Screenplays and Manuscripts and Outlines…Oh My!

A while back, I mentioned that I used a screenplay outline to write my YA novel.  I believe I even promised to elaborate.  Finally, today I will deliver on that promise!  I’m pretty sure I just heard a few of you squeal with delight.  I know, this is exciting stuff.  Okay, it’s admittedly not as exciting as a ghost hunt, but I’m fairly sure that at least one or two of you writerly types out there might actually find this sort of information useful.  So here ya’ go!

I actually started my story without an outline.  It wasn’t until a friend of mine asked if I would co-write a screenplay with him that I even thought about using an outline at all.  But when he sent me some handy tools for getting started on our script and I put together an outline for that project, I realized, this outline thing is kind of awesome.  I could see our movie in my mind – beginning, middle and end.  It make me super-excited to get writing! 

Before I wrote an outline for  my novel, I could see parts of it in my mind, but I wasn’t sure how it would end or what key points would drive the story.  I wasn’t even sure who the “bad guy” was going to be – yes, I left it so ambiguous in the beginning that I even had myself guessing! 

So one night, I sat at my favorite writing perch with an episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County playing on low volume in the background (my equivalent of going to a coffee shop, since coffee shops aren’t open at 11pm, but Real Housewives reruns are prevalent), and hammered out an outline.  It took a couple of hours, and by the time I was finished, the same episode staring my favorite gals from the O.C. had run twice.  It was a late night (or an early morning – depending on how you look at it), but when I sat down the next day and read through what I had done, I was totally and completely stoked (that word’s not really cool anymore, is it…whatever, I still like it).  There was my story!  Beginning, middle and end!  I’d even identified my story’s evil doer.  I could hardly wait to get the monkeys to bed that night so I could dive in and write the story that was now so clearly laid out on my computer screen!

Alright, here’s the information you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seat for – the breakdown of how I used a screenplay outline for my YA novel.

Before you get into your outline, you need to determine what your main character’s desire is.  What do they long for?  For my manuscript, my protagonist, Vivian, desires a boy.  Well of course she does, this is after all a young adult novel, and if I recall my days as a young adult accurately, I thought a lot about boys – which boys had cute butts, which boys might be good kissers, which boys had last names that looked good with my first name when I signed my signature on checks from our future joint bank accounts.   Boys, boys, boys!!  After teaching high school for a few years, I’m convinced this is a normal part of the adolescent experience.  So naturally, Vivian’s desire is a boy.

The next component you must consider is what your character’s goal will be.  This goal won’t actually materialize in your manuscript until about 1/3 of the way into your story.  For Vivian her goal becomes to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a girl from her community after the spirit of the girl comes to her (yeah, Vivian’s a little like the boy from The Sixth Sense, she can see dead people – and other, even creepier spirits).

Once you have your main character’s desire and goal identified, you can move on to the fun stuff – the six stages and five turning points!  I’ll identify each stage, approximately what portion of your manuscript each one should make up (I’ll illustrate this with percentages and also tell you how many chapters my outline included for each section) and where the five key turning points fall in the midst of each stage.  Obviously, the chapter count for each stage/turning point will vary depending on your project, but I thought using both percentages and numbers of chapters would make it a little easier to follow.

Stage One:  The Setup (0-10%) (Chapters 1-4):  This is where you draw in the audience and establish your setting.  You’ll give your reader a glimpse at the everyday life of your protagonist. 

  • Turning Point One:  Opportunity:  This is where the protagonist is presented with a new opportunity/desire.  For Vivian this occurs in chapter 3 when she meets the boy.

Stage Two:  New Situation (10-25%) (Chapters 5-8):  Your protagonist gets acclimated to new surroundings, formulates a plan for accomplishing their desire (not the end goal) and obstacles appear.

  • Turning Point Two:  Change of Plans:  The original desire becomes a specific goal.  For Vivian this turning point occurs in chapter 7 when the spirit of the missing girl comes to her.

Stage Three:  Progress (25-50%) (Chapters 9-11):  The protagonist’s actions move their plans forward to achieving their goal and obstacles are overcome.

  • Turning Point Three:  Point of No Return:  The protagonist fully commits to the goal.  Now there’s no turning back.  This occurred in chapter 11 of my manuscript when Vivian is put in a situation where she realizes she must solve the mystery of the ghost girl who has reached out to her, or she will be killed herself.

Stage Four:  Complications & Higher Stakes (50-75%) (Chapters 12-14):  At this point achieving the goal becomes more difficult and there is more to lose if the goal is not met.  This continues until it seems success is within reach.

  • Turning Point Four:  Major Setback:  All hope seems to be lost.  The protagonist must make one final all-or-nothing effort.  This occurred in chapter 14 of my manuscript outline, but I can’t give you any details without totally spoiling the ending for you when you finally get to read it.

Stage Five:  Final Push (75-90/99%) (Chapter 15-16):  The pace increases.  The protagonist has everything to lose so they give it everything they’ve got.

  • Turning Point Five:  Climax:  this is where the biggest obstacle occurs and the main character must determine their own fate.  This occurred in chapter 16 of my manuscript outline.

Stage Six:  Aftermath (90/99-100%) (Chapters 17-18):  This is when you get to reveal the new life your protagonist is living after achieving their goal.

 And that’s it!  You made it to the end! 

My outline included a summary of each chapter that I planned to have in each stage and turning point.  As I wrote the story, I flip-flopped a few chapters, split chapters, added chapters (instead of 18 chapters, I ended with 20).   The outline is not exactly the same as my final manuscript.  It gave me a path to travel down, but I let the story lead me where it wanted to go as I wrote it – and sometimes, in the early pre-dawn hours when I wrote, this story led me to some rather strange places.  So I let it.  I didn’t let the outline hold me back.  But having the outline kept me focused on the important elements that would move my story forward in a compelling way.  In fact when my agent and I first met to discuss the manuscript (before she was officially my agent), she commented on how the story read like a movie.  She liked that.  Cause you know, if your manuscript reads like a movie, maybe there could be negotiations for a movie option when you sell it.

When I was initially creating my first screenplay outline, I refered to the information on the website below.  It breaks down the process by comparing it to a few movies that you might have seen which makes it a little easier to conceptualize.  If you plan to use a screenplay outline for your next/current novel, I highly recommend checking out this link.

Now get writing!  What are you waiting for?!

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