Things I am asked every day

1)Should I outline?

You have to understand something: without knowing you, I have no way to know whether or not you are the kind of person who would be helped or hindered by outlining. But here’s a way to think about it. Outlines are roadmaps, they represent a way you CAN go to get to your destination. My writing partner, David Levien, and I, usually work from some kind of outline. But to us, it’s never a limiting document. It just a series of cards or pages that set out the story as we have it figured at the moment.
For us, the outlining process is really where we get the bones of the story down, or the initial idea of how we are telling the story. We may spend longer outlining than we do writing the rough first draft; once we have that draft down, then everything is open to change.

Some people worry that outlines constrict freedom. I used to feel that way. And there are times, I don’t outline (like when a story presents itself, right at the beginning, as a series of scenes, Then I may just jam for as long as I can until I am brought up short).

But lately, I find that outlining is more freeing. It kind of makes the actual scene writing, the dialog writing less freighted with implications, less like a grind.

So: should you outline? I have no idea. The Coen Brothers never do. Tony Gilroy always does. How’s this: don’t stress about it. Don’t convince yourself that to do it is to be a workhorse and not to do it is to be an artist. Just try one way. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, try the other.

2) How do I know when to show my work?

This one I can answer: show your work when you have no idea how to make it any better without getting some kind of feedback. Or when you have gotten feedback from a few trusted readers, have addressed it, and now have no idea what else to do.

The truth is, you will get better at figuring this out as you go along. All artists learn how to gain some objectivity over time. Well, all sane artists do. If you’re crazy…if you’re crazy, do whatever you want. You will regardless of what I say anyway, right?

If you’re not crazy, try and learn your own rhythm. Here’s what I have learned about myself and gaining objectivity–it takes me at least 24 hours to know if a scene I have written works. Meaning: once I barrel through a scene, get to the end, do a quick rewrite of the dialog, I LOVE it. I am sure, in that instant, that I have nailed it.
If you were to read it and try and change even a line, I might hit you.

But about a day later, when the adrenaline and attachment is gone, I see, immediately, where I have written too much, gotten carried away, become redundant. At that stage, I will start begging you to tell me where it sucks.

And then, in about a week, when that scene is just another amongst a whole bunch of scenes, I will have total objectivity. Will look at it like a mechanic might.

Same pattern repeats with groups of scenes, acts, the entire screenplay. That’s my rhythm. Figure out your own, and you make life a whole bunch easier.

Which brings us to the related third question.

3) When and how do I rewrite?

Moe Koltun (@moeproblems), a college student, scary good poker player and friend of my son (@sammykoppelman) and mine, asked me this one yesterday. I answered in email form, which I paste below (with some cleaned up grammar, maybe).

The important thing is to put it away long enough that you gain some objectivity, forget what lines or ideas really jazzed you as you were writing, forget where you kind of lied to yourself that the plot stuff made sense.
But not so long that you don’t feel connected to the over all spirit of the thing.
For me, that’s around 10 days, probably, where it has kind of cooled off but not gotten cold.

But that’s after I have completed a real first draft, meaning: when I am writing a first draft, I try and get to the end, so that scenes exist in some written form. But that’s not truly a first draft. That’s a rough draft. As I am doing that, I kind of informally keep track of what isn’t working and let it roll around in my mind when I am living life away from the pages, away from the script.
So the thing stays very alive and present for me. I get to the end of the rough draft and then go through it again quickly, because I am making connections very fast at that point, kind of carrying the whole of the piece in my mind, if that makes sense. I am also a little obsessed at that point if it is a good one, one that could turn into something.
So on that pass through, I am cutting and shaping and really making progress toward a proper first draft.
I may do that twice or three times in a row, days apart or on consecutive days.
Then, when that process is finished, when it sort of seems like it works, or almost works or works the best I can figure at that time, that’s when I put it away and force myself not to deal with it for awhile.
Now, sometimes, during those days away, a line, a scene, a cut, a connection will occur to me. I ALWAYS write it down.
And then, 10 days later or whenever, when I come to the script, if I’ve done all this right, I am able to see the thing really clearly, with little excess pride or shame or other writer bullshit, and I can shape it into a presentable first draft, a public first draft.
Ok. So that’s three answered the best I can on this Sunday morning. Have more? Fire away. I can’t say when I’ll answer. But I promise that I will before too long.

One rule: do not pitch me ideas, ask if you can pitch me ideas, or try to get around this in any way.

Keep writing. Keep creating. Keep on.

Published by

Brian Koppelman

I'm co-creator/Executive producer of Showtime's Billions. Some of the films I've either written/produced/directed are Solitary Man, Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen, Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury, The Girlfriend Experience & the 30/30 Documentary on Jimmy Connors. I'm also the host of the podcast The Moment.

5 thoughts on “Things I am asked every day”

  1. Yea, im the same way. When i first finish a first draft, im so attached to it that I convince myself it is gold. Scenes that i always wanted to do, dialog i always wanted character’s to say, and moments that are emotional draining to me – in that brief instant or day, i wouldnt change it for the world. So i put iy away, very eager about it, but as the day goes on and my eagerness dies down, i start to second guess everything. And once those days has pasted, I see so much error, things that could be improved and represented on a better note. So on that note, i get you, but i usually hate the whole draft in general haha. Rewrites are a coming.

  2. Brian,
    Thank you for the comments about outlining . I started writing a couple of years ago. I struggled with the overall process, when to write, what to write about etc. . My type A perfectionistic trading personality didn’t allow me to relax and just write for a long time. An outline seemed so mechanical and path determined to me. Maybe that is why I went off into the weeds so often or lost momentum. For me an outline has been a god send. With an outline I can stand over the story and see how a change in direction will impact the whole story. Without an outline I feel I am in the story and unable to see the next twist or turn until I make it . Thank you for sharing your experience .

  3. Thanks for all your posts Brian. Very very helpful to someone trying to figure things out. 🙂

    My questions are:

    1) What are the top 3 screenwriters/scripts you think all aspiring writers should read to improve their craft?

    2) Which screenwriters/scripts would you recommend we read if we’re looking for the best examples of sparse writing?

    Thanks again! Your Vines and advice are awesome.

  4. Thank you for your inspiration& motivation Brian!

    When I write a scene, I often rewrite it while writing. This may sound absurd, but while I’m writing the dialog I always come up with better ideas. Therefore it takes ages before I’m done.
    However I think that these scenes are more rational, organised and thought through.

    But of course sometimes there are these emotional scenes, where the adrenaline pushes you through writing and you can’t stop or think, because you’re in a state of euphoria.

    I think that works good for me, because a screenplay should be organised somehow. It is just so much more difficult to write it the rewriting way!

    And also one of my biggest problems not only in writing but also in life, is my lack of self discilpline! It is terrible. For example if I have a deadline that comes from someone else, I’m able to write, because under stress I creat the best things.
    But it is impossible for me, to write FOR ME. I never reach my own deadline!

    I think a lot of people have a problem with discipline, so do you have an advice? 🙂

    Great blog,
    lots of love,

  5. I love reading your stuff not just for the great advice we should all internalize but because I so often recognize my stuff in what you say. It’s that – “Wait. He does that TOO?” that makes me think – with no justification at all – maybe if you have this same weird shit, me being a screenwriter might not be such a bizarre notion after all. Yer a good guy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s