Written by Ben Larned
Anyone who has sat down to write a screenplay knows there’s no defined way to go about it. Storytelling is a messy, frustrating process with few guidelines or paths to help lead you through. Some steps, though, can make it far easier. Arguably the most vital part of the process, and maybe the most difficult, is creating an outline. Before sitting down to write you should know where your story needs to go, and how you have to get there.
Why is this so important?
Simply put, a good screenplay cannot meander. There simply aren’t enough pages. Scenes need to be compelling on their own, while building off one another other to create a consistent, coherent, and compelling story. It needs emotional arcs, setups and payoffs, motifs, catharsis… No big deal, right? All of this takes time and experimentation to figure out, but much of that work can be done in an outline, before dialogue and character behavior becomes a major factor.
Gather Your Basic Ingredients
Let’s start with the basics. For some of you, this will be review – but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of stories are cut from a similar cloth when it comes to their foundational elements. For example, standard story structure always includes three acts – a beginning that introduces an environment and characters, a middle full of conflict and challenge, and an ending that resolves these challenges – or doesn’t. The screenplay also needs a protagonist with a strong objective, along with an antagonist to set up obstacles between the hero and their goal.
Next come the more specific points: an Inciting Incident, the moment that inverts the script’s normal world; the Point of No Return, when the protagonist chooses to chase their objective; a Midpoint or Turning Point, where something in the plot changes; a Critical Choice that forces the protagonist to face their obstacles; and finally, the Climax and Resolution, where the objective is reached or lost.
Of course, these are only the first steps. The screenplay needs to be filled with scenes that evoke a detailed world, develop character, move the story forward, and increase tension until the climax. Choosing these scenes so they feel organic, but also serve the story, is like putting together a puzzle in zero gravity. But some people have laid out the process that worked for them already – we can follow in their steps.
Follow Prescribed Formulas
Of course, not all screenplays follow the same structure, but looking at a handful of successful examples can save a lot of time. Syd Field includes a “paradigm” in his book Screenplay: Act One, the Setup (pg. 1-30); Act Two, the Confrontation (pg. 30-90); and Act Three, the Resolution (pg. 90-120). Each act is a “unit” of dramatic action which introduces the story or continues conflict. Blake Snyder includes a skeleton beat sheet in his hugely helpful book Save the Cat! that is too long to list here, but includes advice on setup and second act blues more detailed than the basic structure.
As a less rigid example, Kurt Vonnegut outlines emotional arcs on a graph – the X axis the beginning to ending, the Y good fortune to bad fortune. A good story either starts at the bottom and goes up, or starts at the top, goes down, and stays there or rises again. There’s Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey, which applies to everything from Greek epics to Marvel superhero movies.
There are as many different outline templates as there are writers, so working with one that sounds good for your story, then changing it to fit certain beats, is recommended. The challenge with the above advice, of course, is making that formula feel fresh. Sometimes intuition is the best guideline to follow.
Feeling Stuck? Notecards Allow for Flexibility
Intuition also doesn’t follow rules. Ideas can come in random spurts of scenes, unconnected images, or less linear emotional arcs. Sometimes a scene in the script’s second act is the catalyst, and requires a story to be built around it. This isn’t an excuse not to outline – it just means that the process may be less organized. If the scenes feel disconnected at first, it can help to create notecards for each scene and order them, reorder them, until it starts to feel right. Then fill in the gaps with other notecards. It can be an annoying and disorganized process, but once the order starts coming together, the more traditional structure can be applied.
If you’re telling a more experimental story, notecards can help keep it consistent regardless. Even if you jump through time or explore a concept rather than a narrative, you have to infuse your writing with an arc. Notecards can help keep this in perspective.
Create Your Beat Sheet
Whether you follow a traditional formula or try your hand at notecards, a beat sheet becomes one of the most tedious and most important steps in the outline process. It’s the final gateway between a rough outline and an actual draft. What’s the difference between beat sheets and a standard outline? This format requires a precise description of each scene, including character reactions, conversation twists and transitions, from beginning to end. Many times, these documents end up being 20-30 pages long. But it helps immensely to describe your scenes in such detail – you can see what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing. It’s a last measurement before the plunge.
Rework, Rewrite, Repeat
Even when you’ve filled in all the gaps, that doesn’t mean your outline is complete. These formulas are guidelines, but they aren’t foolproof. It’s up to you to judge whether your structure flows organically and conveys a successful emotional arc. Revisit your scenes until each of them feeds the story exactly as it needs to. Then, when you think you’ve got it, start writing. If it doesn’t work, change the outline. Keep altering and rethinking until you’re satisfied and you have a full draft.
So, there’s no one way to write your script, but outlining can simplify the process immensely. Knowing that your disparate scenes and characters connect into a fully-realized story is hugely important. It’s painful, a little boring, but it can save a lot of strife when you understand what you’re creating from the start. So, go for it. Start putting those objectives together.