/* Mobile Menu Retract ---------------------------------*/

core curriculum handout detail




This is likely your first experience submitting an outline for my approval. Please be prepared to have to revise your outline several times, based on my notes.

And here’s the warning: I’m really really picky.

I want your outline to be a blue-print for the action of your musical; told in present tense; with no editorializing. (You will have a BIG head start in understanding what I mean by this if you have already completed Unit 2 of the Book Lab - which is a crash-course in outlining).

I will be particularly pushy about the language you use for your outline: you only want to write what your audience will SEE and HEAR. Don’t draw conclusions; don’t set the mood; don’t state backstory; don’t tell me what your character is thinking or feeling, don’t be vague about your setting or the size of your cast; and don’t mention possible songs.


Don’t say “He is angry.”

Say “He throws a chair against the wall.”

In the first example, you are simply stating a fact - but that isn’t useful information for an outline, because you are simply TELLING me what you want me (as an audience member) to think. In the second example, you are SHOWING me an action; and ideally I (as an audience member) will come up with the conclusion that “he is angry” all on my own.

And yes, you could tell me “I’ll figure out what action he does when I actually write the scene” but NO - I don’t accept that. Because the decision about whether he throws a chair, or pouts, or shoots a man dead with his gun will have a HUGE impact on the way the rest of your story unfolds. Your story is about CAUSE and EFFECT - so if you don’t know the exact CAUSE now, how can you figure out what the EFFECT will be?


This isn’t a novel. An outline is a very dry collection of actions; it isn’t poetry or even prose. It’s simply functional.

Don’t say: “There is an ominous darkness in the air, and it is clear something terrible is about to happen.”

Say: “Bob throws open the door and rushes across the room, where he hides under a table, shaking with fear.”


If there are things about your characters and/or story that you need me to know, don’t simply STATE them as BACKSTORY; make sure you decide WHEN and HOW your audience will learn that information.

Don’t say: “Bob, a champion tennis player, enters the room.”

Say: “Bob enters the room, carrying a tennis racket and brandishing a large trophy.”


Careful not to let your outline devolve into dialogue - the temptation is great, but it will lengthen and clutter your outline and make it much harder to see clearly whether or not you have your story beats organized in a compelling way.

Don’t say: “Bob turns to Jane and says ‘I love you.’ She replies ‘I love you, too Bob’.

Say: Bob and Jane confess that they love each other.

(This might seem like only a slight difference - but believe me, once you begin writing dialogue, it is a slippery slope and before you know it you won’t be able to see your plot points for the quotation marks.)


Your audience will only know what they see and hear - so your outline is your chance to decide exactly WHAT to SHOW them to help make sure they will understand what the character is thinking or feeling. But simply stating what they are thinking or feeling will make you think you’ve done your job, when you really haven’t.

Don’t say: “It is clear that Bob really wants to tell Jane how much he loves her.”

Say: “Bob begins to speak, but then changes his mind.”

YES - it will NOT necessarily be clear that he was going to tell Jane how much he loved her - but that is exactly the point. Your audience won’t know what he was going to say - so you will need to determine whether or not the action you have given him is sufficient to get your point across. And remember - your audience doesn’t need to know EVERYTHING right NOW. Will this moment be ENOUGH for them to - eventually - understand what you want them to know about what he’s thinking?


Your outline is the place for you to figure out how big your cast is; and how many locations your set will need to have. Nobody is saying you have to write a three-person single-set show to get produced; but what you DO want to do is to make sure you don’t have more characters or sets than you NEED to tell the story convincingly.

Don’t say: “He stands outside, listening at the door, then walks inside the saloon that is filled with customers. He walks through a door at the other side of the saloon and into the manager’s office.”

Say: “He walks into the manager’s office, and comments on how full the bar is tonight.”


“He walks into the saloon where Fess, Davey, and Scoop are drinking at the bar and Lily is at the piano.”


Yes, this is a musical. So why shouldn’t you talk about songs?? Because - the outline (and the rough draft) are where you want to get the STORY DETAILS right. Decisions about what aspects of the story will be musicalized should be made later, by the whole team. Even if you are all already really sure that a specific spot will be musicalized, it is still your job as the bookwriter to write the PLOT of that moment - not simply to state that there will be a song.

Don’t say: “He sings a song about his feelings for her.”

Say: “Bob talks about how much he loves Jane; how he has loved her since the first moment he met her, and that today he is sure he is finally going to ask her to marry him.”

TAKE ALL OF THIS VERY SERIOUSLY, PLEASE. You will be writing a lot of outlines - and many more outline revisions - in the CORE program, and in any future dealings with NMI. We take outlines VERY seriously. Put in the work to get it right at this early stage of the game - and resist the urge to say “I’ll fix that when I write the dialogue”. That’s just not how musicals work. There are too many moving parts to a musical to give you the playwright’s luxury of figuring it out as you go along. Figure it out NOW - so your team doesn’t spend their time writing songs that are for the wrong characters at the wrong moments about the wrong topics.

But also remember that you don’t have to get it all right the first time. Do the best you can, and then USE your dramaturge to help you get the rest of the way there. It is my job to point out inconsistencies; or suggest where you might be able to consolidate scenes or characters; or ask questions about your lead character’s arc or the theme of your show. You don’t need to wait until it is PERFECT before you send it to me - but you can certainly minimize the boring feedback about the basics by adhering to my suggestions above; and we can concentrate together on the more interesting part of fine-tuning the heart and soul of your story.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: You will need an outline green light from me before you can begin writing your 15 Minute Musical - so master the form NOW.

Just keep telling yourself: only write down what the audience will SEE and HEAR. You can’t go wrong with that mantra.