How To Write A Screenplay Outline

Experienced screenwriters know how to write a screenplay outline. In fact, they tend to invest significant time writing a screenplay outline because this is where a lot of kinks get worked out.

How To Write A Screenplay Outline: 7 Techniques

Here are some outlining techniques you can mix and match to enhance what you’re already doing:

1. Organize Lots of Material With The “Table Trick”

The “table-trick” comes from best-selling business author Kent Lineback. It’s a way to get the bones of an outline to emerge from a massive amount of text—without cutting-and-pasting.

Suppose you have aggregated a few hundred single-spaced pages of research, ideas, brainstorming, and notes, all in one document.  Here’s what you do:

  • Convert the entire document to a table with two columns and one row (split by paragraph). Make one column narrow and on the left-hand-side or right-hand-side if you prefer.  This is your “label” column.
  • As you read the material, you make a two-character notation (the “label”) in this column, e.g. “aa,” “ab,” and keep track of what your notations mean.  For example, aa = hero backstory.
  • Once you’re done, sort the table by the notation and voila—all of the material is grouped by label.
  • Then, highlight and delete the notation column, convert the table to text, and you can insert outline headers in the logical places.

2. Sort The “Puzzle Pieces”

Sometimes, writing a story is like solving a 500-piece puzzle–but there are 900 pieces in the box.

An outline can be a way to keep track of all of these “puzzle pieces” and see more clearly what does and doesn’t fit together.

One way to sort puzzle pieces for a fiction project is to create an outline using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet designations as the headers.

3. Put More Information In The First Level Headers

One of the advantages of outlining is being able to compress and expand the document and see how it flows at different levels.

It can help to put more information into the first and second-level headers so that you can see more of the project at a glance.

For example, I wrote an e-book about how to create a better pitch for your screenplay. My introductory section was outlined like this:

  • Welcome
  • Structure Of The E-book
  • Step-By-Step Method
  • Key Definitions
  • Myth: Good Material Sells Itself

I changed the top line to look like:

  • Welcome (Structure; Step-By-Step; Key Definitions; Myth)

That way, when I compress the outline to Level 1, I can see the flow of the information more easily.

4. Rebuild From “Scratch”

Sometimes, rather than organizing an outline from within a document, it’s easier to cut the entire outline and paste it into a separate “Scratch” file, then copy and paste the sections you want back into your document to build the new outline.

5. Use Bigger Notecards

You already know that just about anything can be outlined using the tried and true method of organizing via 3×5 notecards. But have you considered 4×6, or even 5×7?

Bigger cards can make it easier to add more notes and write in larger print so you can see more of your work when all the cards are laid out.

6. Check The Strength Of Your Outline By Writing A Summary

When you have a draft of your outline, before expanding to a treatment, try compressing it as a short (3-5 page) summary. You’ll have an easier time seeing where things are strong or weak, and can adjust your outline accordingly.

7. Try Microsoft Word’s Outlining Function

Of all the different software packages one can use to create an outline, other issues aside, Microsoft Word still has the best outlining function. (I’m part of a “Mac family,” so I use Word for Mac ’11).

Yes, Word has problems, and yes, there are other excellent applications that do outlines. Omni Outliner is worth considering if you like to include things like audio and photos in your outline—but I find it harder to write in Omni because it doesn’t format text (or the ability to view text) like a typical word processing program.

Final Draft and Scrivener are great programs for script or manuscript construction. But their outlining features are basically digital versions of using notecards, and you can’t see that many of their digital notecards on your screen at one time. Once you’re drafting, yes, using the outlining features of either can be useful. But before you’re drafting, when you’re just focused on the outline, I think you’re better off with actual notecards.

I’ve found that Word makes it easier to compose text while you’re working on your outline. With Word, you can compose, compress, or expand your outline to different levels, and have access to a more complete suite of formatting options. (Though one day, Pages will hopefully catch up….)

How Do You Use An Outline?

If you’re one of those writers who hates outlines, I’d like to know more—what about an outline doesn’t work for you?

If you use outlines in your writing, do you have any good tips or tricks?

Let me know in the comments—thanks!

 

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Discussion About How To Write A Screenplay Outline

  1. Steve

    Hi Stephanie,

    Your outline tips are great. I like Blake’s beat sheet. Is this similar to a step outline.

    Would be interested in hearing more about treatments if that is an area you are inclined to write about.

    Sometimes I write my outline on 3×5 note cards and shuffle them, view them in random order for new ideas or ways to look at story.

    Steve

  2. Sharon

    Thanks for these tips, Stephanie. I’ll be able to put Kent Lineback’s method to use right away.

  3. Glenn Conner Johnso

    Stephanie: Somewhere I heard that the studios “back in the day” color coded scripts to indicate action, romance, exposition, etc. I have adapted this on my 3×5 cards. Currently, one of my projects is writing a musical. With the songs in one color, the expo another, etc. it’s easy to see the show when it’s all on a large bulletin board.

  4. Dee Johnson

    Thank you for the great information, Stephanie. Have you ever tried ywriter? It is a free program by Spacejock (you can donate) and it is really awesome. I am a subscriber, but I have nothing to do with promoting the product. Here is a bit of information regarding how it handles outlines. You can check it out at http://www.spacejock.com.
    ****************************************************************************
    Importing an outline

    Imagine you’ve written a lengthy outline in your word processor, and you’d like to bring it in to yWriter as a skeleton project with the scene titles and descriptions all filled out. Instead of manually creating scenes and retyping all the info, this is how you do it:

    Step 1) Open the outline in your regular word processor, and make sure each paragraph refers to a single scene. If you have multiple paragraphs per scene you’ll need to join them up, because yWriter will create one scene per paragraph.

    Step 2) The first sentence in each paragraph will be used as the scene title. The whole paragraph will be used as the scene description.

    Step 3) Remove any text between the paragraphs such as ‘Chapter so-and-so’. The file should just consist of paragraphs, one per scene.

    Step 4) Save the file in RTF or TXT format.

    Step 5) Open yWriter5, click the File dropdown menu and then click Import into new project.

    Step 6) Click Convert an outline into chapters and scenes.

    Step 7) Choose the RTF file you saved in step 4.

    Step 8) yWriter will load the file and split it into chapters and scenes, then prompt you to specify a new project file to save to.

    Once your project has been saved you can check over the results, drag-dropping scenes between chapters. (The outline import automatically allocates three scenes per chapter.)

    • Stephanie Palmer

      I haven’t heard of ywriter, but I will definitely check it out. Thanks so much for the tip, Dee.

  5. Jasmine Dubroff

    Personally, I can never stick to my outlines. I make them when I begin a book, then I begin writing and suddenly I have an extraordinary idea, a revelation of sorts, and it completely changes where I think the story is going to go. That being said, I do like to have something of an idea as to the story line, even if I am not going to stick with it.

    And also, one thing that helps me sort through my ideas is Evernote! I love that software, I have it on my iPad, iPhone and my computer, and it syncs all of my notes and backs them up online so that nothing is ever lost. I used to simply use a word document with huge spaces in between each idea, and I have found Evernote to make that so much simpler. Each note and idea, no matter their length, are now individual and I can easily search them to find just the one I want! And seeing as how I have thousands, upon thousands of scenes and ideas, I am grateful to have discovered Evernote.

    Jasmine Dubroff

    • Stephanie Palmer

      I have been hearing more and more people who love Evernote. So glad to hear it is a valuable tool for you.

  6. Bernestine Singley

    I can’t remember the last time I made an outline for anything. I write books. Even my essays tend to be short book-length! So although I probably should use an outline, just reading about doing it sent my mind into shutdown. That said, I read your entire post as well as all the comments because I’m always open to improvement and ever hopeful some will rub off on me.

    Thanks for consistently sharing info that contains great practical tips and drives straight to the point…a gift and a treat.

  7. Fernando

    Solid advice. Outlining makes life so much easier. I don’t like notecards but I love outlines.

  8. Alex Argiles

    I want to write an outline for a script about a man/woman killing a spider at his home