On Not Shooting the Outline

My wife, Leela and I were trying various episodic TV from HBO, and we watched our first episode of ROME. Hundreds of Caesar’s troops on horseback, are trudging through the woods towards the Capitol. They come to a river. One Centurion looks to another and says “What river is that?” Centurion #2: “That’s the Rubicon.” The troops cross it.

Leela looked at me and scowls, “They’re just shooting the outline!”

You can imagine the dramatic outline of the story here: Caesar makes his decision. The troops prepare. The march starts. They cross the Rubicon, marking the first act of war in Caesar’s civil war.

What’s missing in the producers’ execution is some grace, some evocation of emotion, some decorative element, some genuine grubby humanity.

Mamet gets it right in On Directing Film: “...In the beautiful drama, each moment serves the purpose of the superobjective, and each moment is beautiful in itself. If the moment only serves the superobjective, we have plodding narrative pseudodrama, good only for object-lesson or ‘message’ plays.”

Not shooting the outline, or poetry, is about getting to know the plot point and using it as a springboard to let your humanity explore. This can come in any form of detail- beauty of language (be it verbal or visual), emotional depth, psychological clarity, connections and “poetic units”, great jokes, etc.

If your outline says “The surgeon accidentally put a guy’s feet on backwards” but you write:

The surgeon had finished up sewing
The feet on a man without knowing
He switched them around
Now he walks into town
They can’t tell if he’s coming or going
(-Edward Lear)

You’ve made poetry.

If you write, "Doctor, you've accidentally put the patient's feet on backwards" you've shot the outline. Or written a set-up for the Muppet Show's "Veterinarian Hospital."

Some writers find poetry in language. From Shakespeare to Lear to Mamet, they lock down the outline- the structure of the drama to allow the verbal landscape to soar. A hip-hop artist’s outline might be a single line: “Tell them how bad-ass your rhymes are” and from that 4 minutes of verse flows.

Other artists will find it in their drawings, lighting, composition, etc. Douglas Sirk transcended his “pseudodrama” with an excess of style. Osamu Tezuka dazzled with a brilliance in his craft.


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