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How do you outline your screenplays?

Discussion in 'Screenwriting' started by Wilkinson, Jun 10, 2011.

  1. Wilkinson

    Wilkinson Bronze Member

    I'm very new to the screenplay format and am trying to learn as much as I can about good habits and how to avoid beginners' pitfalls. I have a very rough idea of my story and characters but I'm hesitant to sit down and start typing out the first scene because I feel that really fleshing out the story and scenes, plot arcs and all that would allow me to have a much stronger first draft than just plowing through the story with the rough idea I have now.

    I'm sure it's been discussed before but I wonder if anyone has any tricks or methods they've been using to help devise an outline for their screenplay. Many thanks!
  2. amp502

    amp502 Bronze Member

    There's a billion different ways, and whatever anyone tells you, there's no "right" or "best" way. But instead of talking about how you CAN do it, I'll share how I do it:

    I make a physical horizontal line on a piece of paper. I label one end 0 and the other 120, then divide it into quarters, 30/60/90. (I prefer something of a 4-act structure). Then I label each 0/30/60/90/120 with a major scene, a turning point or reveal for my story, and in the four sections I write some notes about the overall arc of the section (0-30 might say "Protag. starts out normal life, head of his business, 30-60 might say protag kicked out of business, is depressed).

    Then I'll make new lines on separate pages for each section, and divide those up into 5-page groups, where I'll label specific scenes, keeping the topics from before (protag is depressed, searches for job) to remind me what the scenes need to relate to. So I've got one page that's labeled 0-30, and a tally mark on the line for every five pages, 0-5, 5-10, 10-15, etc. with scenes written in for each five pages.

    When I'm done, I've got all my scenes in order, with a sort of mini-theme to make sure they're all cohesive. I find being able to visualize it that way really helps me and keeps me on a track for a linear narrative, where one event necessarily flows into or causes the next.

    The trick, then, is to write the first draft, then find out where I strayed from the outline, or where I SHOULD have strayed but didn't. I'll take a look at what I wrote, look at my outline, and make a whole new outline, repeating all the steps, for my second draft.


    Occasionally if I'm having trouble with a specific character, say they're not coming across like I want them too, or are too one-dimensional, I'll create an entirely separate outline/timeline for them that syncs up with my main timeline, just to see what the character was doing offscreen. That way I'll see if motivations don't add up or if there's some scene involving that character that I didn't write, but now can add to my main timeline.
  3. Writerguy

    Writerguy Bronze Member

    You've assumed a wise stance, young writer.

    As has been noted there are many ways to outline a story, the most commonly used methods include the "beat sheet" and a treatment, although many other methods are used.

    A "beat sheet" is a list of the key "beats" that occur in a story, brief descriptions of events.

    A treatment is story written in narrative form. Treatments for features run anywhere between 8 and 30 pages. They convey the entire story in an abstracted form, that is, moderately generalized. If I were to ask you to tell me your story you could do it in treatment form and I'd get it.

    But before you can write a treatment you have to have a story to treat. That's usually developed in a writer's head, through a lengthy process of thinking and considerating and trying out different scenarios known as "story crafting." It often begins with a premise or a question, like, what would happen if a couple had a two headed baby?

    Then one has to think about which film genre is best suited to this tale. Is it a comedy? A drama? A Western? A horror story? A redemption plot? Coming of age? Crime story? A Thriller? A caper?

    You might begin by thinking on the heart of your story, what human interaction occurs that forms the heart of what your story says? Think about other movies and how they showed their heart. Take "Saving Private Ryan," for example, a film that expressed its basic thrust right in its title.

    Get your arms around what you think is the fundamental element of your story that gives it the potential for becoming a captivating screen tale, one that's so intrigueing it will hold an audience in their seats for two hours, dying to know its ending and how it all turns out.

    Then build on that through a story crafting process, answer the questions: where does it begin, where does it go, and how does it end, and what do we learn from it? Keep in mind that the stories in all movies are kicked off by what's known as an "inciting incident," an event that changes your protagonist's world and upsets its equilibrium and requires him to set things right again, a process that becomes your story.

    Then write that as a treatment, eight or ten pages of narrative.

    Then spend some time develping that, fleshing it out, getting the kinks it in resolved, until it works as a screen tale.

    Then use that as your story roadmap to write the screenplay.
  4. SNAFU

    SNAFU Bronze Member

    This.

    And...

    YOU MUST OUTLINE.

    It is NOT an option.

    But you already know that!
  5. hbcali

    hbcali Bronze Member

    Syd Field has a book called "Screenplay". He covers the basics. You may also want to read books by Lew Hunter ("Screenwriting 434" comes to mind). Lew Hunter was a professor at UCLA Film School. All good material for newbies to review and become familar with. Both authors are well known and "respected" within the craft.
  6. ZellJr

    ZellJr Bronze Member

    I wouldnt agree with this.

    My outlines are usually loose. And I usually dont follow them
  7. davidartiste

    davidartiste Silver Member

    Personally, I am a fan of the Blake Snyder beat sheet. I find it helps to create a solid guideline for my script. This does not mean I subscibe to Save The Cat. He has some valid points, but for me, it isn't dogma.

    Now, I have to agree with Zell here. They are loose guidelines. Screenplays are these strange organic and maleable things which are in a constant state of flux. The outline is there to help guide me in the right direction, but if I stray because I feel it best serves the story, I will.

    But I do think it is important to have an outline.

    I have attached the Blake Snyder beat Sheet for those who want it. I find it a useful tool for me.

    Attached Files:

  8. SNAFU

    SNAFU Bronze Member

    Your call. Good luck.
  9. Lon

    Lon Bronze Member

    I don't write outlines. Or beat sheets. And rarely a treatment.

    I mull over an idea for quite a while before writing the first word of it. Once I've worked things out in my head I sit down and start the screenplay, going with the flow and writing intuitively.

    The only time I write even a treatment is if what I originally envisioned isn't working out. Then I'll pound out a page or two of a treatment, to work things out and come up with a new direction that won't necessitate having to start all over from scratch.

    It might take me longer to pound out a first draft the way I write, but then again once I've finished that first draft it doesn't take a great deal of revising and tweaking to reach the final draft. This method doesn't work for everybody, and it doesn't lead to me being overly prolific, but it works for me.
  10. ZellJr

    ZellJr Bronze Member

    this method works for me. it's what i do with everything.

    And I could definitely see it when I read your script. The payoffs and the setups all came through because of it. It's hard to target these things in an outline.

    Sorry I haven't finished The Silk yet. I forgot I had it lol. I'll finish it today and get back to you.

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