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July 17, 2020

How to Outline a Script: 3 Common Methods

So you have 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. Now, 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. Thus, understanding how to outline a screenplay can help writers navigate that narrative quagmire. Learning how to outline a script can help you avoid this issue properly. Don't worry, to help you with this journey, we have listed out three different outlines for you to utilize to get your pages organized, plus some extra tips!

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What is a script outline, and why do you need one?

A script outline neatly summarizes what happens in your movie or tv show. It differs from a synopsis because it breaks down your script scene-by-scene, much like a storyboard.

The length of your outlineAn excellent outline will include not just a summary of your plot but the major beats in your script, character arcs, and some sample of dialogue to give an overall flavor of your script.

A script outline is more for your benefit than anyone else, so don't agonize too much about formatting as you do with formatting your script. For example, some production companies might ask for it, but a synopsis might be sufficient for others. The point of a script outline is that it helps keeps you on track and see your screen for yourself.

5 elements of a screenplay outline

Every outline should include:

  • Plot points
  • Story beats
  • Scene descriptions
  • Character arcs
  • Dialogue samples
  • Act breaks

If this is overwhelming, don't panic! The word outline can be misleading; you might not be able to compile it in one session. Simply write a little bit each day until you reach the end.

Plot points

Plot points are the major story elements of your script. In the beginning of your outlining process, it is great for to draw heavily from this if you've already written a synopsis. However, it should be a broad-brush overview and less detailed than the scene descriptions.

In general, your plot points need to cover the exposition, problem or significant conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution (denouement).

Story beats

Story beats are the most basic form of story structure. Especially if you have many ideas, writing down your ideas in this format can be nice in organizing your thoughts. Your beats make up your scenes, and your scenes make up your acts, which form your entire script. If you've used an intentional structure such as Save The Cat, breaking down your beats shouldn't be hard. You can read more about breaking down your story using different story structures here.

You can simply refer to your beat sheet if you've used Arc Studio or another screenwriting software to plan your screenplay. They offer several really helpful tools you should check out!

The outline feature in Arc Studio Pro.
Arc Studio's outline feature makes this process easy.

If you haven't done this, then no worries; you can attempt to reverse engineer this by downloading a standard beat sheet and seeing how your story fits.

Download a fillable 15 beat sheet template here. There should be 15 beats, or you can break it down into 40 beats, starting with the opening image and theme stated and ending with the finale and the final image.

Scene descriptions

The scene descriptions are where you break down what happens in each scene of your screenplay. It's best to write this after your story beats. This way, you can see how they fit into your scenes.

Your scenes will be what is most important to a producer, director, or executive since these are used to break down the film during the production phase. A decision-maker will be looking at your script to make sure each scene adds maximum value to your story and that nothing is wasted.

Use your scene descriptions to ask yourself if you can cut anything.

Dialogue samples  

Dialogue in your screenplay has to be crisp and realistic. If it sounds comical, unrealistic, or full of an exposition dump, then it can really show. Your dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of your screenplay. You add some dialogue samples in your scene descriptions when you touch upon a character to give your reader a flavor of their personality.

This is probably the most natural way to capture their attention. Alternatively, you can add this as a separate section. If you are going to do it this way, ensure that you pick a section of dialogue that makes sense on its own and doesn't require much explanation.

Act breaks

The main thing you need to do here is to accurately describe and summarize what happens in each act and how we transition from one act to another.

Save The Cat includes beat sheets that help us identify the different acts and the transitions between them. However, if you haven't used Save The Cat, remember most screenplays use a three-act or five-act structure, so you want to indicate which structure you have picked.

In general, the first act is the hero uncovering the problem that requires them to embark on a mission; the decision is made to leave home, and then they are off into the unknown, whether that's a faraway galaxy as we see in films like Interstellar or they are off to Wizarding school (Harry Potter) to become a man. The second act is the rising action, and the third act is where the conflict comes to a climax, and then the story is wrapped up.  

How to outline a script: 3 common methods

How do you outline your film or movie? How do you easily organize your many ideas? It isn't effortless, nor is it tailored to your sensibility. No matter what any screenwriting book tells you, there is no single way to outline your script.

Here are three of the most common methods. First, try each method, modify it to your tastes, and see if it gives you greater clarity about what kind of story you're about to tell.

Method #1: Planning

You are a planner if you chart out every beat of your story ahead of writing a single word in the script.

How to plan your script's outline

Don't overthink it. An outline doesn't need to feature every line of dialogue or every character. Instead, the plan acts as a blueprint or a guide.

The planner is an architect who calculates how every beat, scene, and act fit together before laying a brick down. They also need to consider pre-existing relationships between characters - exposition - giving them a greater depth.

The Ben Wheatley method

Try the Ben Wheatley method of outlining. Write a bullet point that describes each central plot point on a blank piece of paper.

Then, fill the gaps in between with more bullet points to show how each plot point connects. Next, 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 script will look like.

Use index cards

Another popular method is the use of index cards. For example, 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, which has been a great inspiration to many writers planning their stories. TV, just like feature scripts, can benefit significantly from a predetermined structure.

Planning can be a headache, and you'll run into some significant 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.

Pros and cons of planning:

Pros
  • The story is fleshed out before the first word is written out
  • It makes it easy to avoid plot holes while you write.
  • It saves on redrafting time down the line.
  • Can spare an emerging writer the anxiety of having writer's block as they write.
Cons
  • For many writers, it can be far too restrictive.
  • Discourages a sense of play and improvisation as you write
  • Some writers may feel that their outline isn't good and will be prevented from actually writing the screenplay itself

Method #2: Tent pole

Remember, planning is just one way of doing things. Many screenwriters write their first drafts as they go. However, that doesn't mean they're winging it. Instead, they have a few "tent poles" to hang their story off.

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, you still have lots of room to explore your characters and story.

For example, let's say that you know you want your opening to introduce the antagonist. You want the midpoint to be a significant plot twist. 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 second act, you still have narrative events to guide you.

Craig Mazin, the writer of Chernobyl, has offered a variation on tent pole this type of outline based on a character that has proved popular in the writing community.

The beat sheet

You can also consider the "beat sheet" method. This is a template you can use to structure your story. For example, planners can use beat sheets, but 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 are many beat sheets to choose from, but Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" beat sheet is the most popular one. You can download this beat sheet here.

Most beat sheets share the same moments. Chronologically, they are:

  • Opening image
  • Introduce the World
  • Inciting Incident
  • Debate and Doubt
  • Turn to Act One
  • The promise of the Premise / Fun and Games
  • Midpoint Turn
  • Things Go Bad
  • All is Lost / Darkest Moment
  • Turn to Act Three
  • Finale
  • Closing Image

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, you should.

Pros and cons of tent pole outlining:

Pros
  • It provides a narrative backbone without being too restrictive
  • Allows you to explore the story seams between the "tent poles."
  • Better facilitates deviation from the tent poles if you come up with a better idea along the way
Cons
  • If a beat sheet is followed too religiously, the script can feel generic.
  • It may not provide enough structure for those not comfortable improvising between the "tent poles."
  • Requires a thorough understanding of how each narrative tent pole works in the context of the larger story

Method #3: Pantsing

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. 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 move the story forward. These scripts can feel dynamic and exciting but be warned; they also come with common pitfalls.

Common Pitfalls

A pantsing script can often feel improvisational in a bad way. While improvising a story can be exhilarating, it often feels amorphous and flabby, unlike an efficient well-crafted machine. Stories like Inception or Ex Machina that feel meticulously crafted rarely come from the rough 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 staying 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 same process.

Part of becoming a screenwriter is learning what methods and procedures best complement your 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; but don't forget to trim the edges, water the soil, and maybe trim some of the less pretty bulbs.

Pros and Cons of Pantsing

Pros
  • Encourages play and fun in the writing process.
  • You're free to follow your inspiration as you see fit.
  • It helps you learn through experience how a story works.
Cons
  • Writers may feel discouraged mid-way through the second act when they've run out of steam and don't know where the story should go next.
  • Often lengthy redrafts to polish up the final project.
  • Inspiration is unreliable, and a pantsing method discourages making the act of writing a disciplined craft.

Outlining with Arc Studio Pro

If all of this feels a little overwhelming, don't worry. Arc Studio Pro has a built-in suite of outlining functions to streamline the process.

They use 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 using the software, you can refer to the product guide that explains everything.

Finding your script's outline method

There is no right or wrong way to outline a script. Much like much of writing, the key is finding the method you most enjoy and getting the best results. If none of the above methods work for your purposes, feel free to experiment and create your own!

If you would like to learn more about how to write a script, check out all the resources we offer on our blog.

Happy writing and the best of luck on your journey!

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How to Outline a Script: 3 Common Methods
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"