How to write a screenplay outline

Latest posts by Liya Swift (see all)

From Ralphie’s theme in A Christmas Story to Bart Simpson’s book report on Treasure Island, outlines were one of the school writing assignments we had growing up. Learning Roman numerals, how to use lower case letters, and all of the other formattings helped us organize our thoughts and put them in a logical order.

Although we may have grumbled about it, those outlines were a huge timesaver. No matter if we were writing a short piece of fiction, history paper, or book report, the outline gave us broad strokes that could be finalized before we started writing the paper in earnest.

With the 30,000 foot view, the main points could be moved into better positions or fine-tuned with additional subheadings and subsections. Whether it was a full thought or just a few words, this step by step outline meant a little extra work but saved a lot of time during the writing process.

It Finally Pays Off!

Not that writing a paper about the Italian Renaissance isn’t interesting but now you get to use those outline skills to tell your story. In some cases, screenwriters will use a beat sheet to get down the major points of a movie. These are usually just a list of words that call out scenes, plot points, and character arcs.

Consider these story beats (scenes) as an outline to an outline. There could be 20 beats, there could be 40, there could be more. With enough experience, a screenwriter could use a beat sheet in place of an outline. When first learning how to write a screenplay, though, we recommend the outline process.

Not only will it help the development process, but there are also fewer opportunities to miss an important aspect of a scene than when you’re just making a list. With an outline, you’ll go scene by scene to make sure key points are highlighted. When you sit down to write the script, the movie will already be laid out.

You may be thinking, “Why have an outline at all?” Professional screenwriters like the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino don’t use them. That’s true! As soon as you pen multiple feature films and win a few Academy Awards for writing, you can do whatever you want to. For now, let’s get working on your first Oscar.

I, II, III

In fact, you can even learn from those same filmmakers. Pick a movie: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs, or whatever you might be in the mood for. Grab your laptop and outline the movie while you watch it. Learn what needs to be included and what can be added later while writing a movie script.

At the end of the movie, take a look at what you have. If the outline fits on one page, that’s not enough information to start your film. If the outline is 10 pages long, there’s probably too much information. An outline is the roadmap of your story – not a Google Map Street View.

Every story structure has three acts – were you able to pick them out in the movie you watched? Raising Arizona introduced the main characters (Act 1) and the second act confrontation all in the first 11 minutes of the film, even before the title sequence appeared. That left a lot of time to finish the second act and get through the third act (which, by the way, didn’t last much longer than the first).

Reservoir Dogs followed a decidedly different route when it came to the three-act structure. Leading with the second act, the first and third acts were sprinkled throughout the movie. The point: not every screenplay needs to be linear and not every act needs to have equal screen time. Nevertheless, every act needs to appear in your screenplay in order for the final product to satisfy its viewers.

Getting Started

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when it comes to putting together an outline. Hollywood (and other places known for their movie-making magic) may be one of the most creative places on earth, but it does like its structure when it comes to putting pen to paper.

Which means there are plenty of outline templates available online for free. Celtx.com is a popular film writing site that has outline, treatment, and script templates that anyone can follow. Even Microsoft offers movie outlines and screenplay templates. What we’re saying is there’s nothing keeping you from starting that outline now, like right after you read the rest of this blog.

Open a template and get to work. Start simple, using the three acts as your main headers. Subheads could be locations, introductions, obstacles, or actions. Subsections can fill out the scenes even more if needed. Keep writing, writing, and writing until that final period.

Then go get a snack, a drink, or put it away for the rest of the day. After you’ve distanced yourself a bit from the work, go back and review what you have written. Does it still make sense? Is anything missing?

If this is your first effort at writing an outline, or even a screenplay, a fresh set of eyes can do wonders for honing your skills. Wouldn’t it be nice if those eyes belonged to a seasoned professional?

Have a Pro Look Over Your Outline

The Film Connection Screenwriting Workshop allows externs to work remotely with screenwriters who are currently working within the industry. These mentors will walk you through every step of writing a “Killer Script,” including how to set up an outline for optimal success of the final draft.

Learning the difference between themes and genres, how to write dialogue, and setting up action scenes are just a few of the lessons you’ll receive from your mentor. Even signing up for inclusion in the Writers Guild, securing an agent, and shopping your script is covered in our workshop.

Is this the first step in your screenwriting career? It could be – but it all depends on you. Film Connection’s programs and workshops are designed to give you one-on-one time with industry experts no matter where you are, learning how the business works and how to do the job. But bear in mind that they won’t do the job for you.

If you’re ready to put in the work, be responsible with your time (and the time of your mentor), and stick with it until the end, we can put you in position to pursue screenwriting as your career but it’s up to you to give it 110%. Apply today.

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