The Screenwriting Process – Step 4. Outline

Categories Screenwriting Craft, The Process
How to outline your screenplay.

So.

You’ve got your inspiration, your premise, all your characters sorted. Surely now, you can jump into writing the actual damn screenplay?

As Shia LaBeouf would say: “No, no, no, no, NO!”

Now is the time to outline.

Nothing has improved the speed and quality of my writing than learning the importance of creating an outline (or as you see below, several different levels of outline). I spending as much time as humanly possible getting them just right. Almost to the point, where I start to think I’m wasting time, that I’m doing anything to avoid actually writing.

In actuality, the more detailed my outline, the easier the actual writing becomes.

Structure Sheet

Below, is the structure I use for my screenplay which is made up of 8 separate parts (it’s very much based on the system articulated in Screenwriting the Sequence Approach, by Paul Joseph Gulino), and this great article from Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon.

A massive mountain of web and print words have been written on the subject of structure, and so there are plenty of tools out there..

Whether or not you use this or another structure, it is useful and important that you find some kind of shape to guide your writing. It is not going to guarantee success, but it is going to mean that you can worry less about your screenplay running to 220 pages, wandering around aimlessly, and ending up with a complete mess.

Very briefly, what the structure above provides you is a way to start building up the story and produce a very short “structure sheet” outline.

For this first type of script outline, I write a sentence for each stage of the structure to write up the key objective of my character at this stage and what’s going to happen to them. Is this the way my story’s going to stay? Probably not. Am I going to stick slavishly to the structure in this outline? Nope. But it gets me thinking in terms of structure and gets me writing.

Beat Sheet

Now I’ve got a general idea of what I think is going to happen in each sequence, I want to expand that picture. The aim here is to take each of your sequences and break it down into five or six key points.

Why six or seven parts? Because each point will represent a scene of two-three pages each in your final script. You don’t exactly need to think of these as scenes, just as things that happen in your story. “So-and-so discovers that whats-her-name has left him”, or whatever. But if you have six or seven things happen in each sequence you will be in the right ball-park when you come and write up your script.

Don’t be too detailed at this stage, get down one sentence for each, and then run back over it a couple of times. Does everything happen in the film that you expected to happen? Does anything happen too early? Does anything feel out of place? Don’t worry – we’re going to outline more, so you can fix things in the next few iterations…

The side-by-side

The side-by-side is something that I used when starting out writing screenplays (and often return back to me when I feel like I’m losing a grip). It helped me to get a feel for how much stuff should happen in an average-sized film. It goes down one level more that the beat-sheet, and lays out the 110 pages of your screenplay, giving you an opportunity to make a short note about what will happen on each page (approximately each minute of your script).

The reason I call it a side-by-side is that I’ve found it most useful when you do a piece of analysis on another script (preferably professionally written and already produced).

Doing this shows you a couple of things. The first, is how few things happen in terms of actual plot in any one page of screenplay! The second is the way that professional screenwriters pace their scenes. Things that are really important may happen in half a page. Things that are perhaps less important could take three pages.

Don’t follow another writer’s structure slavishly, but by running your beat-sheet alongside a thorough analysis of another script, you can get a really good idea of how the structure of your plot should work.

(Just by-the-by, don’t write a script any longer than 120 pages. It’s too long. As soon as someone picks it up, they are going to hate you for having written it. Even if it is a Tarantino-esque piece of genius it will have to be cut when it’s filmed anyway. Be good and professional, write 110 pages, and everyone will be happy.)

Script Outline

After I’ve worked out my structure and written a couple of iterations of a beat-sheet, I will finally turn to writing an outline. It should answer, in chronological order what happens in your script: who, when, how and why?

Think of it as a short story. Try to avoid dialogue (we’ll do that later), and excessive description (that’s not going to make it into the final cut of your screenplay, anyway).

For some examples of some great outline documents (not to mention a whole host of other great resources from the screenwriter and blogger), take a look at John August’s script library.

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I'm James, a screenwriter working in the film and TV industry. To get in touch, see my e-mail contact page.

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