How do you write a screenplay outline? 3 easy methods

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How do you write a screenplay outline? I’ve written about why you should outline a screenplay before you start drafting it. It’s something I feel strongly about in my own work; I know that my work is better, my plot is tighter, and my first draft requires less editing when I outline first. But just because I’ve told you why you should outline doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to outline, so today I’m going to walk you through my three favorite outlining options. I’ll start with where you can begin if you want more guidance around outlining your screenplay, and work my way up to an option that you can attempt if you’ve outlined many screenplays before and are super familiar with story structure.

Option number one: Outline your screenplay in a day workbook

I promise this isn’t an ad, so I’m just going to give you a quick elevator pitch for why my digital outlining workbook might be a good fit for you before I move on to other options. I made this workbook because I’m passionate about plot, character, and theme, and specifically what happens when you consciously bring all three together at the prewriting stage. After years of writing by the seat of my pants and churning out passable drafts, I needed something more concrete to save me from myself, so I created a digital workbook that guides you through outlining a screenplay. If you already have some idea of what you want to happen, this book can get you through your outline and ready to draft in a single day. That was important to me, because as much as I rely on outlining, I’m always desperate to get to the fun part! This book is an instant download, can be printed if you’d like, supports a small business, and takes you through every step of the process. Even as an experienced writer, I still like to use this because it makes sure I’ve covered all my bases.

If this workbook isn’t the right fit for you but you need some extra help, check out my list of writer craft books that will help you learn more about plot and story structure. They all have slightly different perspectives than I do on outlining a screenplay, but they should all get you started on your outlining journey.

Option number two: the Gingko App

I’ve written before about Gingko in my regular round-up of free filmmaking resources, and I think it’s a great intermediary step for someone who has experience outlining a screenplay, is familiar with traditional plot structure, and now just needs a little bit of guidance as they work through their next project. The Gingko App is free to use–they also have a pay what you want membership tier–and I find it extremely useful. The site has different pre-made “trees” available, which are essentially stacks of index cards that are neatly sorted, with prompts on each one. I like to select the “screenplay” tree, which follows the Save the Cat! three act plot structure. Each card will have a different plot point on it, all the way from “opening image” to “dark night of the soul,” and it’s your job to simply fill it in! Now, if you aren’t deeply familiar with the ways the character and theme interact with plot, you might want to go back to option number one and see if any of those tools resonate with you, because the last thing you want is a killer plot where the protagonist simply goes along for the ride, or a tight beat sheet that leaves you wondering if your themes are going to come through. Still, this is a great tool, and one that I use often when outlining a screenplay!

Option number three: the index card method

This third and final option takes the Gingko method of “trees” and makes it way, way lower tech. Essentially, once you’ve outlined enough, once you’ve developed enough plots and characters, you don’t need the guidance of the other two tools, and you can simply write each scene on an index card and then either hang it up in your workspace or put it in a binder. When you’re ready to write a certain scene, you just grab the card, draft that scene, and then grab the next one. It’s simple, no frills, and there’s absolutely no hand holding. It’s just you, a pen, and your own understanding of plot. If you don’t have a good storage solution, don’t even attempt this one; it’s deeply frustrating and a waste of time when your cards get out of order or worse, damaged.

I like to get a little fancy when I do this with a color code, with different colors for different acts, POVs, themes, you name it. For example, I once outlined a novel with alternating POVs; yellow represented lead character A and purple represented lead character B. I wrote with a black pen for act 1, a blue pen for act 2, and a purple pen for act 3. On the back, in pencil, I made notes about character development and theme. This was a good system for me, and it worked well, but I had more editing than I typically do when I use the workbook or Gingko, so even though I’ve outlined many, many novels and screenplays, I still find myself gravitating back towards those options. Still, this is a good, low-investment option for people who know their way around a story and like to have a visual representation of their plot.

So, how do you write a screenplay outline? Start with these three methods and see what resonates with you. Do you already use any of these methods? Do you have another technique that works well for you? Send me a message on my Instagram and tell me what you’d add to this list, or ask any questions you have about outlining a screenplay!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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