When you set off on your screenwriting journey, it can often be inspiration that fuels you – wanting to seize the day and be extraordinary etc. While it’s a great idea to harness this enthusiasm, one needs to channel it in the right direction to get optimal results. Much like setting off on a road trip you can just take you where the wind blows you but… sometimes it pays to take a road map.

There aren’t any fixed ways to outline your screenplay and in this flexibility you’re able to make the plan as thin or detailed as you wish. The main thing is that there’s a plan so that you don’t get lost in the excitement and find you’re about 500km away from where you really want to be. Mapping is about anticipation, so that you’re not just figuring it out on the way. Writing by association can be liberating, but it comes with a cost… usually adding many extra hours to your screenwriting in having to backtrack, rewrite and re-engineer.

tips on how to write a script outline

So it’s wise to map the journey so that you hit the right marks along the way and have less of a clean up once you’ve got through to the other side. You don’t want to close yourself off to imagination and inspiration, you just want to make sure that much like your screenwriting, you’re doing it as efficiently as possible.

The outline is really there to be the spine to your film with each vertebrae a scene to ensure it can stand in terms of structure and flow. From there, it’s easier to branch out with an order of events giving you the confidence to forge ahead with a final destination in mind. In this process it’s important to get a handle on the plot points, story beats, scene descriptions and character arcs.

The plot points include the inciting incident, climax and rising action – often charted by the overarching structures of several screenwriting pundits who have become synonymous with this mapping exercise. The story beats (often listed in what’s called a beat sheet) capture the core events and are another popular method for outlining a screenplay. Scene descriptions help explain what is happening or revealed in scenes, enabling you to get a basic visual understanding of what’s intended to take place. The character arc refers to the character’s development and emotional progression through the story.

If you need more detail than a beat sheet, some writers use index cards to breakdown scenes and enable easier rearrangement of events in order to make sense of the story and visualise the flow. Otherwise you may consider a scene-by-scene breakdown to offer a more detailed outline and approach in what looks like a condensed screenplay with scene headings, action descriptions and audience revelations. This method is useful in being able to get on the same page with co-writers or collaborators before embarking on the actual writing of the script. It can save hours of agony in the writer’s room if you agree on the outline but having said that, some prefer a looser structure.

It also helps to nail down your basic premise and logline to keep your mission on track. These foundational elements can be tinkered with along the way as your story’s core conflict develops but serve as a valuable guideline and foundation. The same goes for your outline – deviation is not the devil. It’s malleable and should be flexible enough to edit and refine as your story develops. Good luck!

Here’s a basic example of how a script outline could look:

Act I

INT. SOUP KITCHEN – DAY – Introduce Max, a volunteer, struggling to keep his soup kitchen afloat. We meet some of his regulars senior citizen regulars. A news report reveals the soup kitchen is about to lose its funding and may be forced to close due to an unscrupulous real estate developer’s ambitions.

EXT. PARK BENCH – DAY – Max vents to his friend Joe about the situation, a former history professor with a surprising knowledge of heists. They hatch a plan to rob the real estate developer.

INT. SOUP KITCHEN – DAY – Max recruits his elderly regulars: the wisecracking Rose, the ex-safe cracker Lenny, and the meticulous planner, Agnes. Hilarity ensues as they train for the heist, using their unique skills in unexpected ways.

Tips on How to Write A Script Outline
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