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May 5, 2021

How To Choose a Screenplay Outline Strategy

Did you know that a well-structured screenplay outline can be the difference between a box office hit and the slush pile?

Ask any working screenwriter about outlining and they'll give you a different answer as to how they outline.  Understanding the different methods for screenplay outlining, what it can do for you (and what it can’t), is one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a screenwriter discovering your process.

So let's dive in.

Why outline?

So what's the point in outlining anyway? Why not just write as you go and see where you end up?

A screenplay outline is essentially a roadmap for your script. It helps you plot your story, organize your ideas, and ensures your screenplay has a strong narrative structure. Think of it as a blueprint for your story, where you lay out the main events and character developments before diving into detailed scriptwriting.

If you don't do this you can easily end up in a mess. And the fact is that even if you write your first draft first, you're going to have to go back and outline when it's finished. You're just delaying the process.

Whatever the reason you may want to outline, it’s helpful to think about it as a way to view your story separate from your script.

Let's now dive into some steps for outlining if you're a beginner.

Creating your first outline - the beginner's method

  1. Start with a Concept: Jot down the basic idea of your story. What is it about? Who are the main characters? What’s the primary conflict?
  2. Identify Key Plot Points: Every story has major turning points, such as the inciting incident, climax, and resolution. Pinpoint these for your story.
  3. Structure Your Story: Decide on a basic structure. Most screenplays follow a three-act structure – beginning, middle, and end. Place your key plot points within this structure.
  4. Expand the Outline: Start fleshing out your outline by adding scenes and smaller plot points. Don’t worry about details or dialogue yet. Focus on the flow of the story.
  5. Character Development: Outline the journey of your main characters. How do they change from the beginning to the end of the story?
  6. Review and Revise: Look over your outline. Does the story flow logically? Are there any gaps? Revise as needed.

Tips for effective outlining

  • Keep It Flexible: Your outline is a guide, not a strict rulebook. Be open to making changes as your story evolves.
  • Use Index Cards: They are great for organizing and re-arranging scenes and plot points.
  • Don’t Stress Over Details: The purpose of an outline is to lay down the structure. You’ll fill in the details when you write the script.
  • Keep It Simple: Especially for your first outline, simplicity is key. Don’t get bogged down by complex structures or theories.

Utilizing Arc Studio Pro for outlining

Arc Studio Pro is completely free for the web version. It's designed to make outlining as smooth and intuitive as possible. Here’s how it can help beginners:

  • User-Friendly Interface: Arc Studio Pro offers a clean and straightforward interface, making it easy for beginners to navigate.
  • Template Options: Choose from various templates to help structure your story.
  • Drag-and-Drop Functionality: Easily rearrange scenes and plot points with a simple drag-and-drop.
  • Collaboration Features: Share your outline with peers or mentors for feedback.

Advanced screenplay outlines

Now let's breakdown some more  advanced options for screenplay outlines.

Traditional outline

You know this one. It’s the kind you may have learned in middle school. Roman numerals, numbers, capital letters, lowercase letters, and all that.

Traditional outlines can be helpful in seeing how parts of a story fit into larger parts. It’s a way to see beats fit into scenes, scenes fit into sequences, and sequences into acts. Reading one may not provide the best flow of the story, but it can give a great way to hierarchically see how things fit together.

Beat sheet

A beat sheet is, in my experience, the most common one. It’s usually a bullet-point list of story moments. There’s a “this happens, then this happens, then this happens, etc” type feel to it, and can provide a decent flow, but can sometimes feel like just a list and not show arcs as clearly. I find beat sheets useful for an overall synopsis of the story.


Others may disagree, but I think a treatment fits under the definition of outline (at least in the screenwriting sense.) A treatment is a fully written prose version of the story. These can be anywhere from one page to half the length of the screenplay (and sometimes more!)

A treatment is really useful to fully communicate and explore the tone and feel of a script, without all the details and dialogue that may be on a page. I think of it as a version of the story without subtext. A solid treatment reads nicely to others (which is why it can often be a useful tool in selling a script) but may be too detailed to see the bigger picture of certain elements.

Common screenplay structures

Here are just a few of the screenplay structures you can use to help you figure out the structure to your screenplay. If you're struggling then you can There are tons more, but these are among the common ones you’ll find.

  • Syd Field’s Screenplay Paradigm
  • Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat
  • John Truby’s 22 Steps
  • 8 Sequence Structure
  • Jim Hart’s Hart Chart
  • Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
  • Pixar’s Story Structure
  • 3 Act Feature
  • 5 Act TV
  • 2 Act Play
  • Just write!

Don't forget to check out our blogs on all of these to understand them in more detail.

Arc Studio and classic screenplay structures

Arc Studio Pro allows you to choose from a few of these and gives you the flexibility to make your own.

Here’s an example of what John Truby’s 22 Steps looks like in the Arc Studio Pro Beat Board.

And here are the beats from Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat in the Screenplay view.

Which screenplay structure is best?

Well, that depends on you and your story.

Imagine you want to design and build your own house. You might work with an artist to make a rendering of what you want it to look like. You’ll collaborate with an architect on the blueprints. You might even do a rough sketch on a napkin if you’re explaining your new house to a friend while you’re out for drinks. It’s the same house. The rendering, the blueprints, the napkin sketch are all ways to view it, each of them more or less useful depending on context and needs.

This diagram (borrowed from John Yorke’s Into The Woods) is a great way to see that most story structures coexist fairly easily. They’re all different lenses for looking at the same thing.

And if you wanna see a deep dive into two specific structures, check out this post highlighting the differences between three-act and five-act story structure.

How to choose a screenplay structure?

As you’re looking at which one you might want to use for your screenplay, here are a few strategies for helping you decide.

Determine your needs

Some stories are just going to fit more snugly into certain structures.

Another aspect of this, though, is determining what you need as a writer. What do you like? Writing is not supposed to be a chore and there is no right answer.

Different outline and structures often put more emphasis on different elements.

Understanding which elements you have a handle on, and which ones you may need a bit of help with can be really helpful. For example, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle provides a very clear link between protagonist and plot, whereas Save the Cat seems to favor highlighting relationships between theme and premise.

Using screenplay outlines

Arc Studio Pro makes it easy to work from a template, to create one from an existing paradigm, or just invent your own. Here’s the Beat Board in action on a screenplay outline for Promising Young Woman. (For more on this, check out this Plot Point Breakdown of the film.)

As you can see above, a screenplay outline can be an invaluable tool for viewing the story and seeing how it unfolds separately from the page-by-page writing. Even if you don’t like outlining at the outset, I always recommend that writers develop one, even after a first draft. You may see things that you didn’t before, and the more you see of your story, the better you can tell it.

Remember your story is not your script

The script is the most common way your story will be told, at least before you sell it and they make a blockbuster out if and then the movie is the most common way. But until then, the script is the main way the story is told. But it isn’t the only way to see it.

Arc Studio can help with Your outline journey

Don't suffer alone. Arc Studio is here to help you outline your script if you're struggling. Screenwriting software is more than just writing. So be sure to take advantage of all the outlining features it offers.

And don't forget you can download the web version here for FREE, no credit card required.


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How To Choose a Screenplay Outline Strategy
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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