I have already written a couple of articles about writing a script outline…but those focused on the 8 essential plot points you have to include in your script outline. They didn’t explain why writing a script outline is so crucial to completing your screenplay. That’s what this post is all about.
An Introduction to the Script Outline
What is a script outline exactly? That question is hard to answer because the definition gets mixed in with other screenwriting terms like beat sheet, treatment & synopsis…and it seems like everyone in Hollywood has differing notions of each. But this breakdown should help:
A beat sheet or step outline lists the basic events of your story. Each beat consists of one or more scenes. Each beat gets a bullet point or number and usually describes who’s in the scene, what their goal is and where it all takes place. In beat sheets for TV shows, they also add the sluglines to each beat, but you don’t have to do that for a feature film.
Here’s the beat sheet for Charlie’s Angels, kindly provided by its screenwriter, John August. To get a feel for beat sheets, check out the Plot Points section of Scribe Meets World. Each post is basically a beat sheet for movies from all genres.
If you’ve studied screenwriting long enough, you’ve probably come across the Blake Snyder beat sheet from Save the Cat. It takes the beats from your beat sheet, organizes them into acts, and then groups different beats into categories such “Fun & Games” and “Bad Guys Close In.”
Some may argue that it’s a little too formulaic, but if you’re just beginning your screenwriting journey, it’s a solid template for screenplay structure that will help you comfortably navigate towards FADE OUT.
Ok, so we’ve covered beat sheets…so what then is a story outline? A story outline (also known as an outline) takes your beats and fleshes them out. It’s not just plot-driven. There’s character exploration, notes on tone and theme, and motivation and emotion. This is your chance to fill in details, texture, and nuance.
And there’s the grand poobah, the treatment. The treatment tells your whole story: plot, character, and key snippets of dialogue. As screenwriter Terry Rossio concludes, “they’re better with big bold headlines that summarize a group of story beats.” He’s the writer of Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek & the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, so I’d follow his lead.
You can also include notes on character descriptions and statements about theme and tone. Terry says that ideally a treatment is 7-12 pages. Some writers create much longer ones (we’re talking saga length here), but really, after a certain point, you might as well just hand over the completed screenplay.
SimplyScripts has a ton of links to a variety of script treatments. In particular, you might be interested in this one from Mr & Mrs Smith, which starts with an overview and character descriptions before going into the grit of the story. Terry also has links to a bunch of his own treatments, including ones for Godzilla, Sinbad and The Mask of Zorro. He also clearly describes his approach to writing treatments.
If you’ve taken a look at the treatment examples, you might be thinking they look awfully similar to a story outline…and I’m inclined to agree. There’s probably a degree of distinction having to do with the level of detail in each, but honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it.
If someone asks you for a script outline and you’re not sure what exactly they want–ask ’em. Just say that everyone seems to have their own personal idea of what a script outline is and you’d like to know what theirs is. Ask them what kind of page length they’re looking for. Do they want just the beats and nothing but the beats, so help you God? Or did they want something a little more fleshed out? You won’t look like a fool for asking for this clarification…but you’ll feel foolish if you hand in a 15-page treatment and all they wanted was a one-page synopsis.
Oh, a synopsis, you say? Yeah, there’s one last term you should know.
A synopsis is just a summary of your story as writer Tom Sawyer says, “told with sizzle.” The tricky thing about the synopsis is they’re just supposed to be 1-2 pages. It’s really more of a selling device than anything else, so you can summarize large swaths of your screenplay with generalizations.
The most important thing is to get the reader involved in your story world, so make sure you include character emotions and motivations. The most helpful guide for writing synopses I’ve found is in The Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published by Evan Marshall. His advice on pages 89-100 is for writing synopses for novels, but his tips will be helpful in writing a screenplay synopsis too.
Beat sheets, script outlines, synopses & treatments do all have one thing in common: they’re extremely helpful to you, the screenwriter, because they help you clarify your story. But there’s a reason that the script outline is “besties” with your screenplay…
Why writing a script outline is important
Writing a script outline is one of the best writing tools in your arsenal for several reasons. Scribe Meets World is all about providing encouragement for aspiring screenwriters as they complete their screenplays. It might surprise you to know that the simple script outline is a super-effective tool for staving off discouragement and despair. If you constantly wonder “how am I ever going to complete 100 pages?” then you definitely need to spend more time on writing script outlines. Here’s why:
A blank page is extremely daunting. I bet a number of writers would rather face Mongol hordes than a blank page. With a script outline, the blank page loses a lot of its “bite” because you already have generated ideas for each scene. When you finish with that scene, instead of fumbling for the next idea–any idea that will put ink on the page–you just consult your script outline, and voila…you’re on to the next one.
The beauty of a script outline is that it makes the whole process of writing a screenplay more manageable because it breaks it down in smaller, easy-to-complete writing tasks. Each of your scenes in your script outline becomes a writing goal, and as you complete more and more of them, your confidence will grow…as will your stack of screenplay pages.
Let’s say you nix the script outline and have been writing by the seat of your pants. Okay, so the momentum of your amazing high concept idea has taken you through the first act. That’s wonderful. But you’ve got the second act next, and your thought process might go a little like this:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
In pajamas, the ASPIRING SCREENWRITER types furiously. One last click, and his fingers come to a screeching halt.
Ohmigod. Ohmigod. I’m onto Act Two. That’s like sixty pages.
He starts typing at a steady trot.
Bites his lip.
I have 58 more pages to go?! But I have no idea–none–of what happens next.
He pulls at the hair above his ears.
I’ll just take a little break, check my profile–oh wait, I deactivated my Facebook. Nosy bastards.
He does armchair aerobics, takes one yogic breath…and stares at the BLANK PAGE on his screen.
This is impossible. How does anyone do this? How did I ever think I could write a screenplay? I don’t even have that much writing experience.
The hair above his ears turns grey.
I can’t live in LA. The smog would aggravate my allergies. I think I’ll be a blogger instead.
If only that aspiring screenwriter had a script outline in his hands, his hair wouldn’t be turning white (and it doesn’t suit him a la Richard Gere).
INT. OFFICE – DAY
In pajamas, the ASPIRING SCREENWRITER types furiously. After one last click, and his fingers come to a screeching halt.
I’ve finished the first act! Whoopee! Whoopee!
He victory dances with his desk chair.
I am such a dork.
He glances at the clock.
Still a little writing time left. What happens to my hero now?
He consults his script outline. Giggles.
That’s right, Alfred kicks some major bureaucratic butt…and then he…
He consults his script outline again.
…spies on the Senator’s daughter. Not bad for a day’s work.
He types quickly. The sound of the CLICKING KEYS is almost like a symphony crescendo.
Script Outlines & Amateur Screenwriting Mistakes
A script outline doesn’t just keep you from getting frustrated during the writing process. It also helps you work out the kinks of your story–and avoid those pesky mistakes that a lot of beginning screenwriters make. This simple little list of plot points can help you:
- determine if your idea can sustain 100 pages
- seamlessly incorporate subplots
- evaluate if your first act is too “top-heavy” and needs to be scaled back
- assess your screenplay’s structure and see where you need to add or subtract scenes
- easily discover if one of your characters “disappears” for thirty pages after first being introduced
Tom Sawyer also writes that with a script outline, “If there isn’t enough edge or angst or heat inherent in a scene or a setup or a chapter, you’ll have a far better chance of recognizing it, being able to fix it, adding to your mix. If consecutive scenes are too much alike — or too jarringly different — you’ll see it. Is this scene too long, that one too short? Is there enough incident — stuff happening — or too much? Are you maintaining your desired focus? Is there a hole in your plot? Is your story entertaining enough, compelling enough?”
One of the most common amateur mistake to make as a beginning screenwriter is to write a screenplay with poor structure. You get a cool idea and you write the first act with a lot of enthusiasm…but after that, the screenplay becomes one hot mess. With a script outline, you can identify structural problems BEFORE you begin writing.
You may think you can make those changes during your editing and revising period. But the truth is that it’s a lot harder to do then. Once you’ve gotten an actual completed first draft in your hands, it’s difficult to make the wholesale changes it might need because, psychologically, you’ve gotten attached to the screenplay structure as it is now. When you’re working with script outlines and index cards, you perceive your screenplay’s structure as more fluid and you’re more likely to explore different structural possibilities until you find the best one.
And if you’re not convinced about how essential a script outline is, read on…
Script Outlines & Selling Your Screenplay
You might think that the hardest part of selling your screenplay is breaking in–getting your masterpiece through the gatekeepers and into the hands of someone who can actually write you a check. It’s true, that can be a major stumbling block to selling your script. But let’s face it–without a screenplay, you’d have nothing to sell. In my opinion, actually finishing a script is half the battle, maybe even more than half. And if you become discouraged and dispirited while writing your screenplay to the point that you stick it, unfinished, in your sock drawer…then your odds of selling it are 0%.
As I outlined *did you like the pun?* above, the script outline is a simple tool that can eliminate a lot of your discouragement. You’ll still have moments of despair, but believe me, they won’t be as intense. You still have to write the darn thing, but that task become less Herculean when you’re armed with a script outline.
Not to mention, the script outline can also help you land your agent. Let’s say you’ve combed through your network of colleagues and friends and discovered some of them have a few Hollywood contacts. You query them and describe your screenplay so artfully according to Michael Hauge’s advice from Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds, they have no choice but to request it. You send it in–and while the story isn’t their cup of tea, all is not lost ’cause they like your style and can see you’ve got skills.
So they ask you, “what else have you got?” And you can tell them you’re working on a script. The truth is you haven’t written one single page, not one…but you’ve covered a lot of ground with the script outline. So you share some of the more sizzling details from your outline, the “movie trailer” moments–and the agent is hooked. He or she might sign you immediately. At the very least, they can tell you to send them your screenplay in when you’ve finished it. Then you can kiss the ground and praise God that you finished writing a script outline because it kept the door open for you in Hollywood.
After you’ve gotten your agent, you might be lucky enough to be in a meeting room, pitching your screenplay concept to a bunch of studio executives. A script outline can help them visualize your story. And if they can see it as a movie, they’re more likely to buy it.
I’m going to refer to Terry’s website again, this time to this post The Wind Up & the Pitch. When he goes into pitch meetings, he brings with him a giant cork bulletin board to which he attaches 18-20 pieces of copy paper. Each sheet of paper lists the major sequences of the story he’s pitching and are labeled with descriptive headings (in all caps).
From their Mask of Zorro pitch, they used scene headings such as “CHRISTOBAL’S BETRAYAL” and “GYPSY CAMP RAIDED”, for example. You can also arrange the cards into columns so it’s easy to see the Act breaks (which executives love). I’ve written a good summary of Terry’s pitch board, but you should really take the time to read his post in its entirety. Not only is it informative, but it’s also laced with his trademark humor.
If you’ve done a script outline, it’s a breeze to create a pitch board. All you have to do is select major story events/developments described in your outline, give them headings, and press print. If you’re having trouble choosing which story beats to include, Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is a good starting point. But for Pete’s sake, don’t give your pitch board cards a heading like “Fun & Games.” Use names and settings from your own screenplay.
As you can see, a script outline is one of the best ways to help you write, complete & sell your screenplay. That’s your screenplay and script outline are going to be best friends forever. So you’re probably wondering, “what’s the best way to create a script outline?” That will be the very subject of a post which will be published soon. The 8 essential plot points play a major role in the process, so if you haven’t read that article yet, I’d give it a peek.
Pencils by Angie Garrett