Outlining is an essential process to screenwriting. It helps screenwriters organize their thoughts into a logical order and remove or change the ones that don’t serve the story. Not all screenplay outlines must be on paper, although I highly recommend it, especially if you have a memory like mine. That said, I’ve spoken to screenwriters who figure out their story outlines in their heads for years before they write a word.
Some writers refuse to write outlines for their screenplays. Instead they rely on freeform writing and inspiration. This may work for an exploratory draft of your movie script to help you find your story. Good luck with that.
Think of outlining your story as analogous to moving house. You divide the house into rooms, divide the rooms into large and small furniture and box the rest. Imagine if you packed your kitchen ware with your underwear in the same box and didn’t label it?
Steps to screenplay outlining
In the old days of script writing, categorizing was a matter of color-coded index cards. Today, it’s a spreadsheet or adding colored tags to various story elements. Use a separate worksheet or column for the main character arc, antagonist, supporting characters, A-story, subplot and so on.
KEEP OR DELETE
If you’ve amassed research, anecdotes, punchlines and plot points, start with a gross sorting; to keep or delete. Narrow down as much as you can. Do this before you start writing your screenplay or you’ll bog it down with too much detail.
This is a further refinement of your story ideas. Sort your concepts into folders and sub-folders. If you get lost while writing the main character’s arc, you’ll know where to look.
FILL THE FLOW
Once you have a preliminary idea of where the screenplay will go, you can fill in the gaps later. Does the story make sense so far? Is the theme clear? Is there a super structure with clear act breaks? If so, it’s a good start.
DESTROY AND REBUILD
Read through your entire screenplay outline from the beginning. You can now examine the story from the big picture. Prune your story tree again. Remove any elements that aren’t vital to the story.
Flesh out the story scene by scene, act by act. This is a constructive phase of the screenplay. It is still fluid. You haven’t begun writing the script yet.
Write a one paragraph synopsis of your story. Are the three acts clear? What about the main character’s journey, the conflict and obstacles? Is it clear what thematic matter is being explored? Make sure your screenplay has a point.
When you are satisfied your story is tight, expand your synopsis to a 5-10 page summary. Since you have already ironed out the story kinks, this is an expansive phase of your screenplay.
This is a 10-20 page narrative version of your story. It is your blueprint for writing your entire film script. It isn’t always an iron-clad version of your story as you will hopefully discover some gems during your writing. This is the joy of the screenwriting process.
Although it isn’t essential for screewriters to complete all these steps in detail before embarking on their script. However, I’ll always recommend writers have several previous incarnations of their scripts before the main script. It will save on rewriting later.
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