The Outline: Your Screenwriting Roadmap

If you don’t know where you’re going, seriously, how are you going to get there? And if you do know where you’re going, if you were going from say, Los Angeles to NYC in a car, how in the world would you get there without a road map? For the wiseass who’s reading this and thinking that he doesn’t need a map, he just needs his car’s built-in GPS, I say this: A GPS, for all of its gizmos and audio driving instructions, is little more than a digitized map. And everyone, EVERYONE, needs a good map.

I’ve been working with screenwriters for a long time now. Half of the writers I meet with on a regular basis are non-professional, i.e. those who are yet to get paid for their writing, be it original work or assignments. Half of that non-professional half will often tell me when I ask about their writing process: I hate outlining. I just write and see where it takes me. Last fall, I sat on a panel at Screenwriters World with pro screenwriter/screenwriting instructor Michael Tabb. Michael, who’s written for studios and prominent production companies for the past 16 years, shared with me that for the first time in his career, he was trying to write a screenplay without an outline. I asked him why he chose to do this and he explained that he had to try it for the simple reason that this was how all of his first-time writers write. “And?” I asked. “It’s F**king hard! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!” he replied.

For all the talk about muse and art, screenwriting is a craft. While talent and storytelling instinct certainly play part in whether one will be able to become a successful screenwriter, I can guarantee you that very few screenwriters are able to find success without the mastery of craft. Nowhere is one’s skill set (or lack thereof) more evident than in the investigation of an outline – this is the place to hit the beats, to make sure that character and plot lines are evolving in accordance with structure, and that your screenplay or pilot script are delivering on the promise of the logline or the concept you set up.

While many writers consider outlining to be a document that will be – forever more – for their eyes only, such is not the case. Consider these examples: One of my clients is developing a new draft of his original screenplay with a big time producer. The producer gave ample notes to the screenwriter on the original draft, but before the screenwriter was ever allowed to go to rewrites, he was required to first deliver a stellar outline. They went three very detailed rounds before the screenwriter received the screenplay green light. Another writer pitched his “take” on an idea the production company was toying around with. He was asked to develop a detailed outline, multiple drafts of which he labored over for upwards of two months. When the movie was ultimately given the green light, the outline had been approved by the executives in charge. The screenwriter was then given 3 weeks to deliver the fully executed screenplay which was ambitious but not impossible, because the hard work had been done in the outline.

Outlining is a skill set on which screenwriters have to rely throughout their careers. After all, it’s much easier to make changes to a 3 or even 20 page broad document, than it is to adjust a fully executed screenplay that may run as long as 120 pages. Outlining is the time to consider story mechanics, arcs, beats, and the intricacies of cinematic structure. Some say that writing the script is the reward you get for working hard on the outline. Furthermore, you will be asked to discuss broad outline points once you emerge into the space, and industry meetings abound: What is your catalyst? Where is your midpoint? And what of your Dark Night of the Soul? Your A-Plot and B-Plot? Your act 2 escalations? Your character arc? Your internal and external journeys? If you cannot speak to these masterfully, you will be perceived as less than a master of your craft.

And if you don’t outline? You will find – or at least I have, through years of conversations with countless writers who chose to jump into script without an outline – that more often than not you will run into the same challenge most other writers who don’t in some form outline have: the majority of writers who write without an outline, a treatment or a beat sheet, usually run out of steam somewhere between page 50 and 70. By this point, they have either lost sight of their destination entirely, or have gone so far off track, that they haven’t the first clue how to get back onto the road they originally intended their screenplay to travel.

I’ll concede this: There is nothing sexy about an outline. Rarely is it fun. I get that most writers hate having to break down the seeming harmony of a fully realized cinematic story into a nuts-and-bolts outline. But no one ever said that this was going to be easy, and the outline is the very thing that often allows the screenplay to sing, for elements to weave in and out of seamlessly, for complexity to appear effortless. The fact that there is little by way of standard regarding outlining doesn’t make this challenge any easier. There is little set or defined about how an outline should look. Some like to do a beat sheet, and leave it at that. Others, like Dwayne Alexander who previously wrote a guest column about outlining for me, go as far as 20-50 pages in an outline, figuring every last detail out. One of my pro writers, who got tired of the mundane nature of an outline decided to move his outlines to powerpoint, wherein he inserted pictures of potential cast, and images to inspire some of his set pieces. There is a freedom in this absence of standard: It means that you, the writer, can go about outlining almost any way you want, so long as your outline includes the necessary elements. You just have to be sure to go about it.

In many ways, the screenwriting community has been underserved when it comes to outlining. There’s little by way of literature on the topic (if anyone has a book recommendation, please send me its name! I am always looking for material to share), and many academic programs only briefly explore the topic before going on to the creation of the screenplay or original pilot. Therefore, many screenwriting students come out of academia entirely unprepared for the demands of the professional space. For my money, I like to send my non-outlining writers to Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat.” At the very least, it will provide you with the beats your outline has to hit, and breakdown the relevance and intricacies of each.

Outlining will not only help you in your writing process; you will rely on it again and again as a screenwriting professional. It will become your must-have for meetings, your all important roadmap, the screenwriting GPS that you can’t live without, and the mastered structure within which you can now develop your next winning work. So, daunting as it can be, I can’t encourage you enough to dive into it, and stick to outlining before you delve into every new script. After all, everyone needs a roadmap.