Issue 12: Lesson 12—Writing the Screenplay (Outlines)

Now the fun really begins as we start to put the flesh on the bones of your screenplay! Following on from last lesson’s introduction to writing your logline, we now move on to the outline. Here’s where we begin the process of molding your initial idea into a workable screen story…

If you recall, in lesson 11 we started with the small but crucial step of summing up your movie in one sentence. This defined the protagonist, his goal and the main obstacles in his way. While this is a useful exercise, it would be a mistake to think that’s all you need to do by way of structuring and that you can now boot up Final Draft and start writing those magical words ‘fade in…’.

The next stage of the process is to fill in the blanks and draw a roadmap from page one all the way through to those equally-magical words, ‘fade out…’ around 90 to 120 pages later.

Using a roadmap analogy is quite apt to highlight the importance of the outline.

Let’s say you want to drive from your home town to another town 200 miles away. You have a rough idea of where your destination town is, but after setting off you find the main road is closed and the diversion leads you into places you’ve never been before. Soon, you’re lost and that final destination seems further away than ever, even though you’ve been driving for hours.

Now, imagine taking that same trip after spending time plotting your route on a map. Armed with the right information, you can go forth, secure in the knowledge that you have the ability to deal with any problems or diversions as they arise and find your way to where you’re going. You might still get a little lost, but the map will guide you back to where you need to be.

This neatly sums up the function of the outline. It offers the opportunity to plan out your screenplay and figure out any problems before you dive into the writing process.

A word of warning at this stage: During your trawl through the internet for screenwriting resources, you might come across such terms as ‘step outline’, ‘treatment’ and ‘beat sheet’, with different explanations of what they all are. Indeed, if you reach the stage of working with producers, you might be asked to produce a variety of different length documents that tell the story in various degrees of detail.

However, for our purposes, the outline is ‘for your eyes only’ – a document whose only purpose is to help you plan and structure your story. As such, feel free to write it however you wish. Our function here is simply to offer some guidance on how to put your outline together so you get the most out of the process and, ultimately, write the best possible screenplay.


So, how do you write an outline?

Essentially, the outline is a breakdown of all the events in you movie. Note, we use the word ‘event’ and not ‘scene’. We’ll get into this a bit more in later lessons, but broadly speaking, an ‘event’ can take place over a number of scenes. For example:

– Dog Day Afternoon starts with three characters (Stevie, Sal and Sonny) sitting in the car outside a bank. They talk for a bit, then go inside the bank. Stevie runs off. Sonny and Sal hold up the bank.

This event of Sonny and Sal sticking up the bank comprises several scenes.

In the final script, you would obviously write out each scene in full. However, in the outline, you would condense the action down to the event itself to something like:

– Sonny, Sal and Stevie enter the bank. Stevie gets scared and runs off, leaving Sonny and Sal to hold up the bank.

In a film, each instance of a character changing location, or the story shifting in time technically constitutes a ‘scene’, but we don’t need that much detail at this stage. In the outline, we just want to pull out the main threads of action and splice them together to produce a skeleton structure.

Now this might sound easy, but the outline needs to incorporate the protagonist and secondary characters, the main plot, the story arch and the subplots.

If you’re scratching your head at this stage, here are some pointers to guide you…

1. Start strong and give your protagonist a memorable introduction.
2. Introduce all the main characters and define the relationships between them early on in the story.
3. Remember to pace your action: think about the ‘rhythm’ of the story.
4. Weave through your subplots and don’t forget to give them resolutions.
5. Have a strong ending that decisively answers the question ‘does my protagonist succeed in his primary goal?’ (the answer to this can be ‘no’).
6. You want a pivotal scene near the beginning (called the ‘inciting incident’) that disrupts the status quo and starts the story rolling: for example, the terrorists taking over the building in Die Hard.
7. Ask yourself: is there really enough ‘story’ to fill the script? (be honest, here).
8. If you find things sagging, ask yourself: ‘how could I make my protagonist’s journey even harder?’ i.e. throw a few more obstacles in his path.
9. If in doubt, go back to the source material and see if there are any other events that you could incorporate into your story to make it stronger.
10. Alternatively, it might be time to move away from the source material and use your knowledge and creativity to flesh out the story while staying sympathetic to your characters.

How long should the outline be?

That really depends on what you find more useful. Your outline could simply be a list of the events, or it could comprise more detailed paragraphs that include your characters’ state-of-mind.

It’s probable that you might start with a list of events, then fill it out at a later stage to a document that runs up to five or six pages.

Remember, at this stage all the structuring tools we discuss (logline, outline etc.) are for your benefit. Therefore, you need to find the way of producing them that works for you. For example, to write your outline, you might:

– Fill out small note-cards or slips of paper (each with an event written on them) and pin them to a notice-board
– Write a bullet-pointed list by hand or in a Word document
– Whip up a spreadsheet or columned list
– Use the outline tools available through screenwriting software packages

Whichever method you choose, it’s likely that you will be returning to the outline and making changes quite frequently during the planning stage, so it’s best to select a method that allows for simple amendments.

Need more help? Take a look at these useful documents by writer, John August, which were prepared for the script of 2003’s Big Fish, based on Daniel Wallace’s book.

The first is a simple one-page outline that boils the film down to its most basic elements.

The second fills out the detail and expands the outline into a more detailed four-page document.

To see how it all came together, you can read the final 124-page script here.

Next time, we take a look at fleshing out your outline to include individual scenes, and even prose.

Issue 13 of RSL is out on 28 December.