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Joseph Mallozzi's Production Diary

Chapter 3: The Outline
A blow by blow breakdown of the production process from concept to finished episode

Way back when I was studying at McGill University, somewhere between my Bachelor of Arts degree and my Masters in English literature, I tended bar at one of the campus’s “quieter” watering-holes.  Among the assortment of oddball regulars that frequented the place was a fellow nicknamed Chef.  Now in spite of the fact that everyone called him “Chef”, Chef rarely, if ever, talked about food.  What Chef preferred to talk about was the Great American novel he was going to write.  Time and again he’d saddle up to the bar and tell me all about the literary masterpiece he would someday complete.  But even though he seemed quite sincere and very determined, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy because I knew, deep down, that his beloved novel would never get written.  And it wasn’t because it was a bad idea or because I’d seen a movie with the exact same plot several months earlier.  Chef was destined to failure for the simple reason that he didn’t have a plan.

Never underestimate the importance of careful planning.  Because he had a plan in 3rd century B.C., Hannibal was able to score a decisive military victory over the Romans.  Because they had a plan for Superbowl III, the New York Jets were able to defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.  And because the owners of the bar I was working at didn’t have a plan when they opened the place, the university administration revoked their liquor license, leading me to spend many an endless evening eating bacon and onion pizza, serving orange juice and sausage sandwiches, listening to Chef talk about his damn novel.

An outline is to writing what that map of the Alps was to Hannibal.  It is a blueprint of the script you are going to write, an overview designed to ensure that there are no surprises in store for you later on.  For instance, if you dispense with an outline, you could be halfway through your script when you suddenly realize that Lamont the cab driver couldn’t possibly be Maureen’s long lost brother because you’ve already established his childhood as a Parisian street urchin.  If you’d done an outline, you could have foreseen the problem.  Similarly, it really helps to have fellow writers and producers express misgivings with plot developments early, when they’re easier to address.  As a rule, your fellow writers and producers will let you know about these key story concerns at the outline stage, thereby saving you the trouble of a major rewrite at the script stage.  Actually, this isn’t a rule per se but a common courtesy usually extended the writer.  Usually.

Outlines are specific to the type of script you are writing.  In the case of Stargate SG-1, the show (and thus the outline) is made up of six parts: a tease and five acts.  The tease, or teaser, is essentially a taste of what’s to come, an appetizer of the episode you are going to watch.  Hammond announces his retirement effective immediately.  The SGC receives word there is a Goa’uld mother ship headed for Earth.  The team makes a startling off-world discovery.  The first four acts are the body of the story.  Maybe SG-1 heads off on a mission.  Complications ensue.  The action builds throughout each of these four acts, culminating in various cliffhanger “Act outs”.  The team is captured.  They hit a dead end.  Osiris makes an impromptu appearance.  Finally, it’s time for the denouement.   In the fifth act, we wrap up our story.  The enemy is defeated.  Our allies are rescued.  SG-1 saves the day.

A tease and five acts.  It’s as simple as that.

The Time: Januaryish, 2003.
The Place: Conference room, the Bridge Studios.
The Mission: Write back to back outlines for two scripts, “Bubble World” and “Felger Gate Screw-Up”.

In order to write an outline, you must first “break” the story.  Breaking a story is pretty much what it sounds like.  You break the story down into a tease and five acts, breaking those six sections down into individual scenes (an average of 4-5 per act) covering all of the major dramatic beats.

When Paul and I break a story, we usually do so in the conference room.  I’ll sit on one side of the long conference table, snacking on mixed nuts.  Paul will stand on the other, armed with a blue (occasionally black) marker, prepared to get it all down on the big white board.  “Bubble World” is up first because it has been slotted fifth in the production schedule.  Paul points out that we need a proper title.  We toss around some possibilities, entertain a few notions, shoot down one another’s lame ideas.  Suddenly, it’s two hours later.  Lunchtime.  Paul, defeated, scrawls “Bubble World” on the board.

We return to the room, nice and sleepy after a plateful of turkey/pasta/double dessert.  Where were we?  Oh, yeah.  The very beginning.  Paul writes “Tease” up on the board and then, directly below it: INT. CONTROL ROOM – SGC – DAY.  Each scene starts with a scene heading, be it EXT.(exterior) or INT.(interior), CARTER’S LAB or ALIEN TERRAIN (place), and DAY or NIGHT (time).  Interior, the control room, Stargate Command, daytime.  Daniel comes in on Carter monitoring a MALP transmission.  The video feed is up on one of the monitors.  The MALP is making its way through a mist-filled, toxic environment.  But we can make out what appears to be a mysterious manmade structure in the distance.  What looks like…a bubble.  As Daniel and Carter look on, the MALP nears the dark-grey structure and - penetrates it.  For a brief instance, they glimpse something incredible: a lush garden oasis in the midst of this hellish world.  And suddenly, the monitors go to static.  They’ve lost the signal.  What the heck was that?  End Tease.

When breaking a story, it’s always a good idea to know what you are working toward.  For example: What do we want to accomplish in this act?  What is the cliffhanger moment that will end the act?  It’s always a good idea to have a plan for the plan.  I remember working on another show where there was no plan for the plan.  Paul and I sat in a room with two other writers and the show runner who started the ball rolling by asking: “So, what happens in scene one?”  We tossed out ideas, spun them, decided, and moved on to scene two.  Then scene three.  Then scene four.  Instead of working toward a goal (What will happen in this act?  How will it end?  What is our cliff-hang “Act Out”?), we were proceeding blindly through the story by trial and error.  Curiously, the other writers seemed perfectly content using this method.  ‘If it works for them,’ I remembered thinking, ‘who am I to argue?’  Unfortunately, it worked for them only so long as it took them to realize it wasn’t working – which was about seven and a half hours later.  We had to scrap everything we had done and start over from scratch.  I recall Paul and I being somewhat…displeased. 

Back to the task at hand.  Outlining the outlining process.  Once we had the tease to “Bubble World”, we moved on to the body of the story, hammering out every beat of every act.  In Act I, the team discovers a community living within the bubble.  In Act II, SG-1 learns that there is more to this community than meets the eye.  In Act III, Carter makes a horrifying discovery that sends the story off in a wild new direction.  In Act IV, SG-1 acts to avert disaster but, as in all good fourth act breaks, they are thrown a curveball that compromises the mission.  We put it all up on the board.  On occasion, Rob, Damian, and Peter drop by the conference room to see how we are doing and offer their unsolicited (but always welcome) advice.

In the end, it takes us a couple of days to break the story - about the time it takes for Paul to come up with a proper title.  As I copy our outline off the board, Paul erases “Bubble World” and replaces it with “Revisions”.

We put the outline out to the rest of the writing department.  They look it over and offer their comments/ suggestions.  We change Aidan’s name to Nevin because we had a character named Aidan (Corso) in season 6’s “Forsaken”.  We change Evanna to Evalla because Evanna reminds Paul of Ivana Trump.  And Parlan becomes Pallan because – well, it just sounds better.  Paul and I return to the office, make the changes, then set the “Revisions” outline aside.  One down.  One to go.

We return to the conference room to break “Felger Gate Screw Up”.  Paul stands, marker in hand, poised to write down the title.  So, what’s it gonna be? Well, this episode will see the return of the SG-1-worshipping Felger from “The Other Guys” (No, it wasn’t all a dream).  He invents a virus capable of infecting a specific gate and scrambling its DHD, effectively shutting it down.  It seems like a good idea, but when the virus is tested, it spreads rapidly throughout the gate network, shutting down the entire system.  Teams are stranded off-world, a certain system lord is taking advantage of the situation to make a major power play, and O’Neill is somewhat…displeased.  It’s a race against time to restore the gate network before it's too late.

I suggest the title: “Domino Effect”.  Paul counters with: “System Crash”.  On we go, through: “Deadlock”, “Paralysis”, “Gridlock”, “No Way Back”.  We go back and forth for what seems like forever.  Frustrated, fatigued, and borderline giddy, we begin scraping the bottom of the barrel.  The titles grow increasingly ridiculous, bearing little if any relation to the story:  “Flashpoint!”  “Dark Gambit!”  “Twilight of Nevermore!”, then so ridiculously all-encompassing they could apply to most any story ever written: “Conflict!”  “Stuff Happens!”  “Crossroads” (oh, we already used that one in Season 4).  It’s not until the day after we hand in our script that Robert comes up with the title to our script: “Avenger 2.0”.

The outline is a cinch to write up compared to coming up with the title.  It takes us only a couple of days to hammer out a tease and five solid acts.  But it takes Robert no time at all to point out that the first act would make a better second act break.  So it takes us only one more day to revise the outline.

Mission accomplished.  With the outlines complete, we can finally get started on what is perhaps the most fulfilling part of the production process: writing the script.

More on that later.

In my next instalment, I’ll focus on how the script is written and revised for production, a labor of love fully realized through the power of the imagination.  In short, one can look at the script as a finely crafted work of art akin to a Picasso, or a Rembrandt, or a Monet – or one of those Luciano Pavarotti paint-by-numbers pictures he tried to fob off on his fans.

Joseph Mallozzi is a Writer and Executive Producer for Stargate SG-1

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