplified Skeletal form (basically a beat sheet) and second, in a more Comprehensive long form.

Since Skeletal outlines are fundamentally shorthand notes, there’s not too much to go over there as far as how you put down your details (the structural points themselves are the important part—different conversation)… but when you move into Comprehensive outlining… it’s crucial to work efficiently.

A cumbersome comprehensive outline, can quickly turn into an unwieldy document and make your life much more difficult than it should be.

To keep your Comp Outlines on point, keep the following categories of detail in mind:

  • Outline Level Details. (points that need further elaboration when scripted)
  • Script Level Details. (points that can be directly set into the final script)
  • Superfluous Details. (points that don’t appear in the script)

If you suffer from ADD and can’t continue to read, here’s the Cliffsnotes—use Script Level Details as little as possible and Superfluous details even less.

I’ll use “Robot Kids” the (deliberately badly titled) sample story and outline from Storycraft for Comics as an example.

In the skeletal outline for Robot Kids, I have the Inciting Decision structural point listed as simply “Molly saves Kai.”

For the purpose of a Skeletal Outline, no further detail is relevant to structuring the story. To understand the story, we don’t need to know how Molly does it… The key point (at that point in the creative process) is that we know the one main character saves the other. This is an Outline Level Detail (or more simply put, a basic concept beat).

Now when I build out the Skeletal Outline to the Comprehensive Outline, I might turn “Molly saves Kai” into:

“The cyborg cops capture Kai, restrain him and load him into a transport truck. Enroute to Central City, Molly intercepts the truck on her hover-cycle. Using her bionic gadgets and the help of Iblii, her mutant flying squirrel, she disables the truck and frees Kai. Together they flee into the toxic swamp where the cyborg cop pursuers refuse to give chase.”

Now there’s plenty of room to be more comprehensive in this small passage. But notice, I’ve pretty much given clear direction (for more than one scene too), in just these four lines.

But more importantly notice what’s not present. SCRIPT LEVEL DETAIL—actual details that will appear in the final script. For instance:

  • which specific bionic gadgets Molly uses, how exactly she uses them, OR
  • any dialogue between Molly and Iblii the mutant squirrel.

You can include some Script Level Details, IF it’s important/critical to moving the story. But generally the less you include, the more efficient the outline will be.

Too many Script Level details teeters on writing a psuedo-first draft of the script. You’re increasing your production time tremendously and camouflaging the core story (and plotline) beneath details.

Instead of working with something that has 30 moving parts, you’re suddenly working with something that has 150 moving parts. Besides the likelihood of getting overwhelmed trying to keep track and making sure all the pieces fit together, the added detail is actually going to make breaking the outline into individual scenes later on more difficult and again, more time consuming.

A change in a core Outline Level Detail during the outlining process, potentially (and usually does) undo a lot of Script Level Details.

If you’ve included a lot of them, it means you’ve wasted a big chunk of time.

Before we move on to the final point, let me drop a quick example of a useful Script Level Detail:

Let’s say Iblii the mutant squirrel has a super power that anyone he bites becomes infected with a rabies-like disease and goes nuts. Let’s also say that Iblii’s “crazy bite” ties in to how the heroes beat the main villain at the end of the story. I know this is an important detail in the story, something I need to foreshadow and develop, so I might capture it at this point in the outline like:

“The cyborg cops capture Kai, restrain him and load him into a transport truck. Enroute to Central City, Molly intercepts the truck on her hover-cycle. Using her bionic gadgets and the help of Iblii, her mutant flying squirrel, she disables the truck and frees Kai. “Don’t bite them Iblii, just distract them!” Together they flee into the toxic swamp where the cyborg cop pursuers refuse to give chase.”

While writing the outline I saw Molly yell the blue line of dialogue to Iblii as the scene played out in my head. The line represents all that stuff I mentioned about Iblii above and I know it needs to be in the final script (or some variant). It’s an acceptable Script Level Detail, important to the story and doesn’t unnecessarily inflate the outline.

Lastly, notice there are no Superfluous Details in my small comprehensive outline passage. Superfluous details are details that don’t capture a core story beat OR don’t go directly into the script. Let me give you a couple of examples:

“The cyborg cops capture Kai, restrain him and load him into a transport truck. Few people in the world know that cyborg cops were originally programmed by the Dr. Bernard and the last remnants of the thought police. Enroute to Central City (the sixteenth biggest city on the coast, with the highest home re-sale value), Molly intercepts the truck on her hover-cycle. Using her bionic gadgets and the help of IBLII her mutant flying squirrel, she disables the truck and frees Kai. Mutant squirrels have super fast metabolisms and usually sleep only 2 hours every day. Together they flee into a toxic swamp five hundred miles wide and three hundred miles long. The swamp is sinking at the rate of 1 inch every twenty years. The cyborg cop pursuers refuse to give chase.”

If Dr. Bernard and the thought police are not in the story, if who programmed the cyborg cops doesn’t get showcased later on; if this part of the panel description doesn’t relay direct information to the visual, WHY is it here? Answer: it shouldn’t be.

Even if Central City having the highest home re-sale value IS somehow relevant to the story, there’s no tie in with the core beats of the paragraph. It doesn’t belong here. Probably not anywhere in the script, but definitely not here.

Superfluous details relevant to the story, but not the scene of the moment, are usually best delegated to a series/story bible. Bibles are the place folks go to get the underlying logic and connect any renegade dots not directly covered by the script.

Outline level, Script level and Superfluous. Keep these three in mind to create more efficient Comp Outlines… and in turn, faster, more potent scripts.

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

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