Most writers write their stories without spending quality time on their story and scene outlines, thinking that it will only be needed once the draft is done, or when required during the development process, but it is one of the most important and valuable assets in the writing process.
Since outlines are often written solely by the screenwriter during their own development and writing process, they vary in size, shape, and form — depending upon the writer, as well as the needs of the possible producers, directors, and managers that they may be working with during the developmental phase leading up to the actual writing of the script.
The outline allows the writer to construct a general list of sequential scenes and moments in the order that they will be written within a screenplay.
This writing tool allows the writer to get an overview of the story beats and moments before applying them into the screenplay format of locations, scene description, and dialogue. Using this overview, you can make creative and editorial choices before you take the time to write those scenes and moments in their cinematic entirety. So if you find within that outline that certain scenes are redundant, repetitive, or unnecessary, you save the time of having to move, adjust, or delete those written scenes after you’ve already taken the time to write them.
Step One: Building Blocks
Complete the essential building blocks of a story that will lay the foundation.
- Explore the idea to its fullest dramatic or comedic potential
- Dramatise the premise and concept
- Ground the story in its perfect genre
- Settle on a meaningful and rewarding thematic purpose
- Fully develop the primary and secondary characters (function and supporting characters).
Step Two: Structure
Build your story by structuring and plotting it with a:
- Resonant set-up (beginning), confrontation (middle) and resolution (ending)
- Subplots so that your story has a compact and balanced inner and outer life.
Step Three: Story Outline
Now the story is ready to be treated with a story outline.
The function of your story outline is to write what happens in your story from opening to ending, identifying the story events (scenes) of the most important events in your protagonist’s life.
It is written in present tense and does not include dramatizations or any dialogue.
The purpose of a story outline is for the writer to outline all the events that occur in the story, keeping each event short, descriptive and to-the-point.
The story outline will clarify what story you are writing: If the story outline only has 15 story events you are writing a short film / story, if it has approximately 50 story events you are writing a feature film / novel, and if it had more than a 100 events you are looking at writing a series / a series of novels.
Step Four: Scene Outline
Once the Story Outline is complete, it’s time to deconstruct it with a scene outline / step outline.
It is also know as the card outline, where the writer uses an index card for each scene: it is useful to use the front of the card for plotting, and the back of the card for character development.
The function/ goal of the scene outline is to build and dramatise each story event, and to explore the exterior and internal lives of your story.
With the scene outline you ensure that
- Every scene has a specific function
- It is clear who drives the scene
- What the motivational action is
- Who causes the resistance or conflict in the scene
- Explore the physical and emotional conflict
- Ensure the event reflects or amplifies the theme.
It is an organic process that is very much alive, and constantly evolves and grows.
With the scene outline it is vital to number the scenes, this will help the writer when new scenes are written and have to incorporated into the story.
The scene outline becomes the blueprint of the first draft of the screenplay.
Step Five: From First Draft to Rewrite
The first draft of your spec screenplay is not a final script (shooting script).
- First drafts are about getting words out there and nothing else. Getting your story as a complete whole on the page. If you are too focused on a perfect first draft, the odds are you will never ever finish it.
- When you are ready to move on to the second stage of the first draft, you take a cold, hard, objective look at what you have written and focus on your characters. This is where you move from right-brain creativity to left-brain logic. This is the most mechanical and uninspiring stage of writing screenplay, but the most challenging and inspirational, where you will constantly be dueling with logic and reason.
- Now the story really gets written when it’s ready to be edited and polished professionally. The polish requires the skills of revision, editing, and re-creating – imposing order upon the disorderly chaos of art. Read more about or Story Editing and Polishing
- Nobody writes a perfect first draft. The secret to writing is rewriting. You are going to rewrite 70 – 80% of what you have written anyway.
Our The Write Journey course looks at how to how lay the foundation of your story, and use the 14 Structural Points to write the story and scene outlines.