Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea
Step Three: Heroes and Villains
Step Four: The Story
So now you're ready for:
Step Five: The Outline
I'll be honest, this is the part that kills me. This is the part that has me creating Excel documents and Powerpoints and using the index cards in Celtx and filling notebook pages with ideas and scratching my head and tearing my hair out.
Some people can just breeze through the outline, having lined up the whole story in their head beforehand, each nugget dropping neatly onto the page one terrific story point at a time.
I hate those people.
My process is more like throwing rice pudding at the wall, one splatted spoonful after another (but less fun). Most of that stuff does not stick, then you have a huge mess to clean up later.
So how does this help you?
Well, if you're struggling through your outline, at least you now know that while it might not be exactly normal, at least you're not the only one.
I can also toss around a few tips to help you out. Maybe.*
Do a beat sheet
A beat sheet is a little point-form compendium of the key moments in your script. It can take any form you want it to, as long as it helps you compile all the must-have moments that make up your story.
You might want to think about adding some character beats in here - ones that don't necessarily give the story a huge push forward, but will shed light on your characters.** This is a pilot, after all, and we want to know who these people are.
The most important beats (and therefore the most difficult) are the act outs. They need to be strong, attention-grabbing, edge-of-your-seat moments that will cause your audience to flip the page as fast as their little fingers will let them. The middle act out also needs to turn the story in a new direction.***
Do not. I repeat in bigger letters Do Not start your outline if your act breaks are weak. I speak from experience. I have rewritten so many outlines trying to find my act breaks and it's just not the way to go. Plan your act outs, and the rest of the story will be easier to craft. (In theory. To me, story is never easy.)
Like really, really detailed. Really. The best outline I've ever read was written by writer's group member Adam. It was the first thing he gave to the group as a new member. It was so full of tone and detail, it felt like reading a script.
It made me laugh. Out loud. It made me cringe when the characters were being embarrassing. It made sense and I knew at the end of it exactly what the script would be (in fact, the outline was so good that the script was only a slightly better read - and it's a great script).
My point is, be like Adam. Get your characters working, get your tone on the page, let your voice live in the outline, and give each scene a beginning, middle, and end.
It is so tempting at this stage to just write a damn scene already. And if you're stuck or tired of outlining, go ahead. But only enough to get the juices flowing. Then go back to your outline. Fill in the blanks and then fill in the blanks between the blanks. Read it backwards and forwards. Is your story working and making sense? Are your characters like actual 3D people? Is your tone and voice ringing through. No? Then... iron out the creases, steamroll the bumps, squish the rolled-up cookie dough down with the back of a spoon until your outline is smooth as a smooth thing.
When you're done the outline, it's going to be so detailed and crease-free that writing the first draft of your script should take, oh, about 5 hours (you know, depending on your WPM).
Then you'll spend the next six weeks rewriting. But I get ahead...
*And then I hope you will add a few tips in the comments section to help me out. Lord knows I need it.
** A lot of people will tell you not to do this. No character moments for the sake of character moments, but I say, if you're writing that kind of pilot, go for it. What would Greek, or The OC, or Gilmore Girls, or even Buffy be without pure lovely character moments?
*** People talk about this a lot, but what does it really mean? To me, it means that something happens that you did not see coming. Something that makes your character rethink what they're trying to do, or gives them an idea for a new way to solve their problem, or adds layers to their problems they did not expect. This act break should make the audience say "No way!"