Why It's Hard to Sell an OutlineComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Q. I have completed a detailed outline [for my script] from beginning to end with all major plot points in between. Is it worth my (or the agent's) time to send queries on either an outline or a treatment, or will they only accept finished screenplays?
Well, if you feel confident you can write the script and you've solved all the story problems and now it's just a matter of writing pages ... you could query as if it's a screenplay, and then if you get positive responses, write the screenplay then.

You probably won't be able to sell an outline. For one thing, if they don't know your work, they don't know how you'll execute the outline? In the technical sense, it requires less skill to write a paragraph of plot description than a dramatic scene. So how do they know what the finished product will look like?

But even pro screenwriters mostly can't sell outlines. Joe Esterhazs, at the height of the spec mania, sold a four page outline for about a million a page. But that was after BASIC INSTINCT. Some buddies of mine, one of whom is a Hollywood screenwriter you've heard of, sold a pitch for a ton of money. But I doubt I could sell an outline, for example.

That's because it's ten times harder to read an outline than to read a script. Outlines tend to read very plotty. The characters don't come through, because characterization exists in the myriad details of dialog and action that exist only in the pages. Tone rarely comes through well, either. Comedy doesn't come through at all -- comedy plots tend to read either ludicrous or tragic.

Outlines are like the score to a symphony. How many people can read a score and feel the music from it without playing it? Maybe composers and conductors, and some, but not all, musicians.

The same is not so true of an oral pitch. People can usually follow an oral pitch -- because they're getting tone and characterization from your delivery -- your tone of voice and attitude. That's why I try very hard to avoid giving an outline to anyone but a writer, unless I've pitched that person the story orally first.

If you are stuck giving someone an outline, do what I call the "subtitles for the nuance-impaired" pass. Go through and explain everything. Explain why things are happening. Explain what the events mean. Describe the tone. Describe how hilarious the hilarious scenes are. Add 10% handwaving. Basically, turn your outline into a written pitch. Make it no longer an aide-mémoire for the writer, but a sales document. Add the sizzle to the steak.

Come to think of it, always add a little sizzle. People in showbiz tend to be nervous Nellies about their own opinions, because the consequences for saying "yes" and guessing wrong are so much worse than the consequences for saying "no" and guessing wrong. It's not a bad idea to remind the reader every now and then, in subtle ways, just how exciting this is...

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