What Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' Outline Can Teach You About Storytelling
Knives Out is a great script that started from a simple outline. Check it out.
At one point or another, every great film starts as the germ of an idea. That germ spreads, and suddenly you have the writing disease. Sorry, this metaphor went sideways, but we've all been in that place where we get an idea that makes us excited, but how do we know if that idea is actually worth anything?
For me...I make an outline to see if the story tracks.
Don't trust me? Well, Rian Johnson does it too, so trust him! He's amazing!
[Spoilers for Knives Out below.]
If you spent 2019 and 2020 with your knives in, I hate to break it to you, but you're missing out. The murder mystery was a blast, and we have the script available for you to read and download.
Now, a few months after its release, Rian Johnson is showing us how the idea began in his mind.
He tweeted out a photo of the outline he used to begin writing. It's a simple beat sheet that helps him layout the story.
This little hand-drawn outline is fantastic. It shows you the major plot points, and how he then could spend time writing the interstitial scenes that would bolster those big moments.
In a recent interview with Rian, he said almost 80% of his writing process is outlining.
“What I’m doing here is going sequence by sequence, and thinking even not so much about mechanics of the plot, but more about the story - more about what is drawing the audience through, sequence by sequence, with the story and what the stakes are and where we’re going with it - and then what the turn is at the end of each one of those sequences that kind of catapults us into the next set of stakes. And it’s only when I have that whole thing laid out on that sized thing, so I can see it all on one visual gulp, that I can jump into actually doing the work of writing. So yeah, it’s not even starting from the end and working backwards. I start like zoomed out like a satellite picture, and I work like that. And then the typing is the last ten percent of the process. The typing of the script is not the easy part, but it’s the smaller part of the process compared to the planning, for me.”
Let's take a closer look at the outline.
Here's a list of everything he began with:
- Prelude - We know this is when Harlan's body is found after his breakfast is made.
- First Q's - I think Q stands for questioning, so this is when we meet the family.
- Blanc - His arrival and our introduction to him.
- Second Q's - This is where Blanc digs into the family's motives.
- M's story - Here's where we understand who Marta is and her predicament
- Blanc and Marta at the Party - We see Blanc survey the situation and juxtapose Marta against the Thrombey clan.
- Covering tracks - We're actively rooting for Marta to cover up her murder.
- Ransom - enter Chris Evans and his sweater.
- Will reading - Here's a twist, Marta gets the money and new adversaries.
- Marta flees - Marta can't stand the pressure or the family/news hounding her, so she heads home.
- Ransom/Marta confession & Family plotting - the family vows to thwart Marta, meanwhile, she tells Ransom the truth.
- MEO (or MEG?) - this is hard to read, but I think it's when Marta gets the call and Meg tries to guilt her.
- Caught - I'm assuming this is when Ransom and Marta head to the burnt down sample center and know Blanc has them.
- Fran - Marta goes to the exchange of information and is caught with another dead body.
- Confess - this is when Blanc and Marta have their one on one time.
- Confessional to the Fam - Marta is going to tell the family when...
- Blanc stops her - self-explanatory.
- Library - this is a tenant of the genre, as Blanc explains what happened and gives us the big reveal.
These beats of the story lay the entire thing out for us.
One thing I found to be surprising is that Johnson didn't include opening or closing details. Perhaps he finds those strong images later while writing, or perhaps he doesn't want to crowd the page on this pared-down outline.
Either way, the most important lesson here is to outline.
This kind of preparation makes sure you don't get writer's block and always have ideas moving forward at a brisk pace. I'm super appreciative to Johnson for sharing this look at how a nugget becomes a multi-million dollar movie.
It's doing gangbusters at the box office and deservedly so.
I can't wait to see what he has for us next...rumor has it we're getting a sequel. Stay tuned.
What's next? Learn how to write a screenplay!
Screenwriting is hard. But to become a filmmaker, you need to learn scriptwriting to master storytelling. We'll give you free lessons.
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