To Outline or Not to Outline?
December 9, 2016
Some writers start a play with a very specific outline. Some start with a blank page and a vague idea and go from there. Each has its merits and each leaves a certain amount of room for discovery. What kind of room do you leave for discovery in creating a new play?
Kit Goldstein Grant: All about the vague idea approach! This works best when you're adapting material, so that the vague idea is definitely going to come out to be a solid plot. You just leave all the details to stew in your head as you write, and then go back to fix it after the first draft. When doing an original work, the vague idea approach helps me tremendously to develop the characters and world of the play, but has the downside that, at the end of the first draft, you might discover that you forgot to include a plot! Then the second draft will have to start from the beginning again with an outline in mind.
Nancy Brewka-Clark: I try to write from a specific situation dictated by a working title since I'm one of those people who believes to name something is to make it real. But then, when you're finally working at it with full concentration it takes off with a life of its own.
Steven Stack: My approach to this varies, but normally I leave a lot of room for discovery while I’m writing. For me, that’s usually the best way to create the characters and the world that I’m meant to create. I always start with a basic idea, or a character, or a theme, and let it grow from there. It’s like putting a puzzle together with pieces that only appear once other pieces have been added. Doing it this way forces you to allow the flow of the piece to dictate where the story goes, instead of forcing it in a certain direction based on preconceived notions of what you want the story to be.
Nina Mansfield: Sometimes I literally start with a line of dialogue and I see what happens. In a first draft, I let the characters guide me. Later on, I might outline and rework, but not until later on in the process.
Barbara Lindsay: A lot of my plays, I might even say most of my plays, just start flowing out when I put a pen against a piece of paper. (I still write rough drafts longhand.) For some of them, I have a character in mind, or a situation, or an ending or a beginning, and then write outward from there. It has been very, very rare for me spend time working a story through before I start writing dialogue. I wouldn’t discourage anyone else from structuring her story first. Probably some of my plays would have been finished much more quickly if I’d known beforehand what the heck I was trying to do or say. But I love letting the characters take me places I couldn’t possibly have thought of by myself. I like to let the rough draft flow out on its own and then look at it, absorb it, and see what’s trying to happen.
Adam Goldberg: Discovery is automatic. Sure, I’ll outline a longer project (the first 10 hours of a full-length are typically exploring the thing, getting the contours, setting a rough road map). But somewhere between charting a route and stopping for gas, you have to improvise. I’ve had whizbang plot lines that didn't make a lick of sense once I showed them to other people. I've had perfectly good plays, been a few pages into draft two and come across a winning line, one that gives me an entire third act, like when a goofy minion says:
And you stare out the window, and you realize that gosh, all the trouble of some people’s lives can fit into to tres palabras.
Discovery is kind of like acne; you can’t worry about it, but if you’re going to the process it’ll happen.
Noelle Donfeld: If I am not writing a producer-driven project, I usually get an idea, develop personalities and histories for my main characters, write the outline and then start on book. Although lyrics are supposed to wait until the book is finished, it's too tempting to write lyrics as I go. They often change, either due to story changes or to the composer's different musical ideas, and many get tossed. But a writer must be willing to throw out anything that doesn't truly contribute to the evolving needs of the show, both before and during pre-production.
Tom Smith: I usually am inspired to write because I see the climax of the play in my head—I know what the high point is. Because of that, I often write that scene first, and then write the ending. I'll then go back and write the play from the beginning—working my way forward. I've tried using outlines but I never follow them. I often describe my writing as "channeling:" I'll write a line and write the response and let the scene take me where it wants to go. I often say the lines out loud before I type them so I can feel how the line works in an actor's mouth. I'm a much better re-writer than writer, so I'll draft something really quickly—like in a week—and spend months rewriting and refining before it goes into a workshop.
Brian Armstrong: It varies from project to project. I have woken up from a dream once with the entire thing in my head, and I have also started with only a location and a handful of characters and woven it from there. I take whatever spark of inspiration I get and run with it.