Home Writing Learning Series Lesson #4: The Script Outline

Learning Series Lesson #4: The Script Outline

by Noel Moffatt

Welcome back! In lessons one, two, and three we guided you through your initial story development work. You’ve got your characters and story objectives ready – now it’s time to start structuring your plot with a script outline!

Before doing so, first sign up for your free Celtx account here.

With so much work completed already, it may be tempting to launch yourself directly into your script, 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 script. 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.

The first step in your outline process should be creating a Beat Sheet. Your Beat Sheet is simply a list of crucial plot points that support your narrative. These don’t need to be fleshed out scenes – just important moments. There are many different beat sheet templates available. For your convenience, we’ve created our own – accessable here:

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 outline! Using your Beat Sheet as a guide, you can now start describing every scene you wish to include in your script – 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:

    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.
    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.

Your Celtx Studio offers a unique way to write your outline that will save you a great deal of time once you’re ready to begin writing your first draft. The Integrated Index Cards system is ideal for brainstorming, describing, and organizing scene ideas, and also allows you automatically transform your card sets into properly formatted scripts with the click of a button.

Each index card you create includes a field for a scene header, a scene description, and tags. You can create one card per scene idea, fill it in, and keep going until you’ve outlined your entire story. For more information on how to use the Integrated Index Cards module, check out this video.

  1. Create a new Celtx project (if you haven’t already) and proceed directly to the Index Cards document. In the left-hand pane, you will see the ‘Add New Card’ button. Create new cards until you have one for each plot point from your Beat Sheet.
  2. For each of these cards, title them with their respective Beat Sheet names and enter a description of what needs to happen. You can also add a tag (i.e. ‘Act I’) to these cards and color-code them to make them stand out.
  3. You’ll now have a series of cards that represent your story’s narrative milestones. From here, you can start adding new cards and fill them with ideas for individual scenes. By clicking and dragging, you can orient these Scene cards around your Plot Point cards.
  4. Continue this process until you’ve created an Index Card outline for your entire story. While there are no firm guidelines for how many scenes you should have in a script, a solid number for the initial draft of a feature should range from 40-60.
  5. Keep in mind that the scene ideas you create in your outline aren’t set in stone. They can be expanded into multiple scenes, combined, or removed altogether. After completing your initial pass, take some time to let it breathe. When you come back to read through it again, you may already have adjustments in mind.
  6. When you’re satisfied with your outline, click the ‘Create Scenes From Unlinked Cards’ button in the Index Card module’s Actions Menu. This will import your cards to your Script Editor, creating a formatted blueprint that you can immediately begin to rewrite into a proper screenplay.

If you find yourself having trouble applying these concepts to your story idea, there’s a fun way to train yourself to start thinking in structure. Pick a movie that you enjoy (ideally, one that you never get bored of). As you watch it, start outlining its plot as bullet points. Think about when different things are occurring in the story, and use your Beat Sheet template as a reference. You’ll be surprised how quickly the structure of the movie becomes apparent.

As of 2023, Celtx removed index cards from their feature set and introduced Beat Sheets by Celtx.

With the completion of your script 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 script.  In your next lesson, we’ll cover the formatting, rules, and best practices of screenwriting. It’s time to tackle your first draft!


  • Noel Moffatt

    Noel Moffatt, a graduate of Memorial University in St.John's NL, now works as an SEO specialist for Celtx to help people transform great ideas into scripts.

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