Why Writing A Script Outline Is So Important
The writing process can be a tough and wearisome journey if you don’t have a story map. Your road map will direct you where to go so you don’t get lost along the way. Professional writers always have some method of guiding their writing otherwise we can all get lost in the abyss. I’m going to share a script outline example to give you great confidence in crafting your story.
In this article I’m going to be explaining how to write a screenplay outline that will allow you to write your best work with the least amount of effort in record time. If you’re looking to grow in your writing career then you’ll want to learn this process.
There are many methods out there on how to outline a screenplay but one method has shaped the film industry more than the rest and is what is used by the best writers in the industry.
This is the method developed by Syd Field after dissecting many of the best films in history. He found the consistent structure that the best stories follow and he is considered the master of the screenplay. He is revered in the film industry and his method is used by many writers. I’m going to break down his process with simplicity for you to write your story in the best way possible.
If you’d like to purchase his book it’s available here:
How To Write A Script Outline That Will Save You Months Of Rewrites
Every screenplay has a subject. The subject is the action (what happens) and the character (whom it happens to).
What Is a Script Outline? 4 Elements of a Screenplay Outline
Everything starts with an idea but how you develop that idea is just as important. This is where an outline comes in. Before you get ready to leap off the blocks you need to have story structure. Having a form to follow could potentially save you thousands of hours in the writing process. Writing a script outline requires knowing the essential components of a screenplay, and it’s what I’m about to share with you.
A script outline is the structure that holds your story in place. It is the skeleton of your screenplay. Good screenplays have a form to them that makes them cohesive and well written.
The outline is composed of several components. All the scenes contribute to the story as a whole so having a format will guide the individual scenes. Within the format of three acts, The End, the Beginning, Plot Point 1, and Plot Point 2 are the structure of a screenplay in which everything hangs upon. This structure is a great tool that will save you so much time in the writing process.
Key: One page of screenplay typically works out to around one minute of screen time so the average screenplay length is usually around 110 – 120 pages long.
To write a script outline there are several components that make up story structure.
A script outline and every great story will typically be told in a three act structure. Write a script outline in this structure to have a strong foundation to build upon.
The Setup. Act I is around thirty pages in length and introduces the story. Within the first ten pages three things need to be established.
The Main Character
The Dramatic Premise. What is the story about?
The Situation. The circumstances surrounded the action.
The Confrontation. The second act consists of around sixty pages (around pages 30-90) that deals with the conflict of the story and
The Resolution. The third act is around thirty pages in length just like the first act, and brings the story to a resolved outcome.
You should know the End, the Beginning, Plot Point 1, and Plot Point 2, in that order, before a single page is written. Knowing these four elements will give you the freedom to tell your story without having to worry about veering off the path.
Don’t bother writing your first page until you know what your end is going to be. Always start with the end in mind because the story is a vehicle moving in linear fashion toward the destination, i.e. The End. Everything is related and affects everything else so you have to know where the story is heading in order to set up elements, scenes, obstacles, and characters throughout the story that allows for the writer to make the right artistic choices and create development.
Every choice the writer makes is done with intention and skill if he/she knows the ending. The end of the story will affect the beginning. This also gives the writer a line to follow and add obstacles in the way of the character’s goal of getting what he/she wants. You don’t have to know the details of the end but you do have to know what happens and how it affects the characters.
The beginning is crucial because it needs to hook people in and establish the main character, the dramatic premise, and the situation of the story. The opening image of your story needs to be gripping.
People will decide in the first ten minutes if the movie is engaging or putting them to sleep. The old saying of, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” is sometimes valid but almost no one actually follows that. People are always judging especially when it comes to giving up their time.
The cover of your screenplay is the first ten pages which is equivalent to about the first ten minutes of screen time. So hook your audience within the first ten pages. Why should they give up two hours of their life? Grip them in a way that they can’t stop watching.
In many of the best screenplays and stories the End is a mirrored Beginning. Having consistent elements throughout the story gives your story a consistent and unique feeling to it. This is why you must know the end before the beginning. The end will dictate how you introduce the beginning. The beginning allows you to introduce themes, and patterns that will be throughout, making your story cohesive, complete, and unique.
Plot points are anchors of your story that consists of an incident, event, or episode that moves the story toward its resolution. There can be more than just two plot points in a film but there are two main plot points that are the most important and make up the structure of your story in between the Beginning and the End, and move the story forward. Plot point 1 and plot point 2.
Plot Point 1
Plot point 1 is a piece of action (physical or emotional) that hooks into the story and drives it into Act II, the Confrontation.
It’s located around page 20 – 27
Plot Point 2
Just like Plot Point 1, Plot point 2 is a piece of action (physical or emotional) that leads right into Act III, the resolution.
Plot points 1 and 2 are the major plot points that anchor your story in place.
Character growth and character arcs are important for good stories but how do we write them? From Syd’s perspective there seems to be four essential qualities that go into building a character.
The characters have a strong and defined dramatic need.
They have an individual point of view.
They personify an attitude.
They go through some kind of change or transformation.
Dramatic need is defined as what your main characters want to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of your screenplay. The dramatic need is what drives your characters through the story. It can be stated or not but as the writer you need to know it.
Point of View
Point of view is defined as the way a person views the world and comes from their experiences, teachings, and upbringing. Point of view is a belief system and manifests every part of a character’s action and dialogue.
Attitude is defined as a manner of opinion, a way of acting, and feeling that reveals personal opinion. An attitude is different from a point of view as an attitude is an intellectual decision classified by a judgement.
change or transformation
Change or transformation is defined as a differing outcome or complete reformation. This can come from an experience or series of experiences, and can manifest on an intellectual, emotional, or physical level or a combination.
These four elements drive character motivations and knowing them gives you a great advantage.
Character arcs are developed by knowing a character inside and out. A good exercise for fleshing out characters is writing a one page biography on who they are. Use the five W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) to ask a series of questions on their upbringing, family, education, lifestyle, interests, experiences, etc. to find out as much about this person as you can.
This will arm you with the knowledge on defining their dramatic needs, placing obstacles in between, and guide you on how to solidify the depth behind their actions and emotions on page. This will give you direction for how to form your character’s arc.
Script Outline Practical Exercise
When you watch a movie see if you notice a few things.
How they introduce the story and grip your attention in the first ten minutes.
The two main points in the plot that drive the story into Act II and into Act III.
The introduction of character backgrounds and how it shapes their dialogue and actions.
I encourage you to do some research and find a script outline example from a movie you love and see how they use these elements to craft their story.
Writing Scenes for Your Script Outline
Every scene contributes to the story as a whole and you only have a small amount of time to tell the story how you want so I recommend stating the purpose of each scene before you dive into the details of it. This makes sure you’re not wasting your time writing scenes that don’t contribute to the story.
Step Script Outline
Once the scenes are written write them down in a step script outline. This is basically a textual story map that presents the story completely by showing every plot event that makes it up.
Use index cards
When you finish writing your first draft I recommend labeling each scene on index cards. Post them on a board or wall, and step back to get a big picture view of the scenes. You may be able to add some interest by changing around the order in which they occur.
How To Write A Screenplay Outline: Conclusion
Script writing isn’t easy but with structure you shortcut avoid most of the unnecessary obstacles. Good screenplay form needs a story structure in which elements have direction, and can flow and be easily adjusted. Before you start writing consider using this outlining process. I know you will be able to tell your own story with great excellence.
There are many elements that make up good storytelling from plot points to story beats there are many tools in a writer’s toolbelt to craft a magnificent story. We covered the most essential components of a screenplay outline for telling a story on the big screen.
Writing a script will give you great experience on how to apply these principles. Now you are armed with what’s considered the best screenplay outline template so next time a story idea pops in your mind you’ll know exactly how to write it for a screenplay.
Practice makes you better so when you think of a story that would be great for a movie write a script outline for it. Who knows, maybe that will be the next box office hit.
If you’d like to purchase Syd Field’s Screenplay book click here.