Experts Weigh In: Outlining Your Screenplay
The beginning of the year is often a time when many screenwriters, refreshed from the holidays and newly motivated to make a push for their screenwriting career, get going on a new screenplay. While many writers like to jump straight into pages and see where those take them, both experienced screenwriters and industry professionals more often prefer to get started slow, breaking their story, testing its merit, and planning for its architecture before they dive on in. There is no one way to do it: Some writers like one pagers detailing the big idea in broad strokes; others, go straight into story beats. But almost every time, those exploratory formats lead to a single destination: the outline.
Not everyone loves outlining. I get that. Some writers feel that it takes some of the magic of discovery out of the writing process. But you wouldn’t build a house without agreeing with an architect and an engineer on a blueprint, would you? For the same reason, for writers working in the industry, be it in TV writers rooms or on feature assignments, outlining has become critical. There is no faking it when you outline, no hiding behind literary jazz hands or smoke and mirrors. In an outline, you quickly discover whether your storylines thread through, whether your structure is sound, and whether there are problems that need to be addressed before proper screenwriting ensues.
To help you consider how to write a strong outline, I turned to some of my friends in the expert and consulting space with the following questions:
- Is outlining important? If so, why? And what is the job of the outline?
- What elements should be included in, or, conversely, excluded from, an outline?
Here is what they had to say:
My good friend TV writing guru Jen Grisanti, of Jen Grisanti Consultancy who also instructs for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, told me:
“Writing an outline is very significant to the writing process. It is a step toward the finished product. When you write an outline, you are able to get your story on the page in a way that helps you to see what is working and what is not working before you go to script. My feeling is that the writer should start with log lines for each arc. Then, move to the concept phase. Then, move to the outline. Then, move to the script. As a former Current Programming executive, this system was largely practiced.”
And when it comes to considering what should be included in an outline and which elements should be left off the page, Jen said:
“An outline should ideally include a description of each scene and should be divided into acts with some dialogue infused. I tell writers that I should have a sense of the trigger, dilemma and pursuit in each arc.”
Ruth Atkinson, who comes from feature development, advised for Sundance Screenwriting Lab and Film Independent, and consults one-on-one with screenwriters, shared:
“An outline is 100% essential in order for you to know where the story is going. Without one you’re sure to lose your way or get off track and, if you don’t give up entirely, end up writing something that doesn’t work. You have to work out the main beats and turning points in order to find the shape of the narrative and figure out if the story even works before you go to pages. You’re trying to figure out if there’s a compelling story that has a good hook and escalates cohesively to the climax. This is easier to do in an outline than when you’re writing each scene. I’ve worked with a few writers who don’t outline and it has always led to bigger story problems down the road. They generally end up going back to do an outline which is often a page one rewrite.
When I work with a writer who is going to make substantial changes to their draft I encourage them to do a revision outline. This is a new outline that details the changes that are going to be made. This doc helps writers to see if the changes are going to work so they can problem solve ahead of time. It’s also useful because when writers go back into the pages they’re marrying the two versions which naturally leads to confusion. A revision outline helps writers to stay on track.”
As far as what should – and shouldn’t – be included in an outline, Ruth shared:
“If it’s a doc that’s just for the writer and isn’t going to a studio/producer/agent then all you really need are the main beats, and key turning points (inciting incident, end act one, mid point, end act two, climax, resolution) as they relate to the main action and the protagonist’s journey. It’s great to touch on the protag’s inner journey if you can so you can see how it’s working alongside the main action but this can sometimes be hard to do. Most writers leave out dialogue but if it’s going to a studio/prod/agent then a little dialogue can make the doc easier to read and convey voice a little more than a doc that’s essentially a list of the main beats.”
Working television writer (FAMOUS IN LOVE, PERCEPTION, THE NIGHT SHIFT) and Script Anatomy maven Tawnya Bhattacharya shared her insights with me as well:
“Outlining is one of the crucial stages of development. You wouldn’t build a house without architectural plans. You wouldn’t drive across country without directions. You shouldn’t write a script without an outline. It’s the blueprint of the story that not only keeps the writer on track, but should clearly tell the story to the reader. If you’re on a show or in development, you will need to be able to write a successful outline for your showrunner, studio, network, or executive in order to get notes and ultimately approval to go to script. Plus, it’s a lot easier to make revisions or restructure in paragraphs than it is in pages of scenes.
Outlines should summarize the scene, but in a compelling manner. At Script Anatomy we teach our writers to write their outlines like they would if they were on a show. We want them to get used to doing it in a professional way rather than just for themselves because there is an art to it. You’re telling story, so it should be entertaining. It should be active and visual, have dynamic characters pursuing their goals, it should have conflict, set the tone, theme — basically every element your script should have. If there is dialogue, it should be minimal. Don’t include the character’s internal thoughts or backstory or too many details. We don’t need to know what a character is wearing or what color the cushions on the sofa are.”
Renowned script reader Andrew Hilton, who works via his Screenplay Mechanic banner, and is also a repped, talented screenwriter in his own right, said:
“An outline can function like a road map. Some drivers instinctively know where they are going and never need to consult a map. Some drivers find a map crucial for their journey, to prevent getting lost along the way. Now replace “drivers” with “writers.”
As far as what should and shouldn’t be included in the outline, Andrew said:
“Depends on the writer. For most, crafting the basic narrative structure is the main goal (and value) of an outline. So the writer will at least have a rough idea of the 3-Act structure, and where the act breaks and certain sequences will fall in the grand scheme of the page count.”
Haley McKenzie, whose developed shows across the pond for ITV, Channel 4 and The BBC and now works with writers through her website consultancy Script Angel, shared this with me:
“Outlining is important only in so far as it aids your development of your idea. I think of an Outline as distinct from a Treatment. The Treatment is a compelling prose description of your story and as a professional screenwriter you might get commissioned to deliver a Treatment as part of the development process, so you do have to learn to write these well. An Outline, for me, is a different document altogether and one written by the writer for themselves, as part of their process of working out the story. The outline helps you create a road map and can vary from something very skeletal and sketchy (bullet points and maybe only a page long) to something with every single story beat mapped out. The outline is whatever you need it to be to help you plan your story before committing to writing a 90-page script.”
No Bull Script’s Danny Manus, a seasoned and highly regarded industry consultant, said:
“Outlining is crucially important. I can tell, with about 85% accuracy, if a writer has outlined before they’ve written. It’s usually pretty obvious because the script will feel more cohesive and thorough. It will have less of what I call the “HUH?” moments. You can tell when a writer has a clear blueprint and plan for their script and when they just had an idea and started writing. And especially if you’re just starting out, an outline is EVERYTHING. It will help you structure, help you pace your script, help show you where your setups and payoffs are, help track your subplots or other storylines, and it will ensure you know the purpose of each scene and what happens. That’s not to say your outline can’t or shouldn’t change – that’s totally fine. But having an outline will help make sure you’re not writing yourself into a corner every 10 pages, and will help make sure you don’t get lost in your second act or third act. That’s the outline’s job.”
As far as what to include in an outline, Danny said:
“I would include everything you need in that outline – whatever is going to help you. Character descriptions, structural beats, locations, where plotlines start and end, transitions, the purpose and emotional intent of the scene, etc. Whatever is going to help you. I don’t think things like production design are needed in outlines, but it’s just up to whatever inspires the writer to keep creating. No one’s ever going to see it but you. You can even write lines of dialogue for different scenes that jump out at you so you don’t forget. Make them as detailed as you think will make the writing process easier.”
Lastly, my friend, talented reader Rob Ripley, who ran the story department for Cruise/Wagner and now reads for writers through his website The Third Act in addition to writing himself, said:
“Outlining is EVERYTHING. If something doesn’t work in the cards/outline part of the process, it won’t work when I go to draft. Generally speaking I spend about 75% of any project working with cards and then in a beat outline, 20% of the time in treatment form and 5% of the time going to draft. On the cards and in the beat outline, the only thing that exists is the turn – either plot, character, or both. Once I move to the treatment version, detail of moments and snippets of key dialog arrive. What I avoid at all costs in outlines are character bios. Those are done on separate documents and only used to inform the outline, not overwhelm it. This way, the outline is focused on what the characters do, the consequences of those actions, and how the story advances.”
In my experience, an outline is crucial especially for writers just starting out. I can’t tell you how many relatively new writers I’ve spoken to over the years told me that they have any number of scripts in their virtual drawer that they quit around page 60, despite initially diving in with zeal. Every time I poked and prodded I quickly discovered what caused this: The writer never stopped to put together even the roughest of outlines, and instead just started writing. These days, the only time I don’t insist on some sort of outline or beat sheet from writers who are developing new material, it is when they are my studio writers, my showrunners, my working professional clients. If they are developing on spec, away from a showrunner or executive, I know that they’ve done this so many times, I can suspend disbelief. Considering the state of their career, they’ve earned the right to – at least once in a while – go wild and crazy.
Want to check out previous installments in the Experts Weigh In series? Check out Screenwriter’s Biggest Mistakes and First Step to a Great Feature or TV Pilot.