This article is Part 4 of a series on story development.
Introduction to Creating a Screenplay Outline
With so much work completed already, it may be tempting to launch yourself directly into your screenplay, but you would be skipping an invaluable step in the story development process: outlining.
Outlining your script gives you an opportunity to workshop your plot and organize your story ideas within a dramatic structure. Essentially, this process will provide you with a step-by-step blueprint for your first draft.
A basic understanding of structure is key to crafting a good screenplay. Typically, a feature-length screenplay will be based in a classical three-act dramatic structure (i.e. a beginning, a middle, and an end). It is within these acts that prescribed events are expected to occur. These events are typically referred to as ‘beats’ or ‘plot points’.
While it might seem restrictive to hear that your story needs to conform to a predefined structure, it is important to keep in mind that people have innate, subconscious expectations as to how narratives unfold. There is plenty of room for experimentation and subversion within these structures, but it’s best to learn the rules before you attempt to bend (or break) them.
Come up with an idea for each beat, and you’ll end up with the complete arc of your narrative in three distinct acts.
Once you have your beat sheet complete, you’ve laid the foundation for your plot. It’s finally time to start writing in screenplay outline! Using your beat sheet as a guide, you can now start describing every scene you wish to include in your screenplay – from beginning to end.
These scene descriptions do not need to be written in a screenplay format. It can be helpful to include basic scene headings and numbering (i.e. 1 – INT. POLICE STATION – NIGHT), but it isn’t completely necessary. You’re free to write in a more free-form prose style, allude to conversations without actually writing dialogue, and so on. What’s important here is defining the thrust of the individual scenes – the actual screenwriting will come later.
Here’s what your scene descriptions might look like:
- INT. POLICE STATION – NIGHT
Our two detectives are clocking out after a hard night’s work. One notices the other pocketing evidence that’s meant to be checked in. A heated conversation ensues, and ends with a severe warning to keep quiet.
- EXT. POLICE STATION – NIGHT
The evidence-stealing detective is sitting in his car outside the police station. He’s distraught. He receives a phone call. We hear only one side of the exchange, but it’s clear that someone is blackmailing him into his misdeeds.
When You Finish Your Screenplay Outline
With the completion of your screenplay outline, you’ll have reached the end of your story development process. Congratulations! It’s quite the milestone.
However, it’s only the beginning of the real thing – writing your screenplay. In your next lesson, we’ll cover the formatting, rules, and best practices of screenwriting. It’s time to tackle your first draft!