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May 5, 2021

How To Choose A Screenplay Outline Strategy

Many writers swear by it. Many more swear they’ll never do it.

Ask any working screenwriter about outlining and you’ll get an opinion about it. It’s one of those things that nearly nobody is lukewarm about when it comes to their own work and process. Understanding the reasons behind 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.

(This article was developed from notes from David Wappel’s ScreenCraft Summit discussion on Strategies for Outlining.)

Why Outline?

This question has nearly unlimited answers.

  • to discover what your story is about
  • to know where your story is going
  • to provide a map
  • to know how your story ends
  • to think through story problems
  • to see how the scenes relate to each other

The reasons are limitless because they’re different for every writer. For me, I outline to make sure I can see the story on the whole before I go into the pages. It’s like having a picture of a cake before I start actually baking it, so I know what it should look like when it comes out. (For the record, I can’t bake and my cakes never look like they should.)

Whatever the reason you may want to outline, I believe it’s helpful to think about it as a way to view your story separate from your script. For me, this is one of the most important paradigms when thinking about a screenplay outline.

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.

Simply put, a screenplay outline provides a different lens through which you can view your story.

Think of it as a 10,000-foot view. It allows you to see connections between story moments that occur many pages apart. You can view corresponding and complementary scenes, and you can see where setups and payoffs are happening.

Stories unfold for the audience linearly, though not always chronologically, but as writers, we have the ability to know the story non-linearly. An outline is a tool that makes that ability tangible. The audience is a bit like a lab rat in a maze, and we’re the scientists that set the maze. We can see the cheese at the end. If we only experience the maze from the rat’s perspective, we may miss things that the top-down view can provide. (I’m not crazy about the metaphor of the audience being rats, and we’re not experimenting on them, but we are trying to manipulate them to a desired emotional outcome.)

Types of Screenplay Outlines

While there are plenty of different structures and paradigms that you may use to analyze your story, I think it’s worth looking at the practical way these are often written. And regardless of which paradigm you use, you can write them out however you like. These three are the most common.

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.

Treatment

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 Structure Paradigms

Here are just a few of the screenplay paradigms that are out there. 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!

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

This might help weed out a fair amount of them, simply because they’re more inclined to one type of storytelling or another. For example, using John Truby’s 22 Points may not be useful for your half-hour tv comedy.

Some stories are just going to fit more snugly into certain paradigms. If you were asked to break down Speed, Finding Nemo, and A Streetcar Named Desire, you’d probably lean into different structures. (And for the record, I’d go with 8 Sequence Structure, Pixar’s Story Structure, and 5 Act Play if I had that assignment.)

Another aspect of this, though, is determining what you need as a writer. Where does your brain seem to naturally go, and where does it seem to avoid. Different paradigms help tease out different elements, and 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.

Try A Bunch

It may take time to discover who you are as a writer. I think good writers are always discovering who they are. And so for that, I recommend playing with a bunch. While this article is designed to aid you in making a decision, it’s a relatively arbitrary one. Nobody’s holding you to any specific process and very, very few people care about how you write.

With that in mind, I recommend trying out as many as interest you. I recommend doing this with your own stories, both ones that you have yet to write, but also ones that you may have already written. The great thing about structure is that it’s there whether you’re conscious of it or not. You can always track these paradigms over already written work.

See how your story “fits” in one or more of the paradigms, and you may discover that your way of thinking aligns closely with one of them.

Another helpful practice is to try and break down stories that you love. I always recommend using favorites because you know them so well, and since you enjoy them you don’t mind living in that world for a bit while doing your analysis. See if you can fit your favorite movie or tv episode into a paradigm that you’re trying to learn. And if you start noticing patterns in the types of stories that are your favorites, it may uncover a structure that you can lean into for your own work.

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.

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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Anna Klassen

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Anna Klassen
Screenwriter (Netflix)