The Screenwriting Process – Step 5. Outline… again!

(or, the art of writing a “scriptment”)

So, you’ve got a solid outline of five or six pages that step through what’s going to happen in your script — you can now just crack on and write the damn thing, right?

Nope.

You’re going to hate me now. But it’s time to outline again.

I can’t stress how important the process of outlining is (at least to how I write). Writing the actual screenplay feels like the easiest thing you’ve ever done with this surfeit of planning.

In fact, the process of writing should actually take less time than drafting your outline. When you outline properly, you can really pound the pages of your script out quickly, and you can concentrate on the actual act of writing because you’re not constantly worrying about where the story is going next.

Once I’ve got my five to six page outline, the next step I go through is to write what has been called (not too attractively, in my opinion) a scriptment. One of the biggest proponents of the scriptment is James Cameron, and you can see an example of one he wrote for a Spiderman movie, here.

why write a scriptment?

The idea of writing a scriptment is to take the pressure off the actual work of writing the screenplay.

Nothing you write here needs to be seen by anyone. You don’t need to write any dialogue (though I often jot down bits and pieces). Basically, you worry more about what your characters are going to say, than the way that you are going to say it.

Following the structure you laid out in your outline at the last stage, you are going to write out every scene header, everything that someone does and – without necessarily writing the words of the dialogue – what everyone is going to say to everyone else.

Some tips for this stage:

  • Do it in screenplay format – that way you can use parts of your scriptment when you’re actually writing the script. (BTW – I’m not going to talk much about screenplay format on this site: but you can find lots on formatting with a quick google).
  • Try not to cheat and be elliptical: “at this point in the script there will be a fight.” Write out the fight, tell us who is punching who and – more importantly – why. This will help when you write the action sequence later.
  • Only write out dialogue if it is super important – “With great power comes great responsibility…” The idea is to write out the force of what people can say. That way, on your next pass you can really concern yourself with craft.
  • Do it at a good pace: don’t rush it, but don’t be worried about crafting the perfect phrase or bon mot. This is a document only you are going to see.

Once you’ve gone through your scriptment, re-write it. Change anything you don’t think works, fill in the blanks where you wrote something like: “somehow how the detective discovers who the murderer is”, and make sure the whole thing is water-tight in terms of character motivations and logical plot consistency. Plug those plot holes…

Because. Wait for it. The next stage is going to actually involve writing a script…

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