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Updated: May 31, 2019

Writing guides and books will tell you that if you outline your writing project first, it will save you headaches and frustration later. But what if the outline is the source of your frustration. I've paralyzed myself so many times just thinking about an outline...

And how many people you know tell you "I have an idea for a story..." and then never write it?

I'm convinced that the planning or outlining process stops many people before they get started, including myself, which is why I sat down with the process to determine if there was a better way to approach it.

There are two types of writers - those that plan and those who just start writing. I’m a planner… and often times I’ll just start writing…

Don’t get me wrong – I love the planning part of writing (it’s the reason for my blog name) but sometimes I can take the planning aspect overboard. No joke, some of my projects have been in the planning stage for years. I promise it isn’t procrastination – it’s timing. Sometimes, no matter how hard you plan, the timing isn’t right to get yourself motivated to start writing.

Over the years, I've developed the following process to help me plan without going overboard and get my projects out of the planning stage fast...

My purpose and thought behind this is two-fold. One, through practice and experience I've learned that PLANNING IS NECESSARY, but also that how much you plan is entirely up to you and how you work. The second is that by outlining your idea, you'll quickly discover if it works. If during the outline process, you discover that the story is incomplete or doesn't work, you can put it away and come back later when you have the insight to fix it.

A quick story... I love "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving and always felt that it needed to be adapted into a musical by me - even though there are hundreds of musical versions in existence, none of them have ever had the gravitas of the story that I believe it should have. I started creating my outline in 2002. I've added to it throughout the years and only recently (in 2019) have I been able to relate the story I'm trying to tell with a personal experience of my own.

Sometimes, the outline process requires you to have an experience before you are able to write the show...

It's a little mystical, like waiting for the Gods of Musical Theatre to bestow upon you the right idea/story at the right time.

But there's nothing wrong with getting a head start, so here is part 1 of outlining your new musical...

Before we dig into the outline process, a disclaimer. This process has worked for me, I'm simply sharing with the hope that it may also help one of my readers (or more) but is not an official process. Any process related to writing should be about what works for you.


Open a blank document and start typing:

I start with "headers" and place all my notes, thoughts and ideas under the appropriate section.

There are no rules for what headers to include - the purpose is to get the idea out of your head and onto paper so that it can begin to grow into a "real" thing. Make as many headers as you want - the goal is to organize it around how you work.

This document then becomes the basis of all planning for your show. I work with this document for as long as it takes, adding more ideas, song lyrics, dialogue snippets – even removing things as my idea changes.

It's less of an outline and more of an "idea proposal" at this stage, but as we work through it, it will become your outline.

The thinking and planning through the outline process saves me the frustration of dealing with a broken story later. As long as my outline hits all the important plot points of the type of story I’m telling, I know that my final script will have a strong foundation.

No matter how many revisions it goes through.

On to STEP 2.

The following procedure works for adaptations – where you have an original short story, novel, movie, etc. The steps are a little different for an original story - basically you'll spend more time on character development and plot points, I'll do a blog on that process soon!

For now, list all actions from your source story in order, beat by beat:

Keep each action simple - WHAT HAPPENS to WHO and if you know - WHY


Now, go back and add the following "Basic Elements of a Musical", they are:


Don’t worry if you don’t know where each of these will happen or how, just add them to your list like this:

By doing this, you are 1) making sure you have all of them and 2) placing the power into your subconscious to create/develop and solve them.

Let's go back now and talk about those two different types of writers - those who plan and those who just start writing...


On some days I might have dialogue or a scene structure burning in me to get out. I go ahead and write it knowing that I might remove it later. Writing also helps me develop characters as well, because I start to "hear" how they speak in my head which can help me discover my story too.

If you have anything burning to get out. WRITE IT NOW. Create a header in your outline document and start writing.

By writing things down that have an intense need to get on paper, I find I remain more motivated about the project. And... SURPRISE, once you start combining all those various inspired vignettes together, you’ll be surprised how much of an outline and therefore a script you’ve already built.

Read your outline

Add anything else that comes to mind

And when you're done, you'll have combined all your thoughts, notes and action beats of your source story into one all encompassing document with placeholders for the "Basic Elements of a Musical."


One last step in Part I of outlining your musical...


Put your outline away.

You've put a lot of effort into your outline, it's time to put it away and let your subconscious work on it.

And it will.

Over the next days and weeks, ideas will start jumping out at you while you go about your daily routine. Keep a list - separate from your outline. You'll add them to your outline soon!

There are no hard and fast rules for how long you should put your outline away. On some projects I may wait a day, in my example for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" it was 17 years.

You'll know when it's time.

Outlining doesn’t have to be an obstacle to writing a new musical, a novel or a short story for that matter. In just a few easy workable steps, you’ll have the beginnings of your musical.

And there is much more work to come, but for now, sit back and be proud that you started! You're already ahead of most people...

Alan Saunders,

Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.

Check out for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!

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