How to Write the Best Script Outline Possible
Achieving the extraordinary usually requires extraordinary planning. Hence before writing a great screenplay, you need a great script outline.
The world of screenwriting reveres the subjectivity of a creative endeavour. However, the lengthy periods of brainstorming towards finishing each script are less spoken of.
Aristotle emphasizes the importance of a good start in his saying:
” Well begun is half done “
The script outline is your map to navigate through your story and motives. In fact, it may help you reduce the time you spend on writing the final draft of your screenplay.
Although we need to acknowledge individual writing processes that may vary. We know that some celebrated screenwriters such as Quentin Tarantino skip outlining all details of a script.
However, many new as well as experienced screenwriters find the process of outlining incredibly useful. Don’t knock until you’ve tried it.
So we have curated some crucial steps for efficiently writing a script outline to help you glide over all the tough judgement calls you might face while screenwriting.
1. Know Your Story
Completion of any task requires a clear understanding of the goal. Just like needing some basic ingredients to either make a particular dish or whip up something unique.
Hence, the first step towards starting your writing process is to form at least a vague idea or a fairly detailed vision of how you see the finished product.
- What message do you want to convey from your work?
- Who are your characters? What is their motive in the plot?
- In which locations do these events occur?
- Which genre does your screenplay reflect? Which emotions do you aim to inflict?
These are major decisions that will act as the spine of your finished script. This means the choice of protagonist, antagonist, stakes and the overall setting. The details can be worked on using trial and error once you know the basic elements of what you wish to convey in the story.
However, try where possible to figure out the details of the show-stopping segments of your script initially. You might benefit from establishing the hook at first and then build other facets of your storyline.
This is the time to figure out the aims of your script overall. The broad strokes that will be coloured in as you go on.
2. What Drives Your Narrative?
After you decide on what you wish to write, you need to think about what leads your story. Is it character driven or plot driven?
Knowledge of what leads your script is pivotal towards writing your script outline.
- A character driven narrative would be meaningless without the presence of the characters.
- However, if your narrative is plot driven the conflict in the plot overpowers the inner conflict within characters.
Furthermore, you can fuse both the elements and find a balance between the two. You can begin with a complex character depiction and incorporate this with an action driven narrative.
In fact many screenplays today have a combination of internal character conflict and an overarching plot. So you don’t need to worry about fitting your storyline according to one category.
But you may benefit from providing yourself a reference point for saving time during writing.
Hence, make sure you finalise the direction in which you want story to be told to save some of your valuable writing time.
3. Chalk Out the Structure
An excellent raconteur does not only use a terrific story to engage the audience, but also intrigues them by their tactful unveiling of the events in the story.
Once you have established a goal, you can map out a way to navigate to it. You need to have a structure to present your vision in the best way possible. This could be a typical three-act structure, for example.
Effective storytelling requires revealing relevant events at the opportune time. Hence, the traditional three act structure organises the script outline into a beginning, a middle, and an end. This helps in tackling the layout of the script according to each part’s end.
For example, it is recommended to include a striking element in act one. Or hint plenty of scope for inciting events as the plot unfolds.
Furthermore, you can break down each act into beats. This can help you nail the required length and divulge into the character’s arc. Or you could extend your beat sheet to specific scenes. You could include in-depth details of the scenes or just provide a direction for future reference.
To this end, you may explore alternative screenplay structures or take a slightly lenient approach towards the traditional three act. Either way, organising the structure at this early stage will help provide a roadmap for how and when the story will unfold.
4. Segment Your Outline Structure
Once you have sorted your beat sheet and figured out some major plot points, it’s time to refine the details. One way to do this would be working on every beat individually.
Think of difficult decisions that you would like to be out of the way during the writing of the script.
Each beat could have sequences explaining the events, their setting, character description and emotions. However, it is important to ask yourself some questions after completing this step of your script outline.
- Does your outline represent a clear cause and effect relationship in every scene?
- Will this be interesting to your targeted audience?
Having clarity to the motives of each scene is vital to the audience’s engagement.
Furthermore, it is essential that this simple yet detailed account of the story is comprehensible and enticing to an audience before you begin writing the script. Can you explain these beats in an easily understandable way without having to get into the weeds?
Facing problems in enhancing the clarity of your outline? You can organise each of your sequences and segments more effectively by the use of index cards for each scene.
Some plot points that you may wish to critically plan in advance are the opening, fork in the road, all is lost moment, and climax scenes. All of these moments are pivotal to appropriately unfold the conclusion your story is heading towards.
5. Keep it Flexible
While you are planning the script and tweaking the technical details of your screenplay, don’t forget to leave yourself some room to play. Over organising can congest the creative outlook for your story.
One way to ensure flexibility is to finish all the hard work of writing the outline as it flows and critique it later. This allows you to stay in the momentum whilst avoiding blocking the creative flow with technicalities.
In fact, you can have a different perspective and vivacious ideas later even it is just by dint of you being a few days wiser. Some distance, a different perspective gained from another film – these influences could help change some of the details or direction of your story.
Your structure is the foundation of your outline. Moreover, the three-act structure, for example, distinctly provides structural markers. Make sure you leave facets of some unknown territory untouched in between these markers.
Don’t overdo outlining your script. This ensures that you can still explore your story and yet produce a script which does justice to the presentation of your story. You will have a fresh take once you get to the execution.
Remember to occasionally set the technical elements aside to liberate the storyteller in you.
6. The Faults In Our Outline
As crucial it is to review your final script before presenting it to someone, it is equally important to have a look over your finished script outline.
- Does it include all the minor as well as major ideas you would like to incorporate in your script?
- Does your outline justify your initial goal with this narrative?
- Are the series of events smoothly structuring the plot you envisioned?
- Does your outline allow malleability towards taking a different course and discovering the plot as you go?
Additionally, you could look out for some aspects or flaws that may restrict flexibility whilst writing. For example, ensuring that you find only the essential elements of the plot or the scene in the outline instead of an elaborate, over-written account.
Another thing to look out for would be explanations of why the interactions and events occur in a particular scenario. If the causation of scenes are not implied in the outline, they will convolute the script later.
To sum up, make sure your outline is helpful for your draft, not confusing. Ergo, it enhances and embraces your vision by the inclusion of an inciting plan.
Screenwriting not only requires a definite purpose and a coherent idea for your script but also extensive planning.
Consequently, the key to a good script outline is to work on the facets of your script that can be either rudimentary or complex enough to hinder your writing process.
Likewise it would be wise to figure out the structural aspects of your script via the outline. This ensures the process of writing the script only involves effectively and creatively delivering the elements of your story.
If you are writing a script outline for the first time, try to write an outline for your favourite films. You might figure out screenwriting and planning techniques that currently seem like uncharted territory for you.
So don’t forget that the purpose of writing a script outline is to enhance your final draft. Even though it may seem like a chore at first and a barrier to get through before writing in earnest. Think of it less like one more stop to go through before your destination, but instead a crucial gateway.
- What did you think of this article? Share It, Like It, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…
- Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.
This article was written by Jahnvi Saluja and edited by IS Staff.
Get ALL our FREE Resources
Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!