So you’ve had an idea for a story. You’ve figured out the world, the characters, the tone, and maybe even one or two of the big plot moments. There’s a pretty strong chance that your next step should be to outline your script before you jump into writing. Not knowing where to go in the second act is probably the most common problem emerging screenwriters run into and outlining can help navigate that narrative quagmire.
How do you outline? It’s complicated and tailored to your personal sensibility. No matter what any screenwriting book tells you there is no single way to outline your script. Instead, I’ll propose three of the most common methods of outlining for you to take for a spin. Try each method, modify it to your personal tastes, and see if it gives you greater clarity about what kind of story you’re about to tell.
If you chart out every beat of your story ahead of writing a single word in the script, then you are a planner.
I’ve met many beginner writers that are scared of outlining because of this enigmatic method of outlining. Who are these mythical writers that know ahead of time what is going to happen on every single page? Are they able to change if they find that their characters are different in the script than they were in the planning document? What if they are hit by a bolt of inspiration halfway through and need to start again?
Perhaps paradoxically, I’d encourage you not to overthink it. An outline done by a planner does not need to feature every single line of dialogue, every intricacy of a character, or every nuance of a dramatic set piece. Instead, the plan acts as a blueprint or a guide.
The planner is an architect. They calculate how every room, wall, floor, and ceiling will fit together before laying a brick down. That does not mean that if disaster strikes they’re unable to adapt. Sometimes they have a plan for that too. A plan can be a great source of comfort and if engineered correctly can save a lot of redrafting time later down the line.
So how do you become a planner?
Often we’ll dismiss the hard work of outlining by thinking “I’ll figure it out when I get there”. Most planners don’t think like this. The plan is what will guide them through these situations so they need to be figured out in advance. A plan is most commonly thought of detailing the plot but a plan also helps plan pre-existing relationships for your characters giving them a greater depth.
One method I’ve found works well is to try the Ben Wheatley method of outlining. On a blank piece of paper write a bullet point that describes each major plot point. Then, fill the gaps in between with more bullet points to show how each plot point bridges together. Then, refine the bullet points and add more so that each bullet point represents a page within your screenplay. Now you have a step-by-step plan of what your screenplay will look like.
Another popular method is the use of index cards. On each card write a brief sentence of what each scene is then lay them out in order so that you can visually see the shape of the screenplay. Just like an architect’s blueprint you have a visual representation of your plan.
And let’s not forget the Dan Harmon Story Circle, a delightfully simple approach to storytelling that has been a great inspiration to many writers planning their stories. TV, just like feature scripts, can benefit greatly from a predetermined structure.
Planning can be a headache and you’ll run into some major narrative problems, but by working through them you will save yourself discovering those issues later down the line, saving yourself some time in the long run.
Remember, planning is just one way of doing things. If being meticulous about your outline doesn’t appeal to you and you want to try and discover some of the story on the way then you are in good company. Many screenwriters write their first drafts as they discover them.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re winging it (we’ll get to that a little later). Instead they have a few “tent poles” to hang their story off. The guts of the story can be discovered as you write but the tent poles remain as a guiding force throughout.
Common tentpole moments of a script can come in the form of your opening, ending, midpoint, break into act two, break into act three, inciting incident, and large set pieces that you know you want to include. If you decide on the tent poles then you still have lots of room in between to explore your characters and story.
For example, let’s say that you know you want your opening to be an introduction of the antagonist, you want the midpoint to be a major plot twist, and you want your ending to be a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. This means that even if you get lost in the middle of the 2nd act you still have narrative events to drive towards.
You can have as many or as few tent poles as you like. When I’m writing my scripts I tend to have around eight to ten tentpole moments that I refer back to throughout my first draft. If you err towards a more exploratory mode of outlining then only put up the bare essentials to give your script a sense of direction.
Tent pole outlining can be as minimal as you like, but the methods I’ve talked about so far function as a form of “beat sheet”, a kind of template that you can use to structure your own story. While beat sheets can be used by planners too, commonly tent pole outliners are their biggest advocates.
A beat sheet details the common moments of a well-structured story that you should, theoretically, be able to plug your own story into. There about as many beat sheets to choose but the most popular is certainly Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” beat sheet.
A lot of beat sheet share the same moments. Chronologically, they are:
There is no doubt that you could use this list to describe many of your favorite movies, however, please don’t think of it as a one-and-done solution to your script’s story structure. The beat sheet is a guide, not a gospel. If you feel that breaking from your pre-defined beat sheet will better serve the story then you absolutely should.
The final common method of outlining is the pantsing method, that is, not having an outline at all. A pantser will commonly have an idea for a story and jump straight in, finding the character, theme, plot, and tone along the way. This can feel liberating and you can capitalize on the early excitement often felt at the genesis of a project. Margaret Atwood, the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale, is a fervent believer in the pantsing method.
This is the great strength of pantsing. Where other outlining methods can drive characters towards plot points that don’t feel natural, a pantser can let the characters and their decisions drive the story forward. These scripts can feel dynamic and exciting, but be warned, they also come with common pitfalls.
Firstly, the script will likely lack structure. This is fine, but unless you’re Aaron Sorkin I wouldn’t let anyone read the first draft of your pantser script until you polish it up in a second draft to iron out any kinks in the narrative.
A pantsing script can often feel improvisational in a bad way. While improvising a story can be exhilarating, it often feels amorphous and flabby, not like an efficient well-crafted machine. Stories like that Inception or Ex Machina that feel meticulously crafted rarely come from the unrefined first draft of a pantser.
Emerging screenwriters sometimes fall into the romantic allure of the writer figure whose story pours out of their fingertips unabated by logic or reason. While these geniuses do exist, at a certain point a lot of beginners have to realize that these writers are the exceptions to the rule.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting to stay away from pantsing a script if that’s what feels natural to you. Outlining a script is a personal process and you need to find the method that works best for your workflow. I have never talked to two writers that share the exact same process. Part of becoming a screenwriter is learning about what methods and procedures best compliment your individual expression and attitude.
So by all means, plant the seed of a story in the soil and watch it grow into a brilliant shrub of flowers, just don’t forget to trim the edges, water the soil, and maybe trim some of the less pretty bulbs.
If all of this feels a little overwhelming don’t worry. Arc Studio Pro has a built in suite of outlining functions to help streamline the process:
Arc Studio Pro uses a “card” system where you can neatly store information about your narrative beats, characters, and storylines in one place. You can color code everything so that whenever you need to refer back to your outline you can find it in one easy place.
If you need any help at all using the software you can refer to the product guide that explains everything.
When I was learning to be a screenwriter I tried all of these methods at least once. I know what works for me and you need to do the same. When you’re writing your next scripts think about experimenting with a new method. Maybe it won’t work, but lessons learn from a failed experiment can be applied to a method that does work. I would never have known that I need structure if I hadn’t tried pantsing, and I never would have known that too much structure is stifling for me if I hadn’t tried planning.
Always remember: It’s a personal process, do what works for you.