January 5, 2014 by Sandy Nicholson
The Red Planet Prize closes tomorrow, and so in the usual mad rush I’ve been getting emails asking me about how to write the outline. These can be tricky because the definitions of “synopsis” “pitch document” and “outline” tend to get mixed around, and different producers expect different things when asking for them. In general though, when somebody is asking for one of these which one page long, I’ve found that details and specifics aren’t what’s being asked for.
If anyone out there know about argumentation (and I recommend looking it up) you’ll recognise this as a linear argument. By this I mean that it has a momentum which feeds its purpose, and that momentum will ramp up and carry your argument through to a powerful conclusion. The weakness of a linear argument is that if you lose that momentum, if something hits a wrong note, you lose the whole thing, because you can’t get that back. This is a wanky way for me to say, pay attention to every part of your outline, if one paragraph is weak, everything that follows will lose its impact.
So here’s my structure for a one page outline, and I’ll put mine up to dissect. This is the outline for a TV drama called Fun.
1) The frame
I always open with the frame. Frames are an incredibly useful device, because they allow the reader to focus in on something in a way that instinctively makes it more interesting. Like the use of description before a scene takes place, I like to give the reader a piece of information which lets them know what kind of story this is going to be.
The easiest one to use is a short paragraph on why I wrote the script, other people like to write something in the voice of the main character. Both these can be really effective, so long as the paragraph itself is written in the same tone that you want to evoke with the script. Here’s the opening of my outline.
When I was younger I was not a good man. I was extremely cruel, particularly towards women, and as part of treatment for that I was allowed to work in a centre for abused women for three years. Working there brought up a lot of questions about the ways people interact on the worst level, but the simplest question was the one that inspired me to write Fun.
What might have happened if I hadn’t got better?
What I’m trying to do there is start off with a sentence that would make someone sit up, but also gives the reader a sense of the kind of story that this is going to be.
2) The Logline
I’m going to assume that everyone here knows what a logline is. The reason I like to put it here is because it works as a bridge which takes us from the introduction to the main event. Some competitions (red planet included) will ask you to put the logline in separately. If this is the case, I don’t remove this section completely, I just rephrase as a normal sentence. This way the section of the document still functions as a lead in to the main crux of what you want to talk about.
After suffering from an anxiety attack, a woman crippled by guilt over her secret second family seeks the advice of a therapist who is himself secretly a womaniser with a sinister and cruel agenda.
From here on out, the order is up to you, and will vary massively depending on the project you’re describing, but here are the things I like to cover.
3) A description of genre
What kind of show/film this is and also what makes it different from other projects like it. A lot of producers don’t like the “this meets this” approach, so don’t throw it in there just for the sake of it, but I’ve found if there is a comparison that really nails the tone, then this will often turn them around.
A new take on the relationship drama in the vein of Cold Feet combined with the cruel wit of Nurse Jackie, Fun follows the lives of two people, each engaged in multiple relationships but with very different motivations.
4) The plot and characters.
A short description of the central conflict in your story, and also the event which kicks off the story you’re telling. These don’t tend to require a lot of detail, just the broad strokes of what’s going to drive your story. In this instance, my description of the characters is a little longer than most, because it’s very much a character piece, but in general the more succinctly you can put this, the better.
MyAnna is in love with two people. Her husband, Gavin, is lively, dynamic, curious and funny, and there’s no doubt that he, MyAnna and their two children love each other very much. Unbeknownst to him, however, MyAnna spends the other half of her week with her passionate, fiercely intelligent girlfriend Radhika, and their son. Torn between the people she loves and the families she has started with each of them, MyAnna becomes chronically anxious and unable to deal with her guilt. After a severe anxiety attack, she is told to seek the advice of a therapist.
Harry, on the other hand, is a malicious womaniser, not only revelling in but addicted to acts of emotional cruelty. Charismatic, compassionate and even romantic, he nevertheless goes through life finding new and innovative ways to woo, and subsequently hurt, those he deems worthy. However, he also works as a therapist, a job at which he excels, and he is about to get a new patient.
What I’ve tried to do here is point out who the main characters are, how they are different from one another.
Throughout the series, these people interact with each other and their own secrets, each trying, and failing, to carry on their lives as before. MyAnna attempts to raise children in two households and maintain relationships with two very different people, while ensuring that the truth about each household never comes out. At the same time, Harry must struggle with an unsustainable addiction, and through his interactions with MyAnna begins to ask himself the question that may ruin him. What if you can only truly be cruel to someone you are in love with? What if it’s only truly cruel if you’re doing it despite how much you care about them?
And , here I’ve tried to get across what they are trying to achieve and how they are going to affect each other as the series goes on. This will obviously be slightly different for a film, but you can substitute this character work for an overview of the plot and how the character will change as the story goes on.
A description of the tone of the piece. Hopefully you will have done a lot to establish that in the tone of your outline, which should always be indicative of the script itself, but here’s where you can go into a little bit more detail and talk about the relationship between your script and its audience, what kind of reaction you’re hoping to achieve and how.
Tonally, the phrase I like to use is “a guilty pleasure”. While essentially a domestic or relationship drama, Fun offers a new perspective on this familiar ground, looking at issues from the point of view of people who are not trying to live decent lives. Audiences will feel the suspense of frail and failing secrecy, the warmth of seeing families come together, joy of watching enigmatic characters fall for one another, and the grim heartache that comes from witnessing their acts of cruelty. Even with this in mind, the show is dedicated to making the main characters fascinating and watchable through their humour and the genuine compassion and love with which they act towards the things they choose to care about. In short, MyAnna and Harry are two unquestionably bad people but that doesn’t make us want to watch them any less.
6) The roundup
The conclusion. I’m a composer and I have a bee in my bonnet about trying to write the way a good piece of music is written, and that means you have to resolve the melody. Try singing “Twinkle twinkle little star” and stop without singing the word “are”, you’ll feel like a string inside you broke. You always need to resolve a melody and you always need a conclusion to your outline. This is the full stop.
Overall, this is a series about the divisions between fun and malice, about whether or not guilt is a redeeming quality, about complicated and messy characters, and about seeing a big and beautiful world through a darker pair of eyes.
Here I’m trying to sum up everything I’ve said so far, and pinpoint why it is I think people will find it interesting.
And that’s my advice on writing a one page description! I’m not a professional, I do fairly well, and tend to get great responses from these kinds of documents, but I’m not a professional. This is just the way I write my outlines. If you do things differently or have some advice, put a comment below and let people know!
Good luck if you’re entering Red Planet, or anything else for that matter!