Outlining a screenplay

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We’ve all been there. You’re working on a project you’re really excited about, but the creative juices just aren’t flowing. You stare at your blank document for a while, maybe you open twitter… we’re not judging. Writer’s block happens to everyone, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. But I always make sure I have a secret weapon, something that can help me move along even when my muse is nowhere to be found. That’s right. Today we’re talking about outlining your screenplay. And we’re not just gonna talk about it; we have also created a workbook to help you outline your project, and any other projects you might work on in the future. 

Why outline?

Outlining a screenplay saves you time.

It’s an extra step, so it may seem counterintuitive, but trust me, you’ll spend a LOT less time editing if you have a solid outline before you write your script. Think about it like this: if you take the time to build a really solid foundation, you don’t have to do as much repair work to your house once it’s built. Basically, things will go more smoothly–and more quickly–if you have a great outline before you even open up Final Draft.

Outlining a screenplay helps you build strong character arcs.

Plot and character have EVERYTHING to do with each other. Your plot is specifically designed by you to help your character grow and change. So how do you make sure you’re challenging your character in exactly the right ways? You guessed it; your outline. Making sure you have a strong plot in turn makes sure you have a strong main character.

You’ll write faster.

Everyone faces writer’s block, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. But what if you never got stuck because you weren’t sure what scene needed to come next? What if you were always confident in the plot, and never had to pause to brainstorm new ideas for events? Well, if you have a solid outline, that could be your reality.

Your pacing will be on point.

Poor pacing is the death of so many projects, and it’s so hard to nail it down if you’re doing it on your own. Unless you have a natural knack for perfect pacing (in which case, congratulations are in order) an outline will make sure you have the right story beats at the right time. In a four act structure, each act is 25% of the story, and each event comes at a specific time. 

Okay, you’ve convinced me. So why doesn’t everyone do it?

Writers can be largely divided into two groups; plotters, or people who plan their work in advance, and pantsers, or people who “fly by the seat of their pants.” Lots of people who “pants” their work say that outlining their project stifles their creativity. And that’s fair! It’s so exciting to uncover a story as you go along. But what if we told you that you could have it both ways?

Think of your outline as your draft 0, your discovery draft. It’s your opportunity to discover lots of really cool things about your project. And the great thing about a draft zero is you don’t have to have EVERYTHING that will be included in your final (is there ever really a final?) draft. We’re not talking about a scene-by-scene breakdown of your entire screenplay, although props to those who do get that detailed. We’re talking about just the major story beats. You can have fun discovering more about your story as you write, we promise.

I’ve tried outlining before, and it didn’t work out.

There are several reasons outlining a screenplay might not work out. Let’s go over a few common things we hear.

I can’t stick to an outline! The more I learned about my characters and world, the more I veered away from what I’d planned.

Hey, that’s not a problem at all. The outline should be a living document. When you discover something new about a character that changes their arc or makes a certain plot event necessary, take the time to update your outline and see what changes it necessitates. I personally revisit my outline at the end of every act and update it to make sure I’m still on track. It sounds tedious, but it only takes a few minutes, and it helps me ground myself and make sure I still know where I’m going.

It’s impossible to fit the whole world of my movie into just a few pages!

Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to. An outline is just a jumping-off point. These are the major beats of your story, not every single thing that’s going to be in your movie. 

I don’t know what my movie is going to be about until I’ve started writing it!

I run into that problem sometimes too, and there’s an easy solution. See if you can write act one–the first 25% of your script–to learn more about this world you’re creating. Then go back and write the outline, taking what you’ve already written as your guide! You’ll likely need to heavily edit act one, but that’s a lot easier than having to revise an entire script.

Okay, fine. I’m ready to try it.

Great news! A great resource if you’re interested in learning more is SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. I also recommend STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron. It’s for novelists, but you can apply it to your screenplay work easily.

Don’t want to invest the time and money into getting a book? We have a workbook that you can use to outline your project, available for download. The ebook acts as a guide and a beat sheet; by the time you’re done with it, you’ll have a complete, four act outline! It’s not pricey, but we know it’s an investment; every penny counts when you’re an indie filmmaker. We think the time and effort you’ll save using this workbook is well worth the investment, and you’ll be able to use it time and time again as you create many many movies.

Thanks for reading, and happy outlining!

Molly

Molly

Author

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