How (And Why) to Outline a Screenplay


As much as we all want to just sit down and write a screenplay, it


      Write down the main conflicts

Before you start writing the outline, you need to have the main plot of the story. A lot of writers start with a character, which is fine, but you’re not ready to write anything until you have an idea that puts that character into conflict. It’s also a good idea to jot down the subplots too, if you know what they’ll be. Sometimes I find great ideas for subplots come in the outline stage; there’s always time to add them later.


2.       Set the conflicts to the structure

Make sure your plot has a beginning, middle, and end. Then break the plot down further by identifying plot points like the inciting incident, midpoint shift, third act crisis, etc. Think about each of these story points from a movie-making perspective and ask yourself questions like: is my character active? Do her actions bring about change? Is there a character arch? This step takes the kernel of an idea and fleshes it out into a full script. It might help in this stage to write a logline, a one sentence summary of your film. A good logline will mention the inciting incident, the goings-on in the second act, and the third act crisis and conclusion.


3.       Break it down scene by scene

Now it’s time to really get into the outline. Write out in a sentence or two what happens in each scene of the film. It’s helpful to label each plot with a different letter, like A story, B story, etc. That way, when you see in scene four that “Maddie goes to the store and meets Pete (A),” you can tell that it’s a point in your main plot.  Just glancing at the page shows you which plots are being advanced in which scenes.


4.       Revise!

Once you have the outline written, it’s time for revision. This is generally everyone’s least favorite step in writing a script, but it’s extremely necessary. Revising will help you see problems like a lackluster or too short second act, a B story that disappears halfway through the film, or a number of any other issues that you can fix much more easily when your script is only in the outline form.


5.      Start writing the script

After you’ve gone through several revisions of your outline and it’s now tight and a clear representation of what you’re planning to write, now you get down to the fun part: actually writing the script! Because you outlined each scene, it’ll make it easier to write faster, and the best part is that you won’t face writer’s block because you’ll always know what’s coming next.