I’ve been using a thing called OmniOutliner to work out a book project that was just so stupidly unwieldy that I couldn’t see the words for the trees. With immense regret, I have to tell you that it worked. I’ve previously been an extremely reluctant outliner, only doing it when mandatory for a contract, and my heart is still not in outlining at all, but my head might be. I realised this yesterday when I needed to figure out something else that I’d ordinarily have just got on with writing and exploring. And instead, I unthinkingly turned to this OmniOutliner.
Here’s the thing. Some writers plan out in immense detail, some don’t. I fixed Alan Plater’s email once when he was having trouble sending attachments and the example document that we batted back and forth happened to be an outline. I didn’t need to read it to fix the email, I couldn’t read it because it was confidential, but I had to ask him. Why had he written an outline? He told me to read it.
It was a remarkably boring document. About as un-Plater-like as conceivable. But the very last line went something like this: “Now can I just go write the bloody thing?”
Outlines don’t kill writers, outlining does. We get the fun and worth of the story sucked out of us. Alan put it better in a memo to a producer – which I’ve got verbatim because it’s in my own book about his show The Beiderbecke Affair – where he explained:
“This kind of story is in part a process of discovery and deduction for the writer as much as for anybody else. I know the A and the Z and have a reasonable knowledge of B to about K… after that it gets complicated and misty.”
As I say, some outline and plan while others don’t. My natural inclination is to explore on the page and I think I’ve been helped or encouraged in that as much by how well it’s worked out and because I’ve written so much in magazines. Once I had the form in my head, once I knew how to write articles, I never planned again. Start at the top, write to the end, deliver. It’s rarely quite like that but it can be and the number of changes I make are fairly few. Or they tend to be nuances and key points, they are never gigantic structural chunks being shuffled around.
Some drama writers call some outlines these beat sheets: you’re listing the key moments in the piece like the beats in music and you end up with the overall shape of the work.
But I could always see the shape of the piece in my head when it was a 5,000-word computer feature or especially a 70-word Ceefax one. Books have proved to be somewhat harder: Beiderbecke was only 30,000 words or so but it was immensely hard to get everything in to that short limit. One of the books I’m doing now is 150,000 and that defeated me: I could not hold that in my head. Especially not when circumstances of when I could get certain research material, when I could speak to certain people, meant that I wrote about 100,000 of it completely out of sequence. I’ve asked the copy editor to please watch out for when I may have introduced someone twice because I first wrote them in chapter 6 and only later got them in to chapter 1. I think I’ve caught all that, but I have lain away at night worrying about it.
That worry was from the sheer weight of words, the sheer volume of the volume. Drama is different. I have a big stage play on the go now and I can smell it, you know? I know the opening pages because I explored them, testing out the idea. And I know the very last line because, I promise, it will choke you up. I even know about eleventy-billion things that will happen, right down to whole exchanges of dialogue between these characters in my head, but the whole eludes me. That’s partly because if it works, if I do this right, it will be the most delicate, gauzy writing I’ve ever done and the faintest breeze will wreck where I’m trying to take you.
That’s why drama is different. I was taught that you should write to express, not to impress. That’s right and great and useless. Because drama needs to express and move and feel and share and transport. Off you go.
I find I’m noodling around this particular stage idea a lot on the bus. I used to do all my best thinking while I took long drives so I am least a tiny bit greener now. The other week I was thinking about the idea as I rode past the Birmingham Rep so I counted the windows: they sometimes put the title of plays up with one letter in each window across the front. It turns out they have just enough for this one, so. Probably not a deal breaker, but.
I’m going to outline it. I just know I am. Desperately broad strokes, please no more than that. Maybe I can do A and K rather than A to Z. I need to explore it too.
But there is a cost to exploring drama on the page, there is a price. I’d heard a thousand writers say and extol and evangelise outlines and they were rubbish at it. All of them. Until one television writer said something like “You can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night”. It’s true. You can fight about what makes better drama, structured planning or freeform exploration, but you can’t argue that you have to write and produce something. A stunning work of piercing Tuesday night drama is no use if the script is delivered on Wednesday morning. Even if outlining guaranteed you a boring story, at least you’d never type “the end” on a full one-hour drama script and realise you had to throw it away and start a different one.
It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t always that you’re hired and we’re airing it Tuesday, get writing.
John Hopkins was commissioned over a pint at the BBC once in the 1960s and didn’t deliver. Not on time. Not anywhere near on time. The story goes that he delivered the next year. He wasn’t especially pressed about it, though I understand the BBC did occasionally say, you know, how’s it going? And then he turned in Talking to a Stranger, also known as the Hopkins Quartet. Four television plays set over the same weekend and all from the perspective of a different member of a family. I tell you, I read the scripts and when I reached the last one and realised why it was all done like this, why it wasn’t just a gimmick, I cried.
If you want to tell me that Hopkins could do that from an outline, fine. If you even want to tell me that he did do it from an outline, fine. I have no idea either way. And that’s the way it should be: whether outlines help or throttle a writer, it’s the end result that matters, it’s the audience that matters.
Oh, stop looking at me like that. You’re not an audience, you’re you. We’re just talking. We could’ve phoned each other up first and devised the beat sheet for today. We could’ve decided that our chat should logically go thisaway: “1. What outlines are. 2. Outlines are bad. 3. Except when they’re good.”
But if we were that boringly efficient, we could’ve just left it with that and gone to the pub. And then where would we be? Exactly. I’ll make us some tea.
1. Find kettle
2. Fill kettle with water
3. Switch on kettle…