Inside Out vs. Outside In

The great debate: character to story or concept to character. Face it: you’re either one or the other. If you think you’re both at the same time, I’d really love to hear from you and learn how you do it, because it seems to me there’s a huge canyon in between and I’m waiting for someone to build me a bridge.

What is “inside out” and what is “outside in”?

“Inside Out” is when a writer finds the story seed with a character or character trait and then grows the story out from there. The story and in effect the plotting all grows from the internal world of that character.

“Outside In” is when a writer begins with a premise, a concept, a situation, and then works backwards from that concept to find the character that best suits that world.

I’m an outside in writer and always start with an interesting “what if?” That is the compelling seed for me – the trust of story. I like projects that are heavily story driven. If I don’t have a compelling “what if” situation, then I never get enough momentum within the world to grow that into a hook. I’ve had a couple of character-driven story ideas, but they never get big/hooky/commercial enough to justify me spending any time on them, because I think they’re a hard sell – and also it’s not my passion. I’d rather see something smart with a hard-driving story than something pretentious and meandering with no story at all, just concept or relationships. But, that’s just me.

I know a lot of inside out writers. These writers start with character and try to grow that character and the relationships into something that will motivate a feature film.

I think I’m starting to understand that inside out writers start with the details and then work to grow those details “out” into an umbrella idea or concept. These scripts can offer up tangible, real-world characters who connect with the reader and make the reader really feel for that character’s choices. The flip side of that is relationship nuances aren’t concepts – most times, you can’t boil that down into a universal concept that’s easily pitchable in 10 seconds. The pitfall with the inside out is that the writer will never actually end up with a concept big enough to motivate a feature film.

For myself, I can say that these are my least favorite scripts to read – the indulgent little character drama wherein people chitty-chatty their way through a stage play of a screenplay hoping to somewhere, somehow, magically find a story in there. Woe to you if I’m your reader. I can sniff you out in five pages.

Outside in writers start with the big picture, an umbrella concept, and then discover the details underneath that umbrella as they go. As they say, god is in the details – and many concept driven screenplays never find their god. Many concepts are an easy sell – the scripts I read where I know what the conflict is within the first 5 pages and laugh and think, “Now here’s a movie.”

However, the pitfall with the outside in script is that the characters never seem fully real. The world never takes on any real consequence or density, and I never feel emotionally invested in the characters, or, consequentially, what they do.

So, I’m asking you, how to bridge? Which writer are you, and how do you cross the divide?

I spoke with an outside in professional writer recently who told me that he beats out his story, writes the first act, and then once his characters are on the page and he finds their voice and they start to come more to life, he stops writing, returns to the beat sheet and then re-beats, directed by his newly fleshed out characters. I’m going to use this technique in my next script to try to create more depth of character.

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