We’re going to share with you a little known, but sure fire, method for improving your sense of structure.
Write a thumbnail sketch of what happens in each scene during a film as you watch it.
Sounds simple, and it is.
However, this is not a quick fix and will take the writing of many, many outlines before things start to fall into place.
Writing outlines is an invaluable exercise and we can’t stress enough the benefits it can bring to your writing. It will improve your sense of story structure no end, and the more outlines you write the better.
And, we always suggest writing outlines of movies in your chosen genre as a way of becoming more familiar with their structure and cinematic conventions.
Simply sit down with a laptop and write exactly what happens on screen as you watch.
Each scene in a film fulfils a specific function, and it is this that you need to capture in your summary.
Sentences should be short and to-the-point, describing only the basics of what happens and avoiding extraneous details. For example in There’s Something About Mary, you could write:
“At a barbecue, Ted tells Woogie he wants a family and that he’s been in love with Mary for 13 years. Woogie tells him to get in touch with Healy — a private eye he knows — who can find her for him.”
It’s always a good idea to start with a location, as in “At a barbecue” in order to establish the scene. Only the major beats of the scene need recording, so you should never write anything about how someone’s dressed, for example, unless it’s important to the story.
At the end of the film you should end up with an outline 3 — 5 pages long. The next stage is to break it down into its relevant acts and sequences. You can do this by double-spacing at the end of each sequence/act and writing the major plot points in bold directly onto the outline.
For example, at the end of Act 2 in There’s Something About Mary, you could write:
“Ted comes home to find Mary sitting with a letter. She asks if he hired Healy to spy on her. He admits he did and she yells at him to get out. Ted leaves and opens a note with an address on it. Act 2 Climax.”
The more outlines you write of films in any genre, but particularly the one you’re writing, the better.
You will soon not only start to gain more of a sense of structure but also of characterization, scene construction, dialogue etc. because you are being forced to watch films critically and not just for enjoyment.