Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Outlining a Script

To outline or not to outline a script? That is the eternal question for writers. At least it is for some, but not for me. (Well, maybe the real eternal question is how do I get paid to write, but we’ll leave that for another day.) Because I am the kind of chick who needs a plan, outlines are always the foundations of my projects, especially when working with a writing partner.

screenwriting tips tuesYou can find plot development tips in many places, but implementing them is another story. The first step is to breathe. You are not alone. Many writers struggle with starting projects, myself included. So let’s explore some options in hopes you’ll find one that works best for you.

First off, there’s no one way to outline. Some writers jot notes on bar napkins or use index cards while others prefer a more techy approach of using software, like Truby’s Blockbuster 6.0 or Save the Cat! It all depends on what gets you excited. As you already know, you will not sit in that seat and write unless you’re having fun doing it.

I’ve tried many ways of outlining, finally formulating a spreadsheet by merging several techniques together in what I call my Structure Grid of Character and Plot Development (I’ve shared this with our readers as one of our many free screenwriting downloads). But spreadsheets aren’t always “fun” for writers.

One of my screenwriting friends uses the first chapter of Pilar Alessandra’s The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time to help her outline her scripts. For all of us who have day jobs, writing in 10-minute chucks sounds amazing! I’m definitely going to try this one.

I have other friends who swear by the old-fashioned corkboard. I’ve done that too, but more for rewrites. For example, I saw TV writer Kiyong Kim post on Facebook a picture of his sliding glass doors that he installed in his office… that lead nowhere. Their sole purpose if for using as a whiteboard. Genius!

The trick is finding a way to create your script that gets you excited!

If you are excited to write it, people will be excited to read it. Do whatever it takes to get an engaging story on the page, because that is what it’s all about. There’s no right way or wrong way to outline.

Regardless how you get your outline down, I always start with brainstorming. Jot down your screenplay idea, including the hero’s outer goal and his/her wound, then set a timer for 15 minutes and write down all the conflicts for your character’s outer goal as you can possibly think of. Then as you start that “beat sheet,” spreadsheet, or structuring software, you have a list of potential plot points to pick from.

Then set the timer again for your character development ideas. Write down as many things you can think of that would challenge your character to get past their internal wound. The harder the better! As I often say, your character won’t evolve until you’ve beaten him/her close to death, and they’re curled in a ball on the floor crying. Now beat them; don’t protect them! I’ve never had any personal growth without going through a boatload of pain. Trust me on this.

That’s how I start my stories. What about you?

If you have outlining tips of your own, I’d love to hear them. Pop them in the comments below and let’s help each other get our next screenplay off the ground!

#PIMPtipoftheday: Having a plan keeps your story focused.

For more thoughts on outlining, check out Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script. I also recently had the honor of being on Ashley Scott Meyers’ podcast, SellingYourScreenplay.com, as well as Jesse Ikeman’s podcast, Business of Film. Listen and enjoy! 

Need Help Outlining Your First Draft? Get our FREE Story Structure Tips Download

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The Coffee Break Screenwriter Truby’s Blockbuster 6.0 10 Steps to a Bullet Proof Story Outline Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure

11 thoughts on “Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Outlining a Script

  1. rdeanscriptmagrdeanscriptmag

    My writing partner and I have used this method for years. CAVEAT: You must have the wall space!

    Four strings across the wall, 8-10 feet horizontal. 12-18 inches apart.
    First string is ACT I to (PP1)
    Second string is ACT II – MID
    Third string is MID to ACT III (PP2)
    Fourth string is ACT III

    It a good breakdown and roughly follows the breaks for a standard three-act structure. (Besides originality, deviation from this structure tends to melt the brains of Producers and Execs…)

    One card = one scene. We then annotate each scene on a standard Rolo-Dex card. They come in packs of 50 and 100 and have handy top tabs that can be folded over the string. This gives us the freedom to slide, move and rearrange at will. This layout also gives us a complete overview of the story at a glance. We can also track b and c stories, if necessary, using different color markers.

    We’ve recently added another string to each of the ACT breaks. The top string follows the story (emotional beats). The bottom follows the plot (action).

    If you write with a partner you simply divide (or choose) the cards.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      That’s cool. I might need to get a bigger office for that one! I can see it working with a writing partner who’s local. Sadly, all of my writing partners have lived in different states, and we work via email, instant messaging and/or phone. But your system sounds fun. You should take a picture and tweet it out. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Marc de LaunayMarc de Launay

    Great article (as ever!). I always push other writers i mentor to outline, take notes on whatever there is available when an idea hits; be it on iPhone, iPad, napkins, etched into my eyeballs…whatever….BUT then i always compile and organise when i know it is time to stop taking notes and start writing. Such compiling I do physically old school with postcards (pink ones as they were the cheapest to buy in bulk!), have used FD scene cards and most recently used Plot Control software which really was useful for my last sic-fi and horror commissions in terms of structuring….but in reality my recommended methodology is the “whatever works” approach for that particular project…sometimes not even outlining and going straight to a simple ‘vomit’ script draft at least articulates all those ideas that consciously and subconsciously have been fermenting away! But the Thoreau approach is often my personal one..’Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.’…it at least means when others get to read any of your outlines and first drafts they connect with the work i guess and are not lost like I sometimes am in the minutiae of detail that although may be needed to create doesn’t need to be seen on the page…

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  4. chasharrischasharris

    Nice one, Jeanne.

    I like to use post-its as I find them more flexible – I can write a single word on one, or more detail, or stick them together. I put them on the back of my study door where they stay, dropping off from time to time like autumn leaves to remind me to get on with the writing.

    And I agree with SciFi that it’s good to have multiple ways to outline. It’s also good to know when to stop outlining and trust that the gaps will be filled by the muse.

  5. ScifiAliensScifiAliens

    It’s a good idea to learn multiple ways to outline a story. Adapting a novel may require reworking a preexisting outline (from the book) to be more suitable for filmmakers. An original idea might have to wander around a bit to get a feel of the appropriate direction to take. I usually begin by letting original characters run amok for a while so I can see who they are. Character back stories come next and then the story starts to develop.

  6. GordonGordon

    I outline on the computer, because it is easy to erase and move things around. It is a combination of outlining and brainstorming, one foot in each camp. In a screenplay I’m working on now I was forced to cut out a few scenes of a sub-plot because it got too unwieldy. I felt it during a rewrite, but seeing in the outline made it clear that those scenes, while full of conflict that was a major obstacle to the protagonist, had to go.

    Screenwriting is a science and an art (“Give us the same thing, only different”), and outlining really helps with the scientific, structural aspect of crafting a story.

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