The actual writing of your script is the fun part. But, just like any form of writing, you have to know where you’re going first. Organization is important. That’s where a script outline comes into play. Understanding your central character’s desire, and capturing the scenarios they attract for themselves, should guide that process.
There is no straightforward way to know how to outline a screenplay. But these tried-and-true guidelines will help you crack the structure for your character’s journey.
1. Character should inform how to outline a screenplay
To learn how to outline a screenplay, you must start with a basic plot trajectory. And this can only come from understanding the desires of your protagonist.
Think about what your character wants, and what progression of increasingly-difficult obstacles (and people) he or she will organically attract.
Upping the tension is crucial in a screenplay outline. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
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Whether or not they get what they want, decide how your protagonist changes throughout their journey. This is their character arc.
The character arc is crucial to the script outline. You take the audience on a journey, therefore we need to track the character's emotions as we go.
All of these things must be determined in order for you to grapple with your act structure -- the foundation of your story.
2. Use act structure to organize the parts of your script outline
Thankfully, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time you need to lay down your structure. In fact, plot structure is as old as Aristotle.
Simply put, act structure means having a beginning, middle, and end. In Film and TV terms, this referred to as three-act structure.
One very popular resource for dramatic structure is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Its very simple formula breaks your plot into eight distinct “beats.” Each beat has suggested page counts for when they need to happen. But you don’t have to be strict about it.
A beat sheet will help you nail the major plot turns that round out your character’s arc. You can then flesh these out in your script outline.
Remember, plot is character. They’re two sides of the same coin!
3. Extend your beats into scenes with a step script outline
Your script outline, often referred to as a “step outline,” is where you extend your high-level beats into individual scenes.
Your beat sheet is high-level. So the number of scenes required to realize those beats are entirely up to you. There are resources out there to give you a rough estimate of how many scenes you need per act. But again, it’s about what your character’s arc requires -- there are no rules.
You can include acts, scene numbers, and scene headings to organize your script outline.
And try to connect the dots with as few scenes as possible. Be economical, and don’t bore the audience with too much exposition. Revisions will help with that.
Make sure there’s an inciting incident in act one, and plenty of conflict in each beat.
Writing scenes for your script outline
Every writer is different. Some writers like getting very specific with their script outline. Others need a map of generally where they’re going but worry about over-engineering their plot if they get too detailed.
Having a script outline helps clarify the different parts of a script. Barton Fink (1991)
How detailed you want to get is entirely up to you. But it’s fair game to include detailed descriptions, characterizations, and even dialogue if you so choose.
I like to get pretty detailed. That way, when I sit down to write, I’m only worried about writing the scene in a compelling way. However, I have also experience getting to a scene I thought I carefully outlined, only to realize that it didn’t work. D’oh!
Point is, you can’t plan everything in a film outline. At some point you just need to get started. After all, writing is rewriting.
4. The golden rule is “never and then”
Script outlines can be boring to read. Make sure your scenes have a direct cause-and-effect relationship with one another.
Years ago, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone shared a very helpful nugget on how they mastered this technique.
Once you have all of your scenes together in your script outline, think about how you would explain them to someone.
You should never need the words “and then” in between any of your scenes. That would disrupt the flow of cause-and-effect crucial to any plot.Consider this beat from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Indiana Jones discovers the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls.”
A film outline is less cumbersome when the cause-and-effect is clear. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
If you were explaining the plot to someone, you’d follow this scene with something like: “... but soon the Nazis arrive, steal the ark from him, and seal him inside.”
If Indiana Jones, say, got lonely and struck up a conversation with one of those snakes then… yeah, I can hear you yawning.
The point is, the words “but,” “therefore,” and “so” denote cause-and-effect. “And then” does not. So this is a good litmus test for knowing if your plot is on track.
5. Find a script outline example that suits you
Looking at examples from professional writers can inform how to outline a screenplay your own way.
THE ONE-PAGE SCRIPT OUTLINE
If you’re just looking to write a pithy list of scenes to get you started, you’d be well-served by the one-page outline accomplished screenwriter John August used for his script Big Fish.
A one-page script outline example from John August
THE SEQUENCE OUTLINE
Writing on his website, August said he then made a longer sequence outline after writing his first draft. He used this to evaluate how well the script was balancing the time spent in the different worlds within his story.
A sequence script outline example from John August
THE BASIC SCREENPLAY OUTLINE
Oscar-winner Tony Gilroy said 30-to-80 page outlines are necessary for his own process. There aren’t many publicly available examples of long outlines like this to share, however WikiHow hosts a script treatment example that is shows the gist (albeit at only 11 pages).
A very straightforward script outline template PDF, compliments of WikiHow
Up next: Launch your writing career!
As John August puts it, “The correct way to write your screenplay is whatever gets it written.” We hope learning how to create a script outline with our free template gets the job done for you.
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