Special Screenwriting Techniques
Learn how to outline a screenplay
By Jen B.
The question of how to write a screenplay outline can be tough to answer. If you’re dreaming of selling the next big screenplay but have no clue how to transform your screenplay ideas to an actual script, you’re not alone. Many writers face the intimidating blank page as they stare into it and it stares back. Some even consider screenplay writing services which promise them a solid final product without the tedious process of screenwriting. But that’s not how it’s done.
To get your screenplay going, start with an outline. Creating an outline for your screenplay is an important part of the screenwriting process. An outline is a map you can follow while you write. You don’t want to start writing and let your pen (or keyboard) take you on an aimless ride. You need a plan, a good one, and that’s your screenplay outline.
So where do you start? To simplify the matter for you, we’ve put together a few pointers on how to outline a screenplay to help you get from screenplay ideas to screenplay I did it!
How to write a screenplay outline: find your puzzle pieces
The first step in any outline is a straightforward fill-in-the-blanks kind of screenwriting exercise. There are basic structural elements to every screenplay, this step is where you decide yours. Most screenplay writing services follow the recipe below.
The standard three-act structure: beginning, middle, and end
– The beginning is where you take the reader into the world you’re building for the first time. They have no preexisting idea about anything in that world so, as a screenwriter, you need to establish the setting and introduce your characters. You imbue the scenes with details about the environment so your reader can understand the new world they’re visiting and what rules it abides by. You also focus on forming your characters, creating scenes that show the reader what their personalities are like.
– The middle is where most of the action takes place. Your characters now face problems that they need to solve. This is basically Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring in The Lord of the Rings or Brody’s search for the shark in Jaws. The characters’ journey to confront these obstacles make up the second act of your story.
– The end is where resolution takes place. Whatever challenge is undertaken, it finally comes to end with your characters either winning or losing.
The two main characters: protagonist and antagonist
– Your protagonist is the hero of your story. They need to have a clear goal to pursue throughout the story. Examples of famous protagonists include Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and John McClane.
– Your antagonist is the villain of your story. They fight against the protagonist, making it difficult for the latter to reach their goal. Examples of iconic antagonists include Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, and Hans Gruber.
The five key plot points
– The Trigger is the incident that starts your storyline. It literally triggers your character’s journey to start.
– The Point of No Return is the moment your protagonist decides to follow their goal.
– The Turning Point is the moment where an event changes your storyline.
– The Critical Choice is the choice that makes your protagonist confront the challenges between them and their goal.
– The Climax/Resolution is when your protagonist finally reaches their goal.
Now that you have all your puzzle pieces – acts, characters, and plot points – you can start to slowly piece them together by crafting meaningful scenes to build your story. Many screenwriting exercises revolve around these basic ingredients so feel free to practice on some before starting your own script.
Put your puzzle pieces together
Putting a puzzle together doesn’t just require the pieces but a reference image to follow. That image helps you decide which piece goes where. The second step of figuring out how to outline a screenplay is by finding that image. For screenplays, that image is a formula. Many script writers and novelists have shared their wisdom when it comes to writing stories by pointing out storytelling formulae we can follow. Not every single screenplay follows these formulae, but they can be a helpful tool for you to kickstart yours.
For an overview of such formulae, watch this terrific video where famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut explains some of the most commonly used ones for stories.
These formulae are the ones utilized by most screenplay writing services. You give them your screenplay ideas and they feed it into the formula and voila! Of course, storytelling formulae are not always tailored to what you have in mind so they can botch your premise. That’s why a personal touch is needed. Whichever formula you choose, if you feel your story needs something a bit different, feel free to follow your gut instead.
The thing about screenplay ideas is that sometimes they don’t necessarily follow a strict structure or formula. You can come up with an opening scene out of the blue but have no idea where to go next. Or you figure out how to execute the perfect climax but don’t know how to get there. This is where notecards can help you work the scenes together. Notecards are used to organize each scene, making it easier to break them down and reorder them, if necessary. Whenever you feel like you’ve hit a dead end, you can easily move the notecards around and look at things from a different perspective.
One sheet to beat them all
Puzzle pieces and notecards are only the beginning, the real work is creating a beat sheet for your screenplay. A beat sheet is basically the blueprint for your first draft. It’s composed of a detailed description of everything that happens in your story. The skeleton for every single scene is clearly laid out so you know the major events, character reactions, and plot points that take place on every page you’re about to write. The beat sheet isn’t really a sheet, it’s actually several pages filled with scene descriptions you can follow when you finally start writing your screenplay.
Structure is not static. Whether you resort to formulae or rely on notecards, the structure of your story is susceptible to change. As you start writing your screenplay, scene by scene, you get a better feel of the story’s flow. If it works, great. If it feels awkward, check your outline again and see what changes can be made so your story can move forward in a smooth manner. Writing is rewriting so don’t panic if you get stuck. You can always revisit your outline and rework your scenes.