How to Write a Screenplay Outline

Updated on January 9th, 2022
How to Write a Screenplay Outline

A screenplay outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown of a movie. It helps one to turn a logline and premise into a full-fledged story. Script outlines may include scene descriptions of action within a single scene. 

The key elements of a screenplay outline include:

  • Plot Points and Story Beats: It comprises inciting incidents, a climax, and a rising action. They play an essential role in making the screenplay attractive.
  • Scene Descriptions: These are broad strokes of action reports within one scene.
  • Character Arcs: They include emotional hooks for key figures in the script and focus mostly on the main character.
  • Dialogue Snippets: It comprises critical lines of dialogue to employ when the real scriptwriting begins.
  • Act Breaks: Most half-hour television programs use the three-act structure. More than hour-long shows employ a five-act design, and these movies often fall within a three-act frame. 

When writing a screenplay, discipline and organization of character arcs, plot points, and overall story structure are essential factors to consider. Whether you are a professional or armature screenwriter, learning to delineate a script will surely provide you with an organizational tool for writing the story. 

Numerous screenwriting software can give you a step-by-step outline tool to guide you throughout the story development process. Yet, as you create your outline, there are essential factors to keep in mind that will guide you to get the most out of the process. These critical steps include:

  • Begin With a Beat Sheet: The beat sheet is a condensed version of the overall screenplay. It is longer than a logline but just a few pages long. You can use a beat sheet to jot down broad strokes descriptions of your screenplay's action and character development.
  • Move Forward to Index Cards: Index cards are a concrete way to develop various plotlines in your script. You can use colored index cards to represent multiple narratives you will be looking at in your script. 

For instance, you can assign your first story to one color, and your second story to another different color, and other narrative threads you want to track in your story. It would be best to come up with basic level beats on the cards, which you can arrange in sequential order. This strategy helps to understand the story as you create it.

  •  Start Writing a Document, Scene-by-Scene: Having got your beat sheet and index cards as guides makes you ready. Your most important goal should be to include every interesting scene in your script. Hence, it would help if you started each outline entry with scene headings like you will do in your actual screenplay.
  • Explain actions and revelations: Below every scene heading, describe what happens and what characters and viewers can learn. Outline who takes what steps? Who can understand what information? And most importantly, how do the emotions change for most relevant characters?
  • Introduce a Dialogue as it Comes to You: Even though you aren’t drafting your screenplay yet, you will be forced to start thinking of lines of your discussion as you delineate the plot. When writing your first draft, include your dialogue in the outline and make sure it is clear and detailed.
  • Use your Outline as an Essential Tool: Most screenwriters write detailed outlines half the length of a finished script. Some write minimal outlines. They prefer to focus on dialogue and minute action when drafting a scene. However, don’t obsess over your page count. 

To write a screenplay is simply hard work, and an outline is an essential tool for you. Either way, whether you prefer a 20-page outline or a 50-page outline, always know that you’re doing this to make the actual writing process as smooth as possible.

The Importance of a Screenplay Outline

Most professional screenwriters prefer creating an outline before writing a screenplay. As your screenwriting profession progresses, you can be asked to give out your outline to producers or the production company executives before writing a project. 

Most industry professionals will inform you that scriptwriting is done in the procedure. So you need to ask yourself what an outline is and the practical means to create one? As we have learned that an outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire story of your screenplay, you need to know it can also be detailed or comprehensive. 

In short, the more complex one outline is, the better it will serve you when writing a screenplay. Script breakdown, action, and dialogue allow one to focus on making each scene outstanding and excellent. This approach makes the actual writing of your screenplay easier and more effective.

Have you ever commenced scripting a screenplay only to realize that you have written yourself into a corner, or you have hit some pesky story that you have no idea how to resolve? When you have an outline, you are free to make as many changes as possible to your account without the pressure of rewriting the actual play. 

You are openly free to play with your ideas and get your actual plot points structured correctly without the stress of writing snappy dialogue. If something doesn’t work in your outline, it takes less time and energy to fix it at this point than if you had already written the whole screenplay.

Outlines vary in different lengths depending on the needs of the producer, writer, or production company. If outlining for yourself, you can keep the outline briefer differently from that of a studio; the outline should be longer.