limitless-movie-trailer-540x279Unless you’re a genius like Bradley Cooper, you’ll want to outline.

Screenwriting, more so than most writing mediums, is about structure. You’re telling a story within a very specific framework (usually three acts: A beginning, a middle, and an end). If you don’t plan ahead for how you’re going to lay that story out, it’s kind of like trying to tell a joke at a party without practicing it beforehand. You’ll start to wander, repeat things, and forget stuff. You’ll see your audience getting bored, checking their phones, losing interest. When it comes to screenwriting, you don’t have that luxury. You won’t see the people getting bored, which means you’ll have no idea that the “joke” isn’t working.

So think of outlining as “practice” for your screenplay. It’s where you test and try out everything until you get it exactly where you want it to be. If you don’t outline, chances are your script will feel lost. Screenplays require a certain pacing and escalation to keep a reader’s attention. Outlining fosters that process. Now everybody has their own methods, their own outlining styles, so what I’m about to share with you is only one approach. But it should familiarize you with the process and give you a base point to start from.


Assuming you’ve already got an idea, the first thing you’ll want to do is set your act breaks. On a 100 page script (which is what I’ll be using as the page count basis for this article), your act breaks are going to occur around page 25 and 75 (or at 25% through and 75% through, if your script is longer). The first act break (act 1 into 2) will be when your hero leaves on his journey and the second act break (act 2 into 3) will be when it appears he’s failed at his journey. For this to work, you’re going to want a protagonist with a goal (find the Ark, save the wife from terrorists, snag the girl, survive the Purge, find and get Doug back to his wedding on time). It becomes a lot harder to structure a screenplay if you don’t have a protagonist with a goal.

All you have to do, then, is figure out how these moments play out in your specific story. So let’s say I’m writing a movie about a plague that’s threatening to destroy the human race and our main character is looking for an exotic monkey he believes has the cure (I think this is an actual script I reviewed – it sounds familiar). Hence, our main character, Jason (a primatologist), must find this monkey. Page 25, then, might be outlined as: “Jason takes a plane to Kansas City where the plague began and where he believes this monkey escaped from the zoo.” Boom, you just outlined your first story beat!

Page 75, the break into the third act, will require a little more thought, because you have to think through your entire story to figure out how your protagonist will get to his lowest point. In the case of future blockbuster “Monkey Plague,” it might be that Jason is rushing to the labs with the monkey, only for our villain to race him off the road and steal the monkey away.  It looks like poor Jason has failed at his mission.  :(


Now that you have the two most important places in your screenplay mapped out, you have a solid sense of where your story needs to go. This should make tackling your story easier. But remember that the average screenplay has 50-60 scenes. We’ve only written two of those. I’ve found that the more advanced the writer, the more specific they want their outline to be. So if you want to take this a step further, here are the next set of scenes you’ll want to outline before you start. I call these major beats “Hot Spots.”

The inciting incident (Page 10) – The inciting incident happens in the first act, somewhere between pages 5-15, and is the thing that throws your hero’s world upside down. It could be the death of someone they’re close to, getting fired, wife divorcing them, someone tries to kill them, aliens showing up. Everything’s cool for your hero until this moment happens, so it’s a good (and usually obvious) moment to map out on your outline. In Monkey Plague, this might be the announcement on television of the plague. Or, if you already started with the plague, maybe the government announces an official quarantine on the city Jason lives in. You’ll notice how this conflicts with the First Act Turn I outlined above. How can he take a plane somewhere if his city is quarantined? I’ll go back and change the First Act Turn to him paying a black market bus to take him out of the city. These kinds of changes happen all the time while outlining and are part of the process.

First major obstacle/jolt (Pages 35-40) – I’m a strong believer that something exciting should happen every 10-15 pages in your script, something that jolts the reader a little, whether it’s a major obstacle, a reversal, a mystery posed, a surprise, a character intro, a mystery answered, a twist, or just something that ups the stakes. Use these moments to reignite the flame of your story, which may have grown dimmer as your reader has settled in. Keep in mind that most of these moments should be based in resistance. They should make your protagonist’s journey more difficult. In Monkey Plague, Jason may get to Kansas City only to find that the city infrastructure is crumbling as everyone flees to the safety of their homes. Electricity is starting to go out, public transportation is shut down, looting has begun.

The Midpoint Shift (second major obstacle/jolt, page 50) – The Midpoint Shift is one of the most important pieces of the outline because the second act (between pages 25-75) is where most stories fall apart. It’s such a big gap that writers don’t know what to do with all that space. Enter the Midpoint Shift, which is basically the most extreme obstacle/twist you’re going to write into your movie. The idea is to shake things up and turn the story on its head a bit so that the second half feels different from the first. I can’t stress this enough. Without a solid midpoint shift, your second half will feel like a repeat of the first and we’ll get bored. So in Monkey Plague, I’m thinking of two things happening. First, everybody in the city is mysteriously disappearing. Something’s up, and Jason doesn’t know what it is. On top of this, Jason finds out he’s infected (either by random exposure or someone infecting him on purpose). Notice how this changes up the story (the danger becomes more personal) and ups the stakes (our own character’s life is at stake, and he doesn’t have long to save himself).

Third Major Obstacle/jolt (page 65) – This is probably the least known hot spot, but an important one as the late second act is often the most boring part of a movie. Therefore we need one more jolt before we get to the end of the second act. What that jolt is (a twist, raising the stakes, a giant obstacle) is up to you, but a lot of times it has something to do with death (the death of Obi-Wan for example). But it can also be a good guy who’s secretly revealed to be a bad guy. It could be a false victory (the guys in The Hangover find Doug only to realize… it’s not the real Doug). Or it could just be something strange and unexpected, such as the discovery of the Guinea Pig Island in Life of Pi. In Monkey Plague, maybe Jason comes upon a slaughter house. They’re killing all the monkeys to get rid of the plague. But as he gets closer he realizes they’re not slaughtering monkeys. They’re slaughtering HUMANS! Ahhhhh!!!

Ending (page 95) – Michael Ardnt (Toy Story 3 and Star Wars VII) says he doesn’t write scripts until he knows the ending.  That’s because the ending dictates everything that comes before it.  The more specifically you know your climax, the more direction your story will have.  Period.  But endings are also really hard to figure out.  Coming up with an original one that will surprise an audience is rare.  So you’re not always going to get it on the first try. Still, try to put something down, even if you think it might change later.  It’ll give your writing direction and purpose. I’m having a hard time with the ending for Monkey Plague, so for now, I’ll just say that Jason gets the monkey back and creates the antidote, with mere minutes to spare…only to find that it was the wrong monkey!


Okay, now you have the basic story beats laid out. These will be the pillars of your plot. From here, you have a choice. You can either charge forward and start writing your script or you can start filling in the gaps. My advice is to fill in the gaps. The more scenes and beats you know, the easier it will be to write the script and the less of a chance you’ll encounter writer’s block. Depending on the length of your script, you’ll have anywhere between 10-15 scenes in the first act, 25-30 scenes in the second, and 10-15 in the third (the number of scenes will also vary based on what type of script you’re writing as well as your writing style). Since you have the Inciting Incident, the First Act Turn, the First Major Obstacle, the Midpoint Shift, the Third Major Obstacle, the Turn into The Third Act, and the ending, that means you already have seven of these scenes set. You just have to come up with the final 50. As you keep working on your outline, both before and during the writing of the script, you’ll become more specific with each beat and scene (even adding notes to yourself in sub-headers as to what you’re trying to accomplish with the scene). If you can get your outline to the point where every scene is noted (should be easy after the first draft), you’ll be able to see what needs to stay, what needs to go, where things need to speed up, etc.  Wordpress won’t let me add sub-headers without learning Fortran, but the outline will look something like this (I’ve added a few scenes to fill out the outline).

ACT 1 (numbers denote scene numbers)

1 – Jason working in the lab on a monkey that’s showing exceptional abilities.
2 – Jason goes home. Girlfriend pissed cause he spends too much time at work.
3 – Jason gets a surprise phone call – told not to come into work tomorrow. Government has called in to suspend all primate studying for the time being.
4 – Inciting Incident – The government announces an official quarantine of the city.

12 – (break into act 2) Jason heads to Kansas City on a sketchy bus.


18 – (Obstacle 1) City infrastructure is crumbling. Violence is erupting in the city. Phones go down so no one can call him back.

25 (Midpoint Shift/Obstacle 2) – Jason betrayed by Sara after getting injured. While asleep she injected him with the plague and is now gone. Plague kills within 72 hours. (where is everyone disappearing to??)

32 – (Obstacle 3) Jason finds out that government has taken over all slaughterhouses and is using them to slaughter humans with the plague.

38 – (Lowest Point/Break into Act 3) Is chased after getting the monkey, rammed off the road. The monkey is taken from him. He’s at his lowest point. Has nowhere left to go.


50 – (climax) Jason infiltrates the government base where the monkey testing that created the plague was happening. Takes down the bad guys, completes the antidote… but finds out it’s the wrong monkey!

Besides Monkey Plague starting to sound more and more like a midnight Sy-Fy channel flick (hey, what did you expect? It was called Monkey Plague!), I think this gives you a pretty good idea of how to outline. What’s important to remember is that this is a very general approach. It’s tricky to put a one-size-fits-all approach on outlining. When Harry Met Sally, for example, doesn’t have a character goal driving the story. This meant finding another way to structure the script, and therefore another way to outline. They did this with time jumps, which divided (structured) the story into five parts.

Multi-protagonist movies (Crash) and multiple storyline movies (The Dark Knight) don’t follow the traditional “Character goes after a goal” structure either. These are trickier to outline because there just aren’t as many successful movies in those formats to draw from. With that said, it’s even more important to outline these scripts since they’re more likely to lose focus.

Outlining should also work closely with rewriting. The more complicated your story is, the harder it will be to figure out all the beats right away. The Dark Knight, with its many storylines and characters, is going to require some playing around to discover the storyline. So feel free to get the basics down in your initial outline, then write a draft that helps you discover where everything else is going to go. As you write, you’ll feel yourself coming up with ideas, which you can fill in on the outline on the fly. Your second draft, then, will be the powerhouse draft.

Now there’s no law that states you must outline. You can drop into your script guns a’blazin and see where it takes you. But the more you know about your story, the more it frees you up to just write (as backwards as that sounds). If you’ve never outlined a script before, give it a try and see if it helps. And if you already do outline, maybe I gave you a few extra tricks to use. Next Thursday is a Character Outline article so try to have your plot outlined by then!

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Great article as usual Carson.

    When outlining I like to add two notes next to every numbered scene… What the purpose of the scene is, and what the primary conflict in the scene should be. This helps save a lot of time in preventing yourself from writing scenes that are dull or have no point.

    • Shaun Snyder

      That’s an excellent tip! I think I may try that.

      • carsonreeves1

        Yes, this is a good tip!

    • alanbsmithee

      How about adding what the character(s) want(s) in that scene? Doesn’t have to be MC. What works best for me is to have two characters with opposing goals in the scene. It always creates conflict.

    • J.R. Kinnard


    • Frankie Hollywood

      I write Action scripts, so with every Step/Scene/Index Card I always grade the Action of that scene from 1-5 (1: Talking – 5: Bashing skulls). Hopefully I can set up a Roller-Coaster ride for the audience — with escalating ups/downs working towards that thrilling Final Showdown.

  • carsonreeves1

    thank lumi :)

  • Shaun Snyder

    Great article! When I first started wanting to screenwrite, I read Syd Field’s book. Though it was a bit dated, I was able to get a lot of the basics. He was big on outlining, and I’ve outlined every script I’ve written because of his book. He’s very specific on his scene count (he says there should be 56 scenes, and it actually helps to try to follow that rule, especially if you look at every scene as being 1.5 to 2 pages).
    An exercise that helped me hone (sp?) my outlining skills (not saying I’m an expert; I’m still learning, too) was to either watch a movie and outline each one of its scenes or read a script and do the same thing. It’s an interesting exercise and a great way to figure out the structure and balance of a screenplay.
    I also changed the way I outline based on your article on sequencing. After I come up with the Act Breaks and “Hot Spots”, and before I outline each individual scene, I try to come up with eight Sequences, complete with a minor character goal in each sequence. It helps with the focus of the script, and it’s easier to write individual scenes around them.

    • carsonreeves1

      Yeah, sequencing really helps. I know not everyone uses it though, so I decided not to include it in the article.

    • Stank

      This is embarrassing, but how do you define scenes? Especially when I write fast-paced thrillers I may have as many as 80-100 INT/EXT slug lines because of cutting back and forth or having two characters doing two different things simultaneously…. I actually outline by “minute” or “beat” than by scene. My final outline before I start typing is usually 100 points.

      • JakeMLB

        Not embarrassing because there really is no universal definition of what constitutes a scene. A simple definition that helps is this:

        A scene is an expression of essential conflict that advances the story.

        That’s probably as specific as you can get. In thriller and action genres you’ll have plenty of cut scenes/sequences that typically combine to form an action set piece (which may or may not be comprised of numerous scenes). I wouldn’t consider all those cut scenes/sequences “scenes”. A scene in the fullest sense should be able to stand on its own in that there is a beginning, middle and end (goal, often a complication, resolution) but that’s a bit too demanding so I prefer the former.

  • jaehkim

    I love outlining. I think it’s the most fun part of writing a screenplay because you can look at your whole story and just brainstorm. come up with crazy ideas and see how it’ll fit.

    this article is very detailed and nails the concept on the nose. definitely one of my favorite articles.

    I’m sure this is unrelated to the script you’re talking about, but I remember a monkey plague-esque movie – outbreak (1995). a virus breaks out, and they have to find a monkey for a cure, and rene russo’s character gets infected at the mid point.

  • TGivens

    Great article! Outlining is a lot of fun.

  • ripleyy

    While an article on outlining is a good idea (for those who don’t do it), outlining is personally tailored to the person. For example, the way I outline is different to this. Mine’s more a list of A to Z bullet points so there is this flow about it and instinctively I know where everything is (ie: where the acts end, where the inciting incident is etc).

    For people who don’t outline, this is a good article. I don’t know how people can’t outline and they write freely, that boggles my mind just thinking about it.

    • Warren Hately

      Amen to the latter.
      I’d read Save The Cat for a good idea on how to construct a screenplay. I found this article a bit flippant for such an important subject.
      I haven’t had writer’s block for years and outlining is part of that (which leads to developing a solid detailed treatment). It took me years all the same to appreciate that outlining and developing the treatment are as much part of the writing process as typing Fade In and getting started.

  • JakeBarnes12

    There’s two kinds of bank robbers.

    The ones who use the getaway car which hasn’t had a tune-up in three years, haven’t assigned tasks to the whole gang ahead of time, and don’t know the local cops are having a security drill at the bank on the day they’re hitting it .

    These are the kinds of bank robbers who love to tell people they relish the opportunity to improvise and be creative in the moment.

    Then there’s the crew that knows that clerk #2 did a tour in Iraq, the bank uses two layers of blue dye in their cash drawers, and the manager’s always thirteen minutes late on Fridays because that’s when his wife blows him.

    These are the kinds of bank robbers that are currently lying on a beach in Brazil quaffing Dom Perignon and waiting for their underwear-model girlfriends to finish shopping.

    • carsonreeves1

      I like this analogy a lot!

    • romer6

      They don´t come to Brazil anymore. There are enough bandits here alone to scare anyone even foreign competition. They wouldn´t last a week. They are probably in Dubai, Thailand or some place else.

      Ah, I miss the good old days where every bank robber would come to Brazil and enjoy the north american dream…

  • Paul Clarke

    Great article. I’ve never understood why people wouldn’t outline. The argument being that it stifles creativity. How do those people think an outline is made? It’s created. It’s really just a summary. I’m very lazy (ahem, I mean efficient). Why would I write 110 pages and realize it doesn’t work, when I can write a 2-3 page outline and come to the same conclusion.

    The mind can’t hold that much information at once. You can’t see an entire 110 page script in your head. You can see an outline, maybe even colour coded with diagrams. That’s not going to hurt creativity, it’s a framework to build it on. And it’s not like you can’t change things as you go. You still then have to come up with the interesting and original scenes to fill in the story.

    I’ve noticed those writers who don’t like outlining and structure usually write 60, 70, or more drafts. By simple statistics we can assume they’d hit the write structure by chances. And that’s the draft they probably prefer and end up using. Why waste all that time.

    The most important point you mention in the article, the one that is constant amongst all structural paradigms, is that there must be some story development every 15 pages. And that story development should be irreversible.

    And just to add to that, earlier this week I went out of town for a couple of nights in an attempt to blast out a first draft for my newest story idea. I had a basic outline jotted down, but it turned out to be filled with ‘gaps’ as mentioned. It all came to a grinding halt when I hit those gaps, even though I knew what needed to happen. I still had to stop everything and come up with ideas. This takes more time than the actual writing. Combine this with some serious procrastination (even without internet or TV), and I only managed 40 pages. A lesson learned.

    • J.R. Kinnard

      Totally agree with you. I’m a big believer in the ‘bullet point’. When I have nearly every bullet point prepared, I know it’s time to head to the cave and start my rough draft.

      But everyone has a different creative process. Some folks may need to struggle through 60 drafts before they truly know what they have. Kubrick, for instance, is famous for having no clue how he was going to shoot a scene when he hit the set. It took literally hundreds of takes and driving his actors nearly insane before he knew what he wanted. That was his process.

      I do get a little scared, however, adhering so closely to the 3 Act structure points (plot points, pinch points, etc). It puts me in the mindset of preparing a recipe and I find that very confining. I know that’s the reality of writing scripts in Hollywood, but it still rubs me the wrong way as a writer. It’s the price we pay to get the prize, right?

      • Matty

        Completely agree – everyone has a process. This isn’t chemistry. It’s an art, where virtually everything is intangible. Give me an instance of one thing not working, I’ll show you an instance where it does work. BUT… I think in general, it is good advice to novice screenwriters to outline. I think that’s the best first step toward them finding their process, because processes have to be discovered through experience.

        And honestly, the “three act structure” isn’t nearly as confining as it seems. Sure, if you write according to Snyder’s beat sheet putting everything on page 5, or 12, or 25, etc. then it’s confining. But once you understand the structure, and start noticing it in other films, you realize how much freedom there actually is. And that’s part of the experience factor – learning that one story may demand an inciting incident on page 19, and another may demand it on page 2.

      • Matty

        And it’s funny about those processes… for example, the Coens have repeatedly said they don’t outline. And, of course aside from their adaptations, they’re working from scratch. They also like to fuck around in interviews, so who knows if it’s true or not, but I’m not hesitant to believe they don’t outline. And, while I know Carson doesn’t like them, I consider them among the top tier of modern cinema masters.

        Funnily enough, they’ve storyboarded every single one of their films. So they write a script with no outline, but when they direct it, they have every shot planned out.

        Whatever works….

  • Malibo Jackk

    A few years back, one of my neighbors was an engineer.
    He thought like an engineer. Very methodical.
    After he sold his house, the new neighbor invited me over to see one of his inventions.
    Up in the master bedroom, over the bed, a platform hung by chains from the ceiling.
    (Ok. Those with dirty minds can stop right here.)

    The platform housed a tube television — the idea being that he could reach up and change the channels without leaving the bed.
    (My guess is that he had misplaced the remote.)

    It’s a true story.
    I don’t think the guy spent enough time exploring his creative side.
    (Or perhaps he spent too much.)

    • Citizen M

      In the Soyuz space capsule the buttons are too far away to be pushed by the commander when he is strapped in.

      That’s why all Soyuz commanders carry a stick.

      • Malibo Jackk

        Every good screenwriter should carry a stick.
        (Just in case …

        they can’t reach the keyboard.)

  • deanb

    It also helps if you write an extended summary or treatment. I’ve found that with the right creative sparks, these can run into dozens of pages. I like to think of this as crafting a “primordial word soup,” from which hopefully a fleshed out story emerges.

    They’re very useful for building an arsenal of ideas from which you can draw. Then later you parse it down into a more streamlined five or six page outline.

    If you look online, you’ll find James Cameron’s book-length treatment for Spider-Man he wrote in the 80’s. It’s not quite a script, and not quite a summary or outline, but given that Spider-Man’s a franchise character, it’s helpful to construct a large outlining base to build on.

    • alanbsmithee

      I think it does more than help. I had an opportunity to speak to Billy Ray recently and he said that when a studio gives a writer an assignment, the first thing they have to submit is a treatment. This treatment will move up the ladder to various executives and producers and upon approval does the writer begin working on a draft. This of course applies to assignments which is to assume that there’s a story (book) already in place and may not be needed when someone is writing a spec. But the way I see it is if you plan to work as a professional you might as well learn and get used to outlining and writing treatments.

  • Evan Porter

    Be careful not to overestimate how long your scenes will be. I find estimating at 1.5-2 pages is too much. How many scenes are over 2 pages? Should be very, very few.

    Make sure you’re hitting all the necessary story beats. You can always cut later. Don’t go for brevity in the outline stage.

    It really sucks to get through a first draft and have it come in at 82 pages. And then you have to go back in and start ADDING beats – which never ends up feeling organic to the story. Can be tough to dig yourself out of that hole.

  • Michael

    No one goes on vacant without planning it out. Book flights, rent car/map driving routes, hotel reservations, dining reservations, pre-purchase tickets to entertainment and sports, and so much more. Yet, doing all that in no way defines what kind of vacation you’ll have. The same with screenwriting. Outlining does not box your writing in and limit it, it frees you up to enjoy getting from point A to point B, because you know where you are going and can now concentrate on how best to get there. Stop fighting it, outlining is your friend.

    • Paul Clarke

      Perfect analogy.

  • MayfieldLake

    In my experience, it’s not that people don’t know WHAT to put into an outline, it’s that they (myself included) don’t know HOW to outline.

    All the books and articles can teach you the what. The what is the the first (and easy) step. But only experience can teach you the how. And that is the hard part.

    For years I was a meticulous, thorough outliner. But my lack of experience led me to making poor choices, and choices where I thought I had good structure WHEN IN FACT I DID NOT. Only experience has taught me better how to actually hit the beats and do so in a way that seems realistic.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    I think it would be better if you have a used a real movie (i.e. Taken) then coming up with a fictional movie idea to use as an example.

    I think I’d remember everything easier that way and I would be able to play the movie and while watching it say recognize with my own eyes the structure.

    I love the idea behind these articles and I’m looking forward to reading the Character Outline.

    • Jerry Salvaderi

      I have to politely disagree. I believe the point of this column is to explain to the readers how to take a basic idea for a movie and extrapolate it out for the major plot points. In that case, I believe it is better to use a fictional movie premise to show how the fluidity of the process can play out. With actual movies, these beats are already set in stone – there’s no fluidity because there’s, obviously, one only way the movie plays out. The perfect example of this is Carson’s point about the inciting incident being incongruent with the previously-mapped end of the Act I and the outline needing revision to include new, better ideas. In other words, studying the process rather than the product.

      That’s not to say, of course, that studying the beat sheets of established movies and storylines isn’t helpful. I just think in this case, using a fictional movie premise better illustrates the purpose of the article.

      • Panos Tsapanidis

        You are probably right. It’s just that I tend to learn this way easier and most probably I am part of the minority.

  • Stank

    I’ve written quite a handful of screenplays at this point (working on number 8 now) and I always outline. I’ve gotten myself to the point where I can crank out an entire screenplay in about 6 weeks: 2 weeks outlining, 1.5 weeks writing, 2.5 weeks editing. But I actually spend more time outlining than actually writing!

    Now I haven’t had a major spec sale but I have been hired to do rewrites by other writers, I just got some financing for a short, and have a bunch of work floating around at some minor agencies, so things seem to be coming together a little… hopefully… maybe…

    long story short – outline!

    I’m excited to hear about Charater Outlining, this is where I need more practice. Can you make this as advanced as possible Carson? Cheers all.

    • Malibo Jackk

      When you do rewrites of others —
      do you prepare an outline of their script?
      or outline your own ideas? or just make subtle changes?
      Curious how that works.

      • Stank

        I’ve only done re-writes for others doing specs who need something boosted up and are offering writers credit sometimes a little bonus cash. We do what we must right…

        But to answer your question, for me I always re-outline. First I break out their script page by page. Then I go through and write what was good about each page and what was bad. If a page is boring or more bad than good I ask how it could be improved.

        This process almost guarantees very different script at the end. Often times there is a change of characters and even story. I find if very difficult to improve a scene without touching everything around it. Script writing doesn’t work that way.

        That being said, people want to bring me on because they like how I frame a story. I spend time outlining, a ton of it. I studied mechanical engineering in college and now I am writing full time, believe or not I don’t think the two are that opposite. No one is asking me to amp up their dialogue, I’ll be the first to admit that’s not my strong suit. If that were the case, maybe I wouldn’t restructure anything.

        In short – it depends on the type of rewrite, but for me I do a complete restructuring and therefore I do re-outline.

        • Paul Clarke

          “I find if very difficult to improve a scene without touching everything around it. Script writing doesn’t work that way.”

          If only Hollywood shared your belief. They hired Lindelof to rewrite the ending of World War Z after they had already filmed it. And that’s exactly how it feels. A tacked on ending that doesn’t match the rest.

          Once I write and ending, the first thing I have to do is go back and rewrite the opening to match. The entire thing has to be intertwined or it won’t work.

  • ThomasBrownen

    Great article Carson. It’s always good to get back to the basics and remember how to structure a story.

    But be careful with the “Fill in the Rest” part. You can’t just rely only on those plot points every 15 pages to keep the story interesting. Every scene must be interesting and dramatzied and keeping the reader’s attention — not just blandly moving the story along to another plot point.

  • Poe_Serling

    I don’t really have much to add to Carson’s timely and always appreciated refresher course on the importance of outlining other than –

    One of the famous war cries from Bill Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade is “Screenplays Are Structure!… When I say that screenplay is structure, it’s simply making the spine. And you must protect the spine. There can be wonderful scenes but if they’re off the spine and you see them in a movie, they will simply die.”

    What this means to me… even though you may have labored over a detailed outline, you still must be able to tell the difference between the gold nugget scenes and the false gold ones.

    Bottom line: Only keep the scenes that bubble up from the wellspring of the underlying premise and stay true to the natural flow of your particular story

    • Malibo Jackk

      I wonder what Goldman would say about 2001.
      The spine of the movie seemed to be — solving the mystery of the monolith.
      But we also had that wonderful sequence where HAL went mad.

      As Jake (another great screenwriter) would say — there are always exceptions.

      • Poe_Serling

        Hey Malibo-

        That is a good question regarding the film spine of 2001 and if the the ‘Hal going mad’ sequence deviates too far from the core concept of the film.

        A few years back, Goldman was a regular fixture at the Screenplay Expo held here in LA. Though I never attended, I had a friend who had the opportunity to hear him speak at a couple of these events. He said Goldman’s Q & A sessions were always entertaining and worth the price of admission alone.

        And like you, I would be curious to hear Goldman’s answer to the 2001 question above.

        Here’s another quick story from one of the Expos:

        Goldman and Tony Gilroy hosted a panel together. During the panel session, it came out that Gilroy’s father and Goldman were great friends from way back. And…

        “This doesn’t mean Goldman was easy on young Gilroy when it came to critiquing his material. While working as a bartender, Gilroy sent one of his early scripts to Goldman who responded, ‘This sucks, but don’t stop.’

        Gilroy didn’t, eventually getting his first screenwriting credit for THE CUTTING EDGE in 1992, then moving on to DELORES CLAIBORNE in 1995 and most recently penning the Jason Bourne films, Michael Clayton, State of Play, and so on.”

        • Malibo Jackk

          Saw the two of them on stage at one of the Expos.
          Goldman was talking about how he got help from Gilroy.
          Goldman was having trouble with Absolute Power. Apparently he had written the script (based on a book) for Eastwood — but then Eastwood decides that he wants to play the thief instead — and that the thief should be the lead.
          Goldman couldn’t figure how to do that — he kept thinking about the book. And Gilroy kept telling him to forget about the book.

          What really impressed me about Gilroy was that he said his biggest fear was that the reader would not turn the page. This comes from a great writer. A guy at the top of his field. And he’s worried the reader won’t turn the page.

          Seriously. What does that say about amateur scripts that fail — within the first ten pages?

          • Poe_Serling

            “What does that say about amateur scripts that fail — within the first ten pages?”

            So true.

            And hey, perhaps you even sat next to my friend at the Expo – he’s a guy of normal height and weight, average looks, polite but not very talkative at social events such as a screenwriting seminar.

            Hey, I guess I can skip the character outline article for next week. :-)

  • Awescillot

    Very interesting article, Carson. I’m a novice myself, to screenwriting, but you’ve managed to explain it very clearly and in an organised way.

    Even though this is probably just a rudimental sketch of how you can outline your story, it helps a lot. I’m looking forward to more of these.

  • NajlaAnn

    Thanks! I’m looking forward to Thursday’s character outline – believe me, I could use it. :)

  • William Mandell

    The monkey plague thing is from the film “Outbreak” with Dustin Hoffman.

    • klmn

      Did Dustin play the monkey? There is a certain resemblance.

  • JakeMLB


  • Kay Bryen

    Here’s the thing. Outlining is my favorite part of the writing process (probably because, you know, it doesn’t involve any actual WRITING).

    But tonight I dug up my last outline and was amazed at just how little of it survived into the actual script.

    I still think you need an outline even if you’re going to bastardize it completely. Same principle as how you should know the rules of screenwriting before you can ignore them.

  • gazrow

    Can anyone think of a good Zombie film with a ticking clock? They all have goals and stakes but I can’t think of a single one with any real urgency? ( not saying they don’t have it – just that I can’t think of any?)

    • Jerry Salvaderi

      Closest I can think of is the end of 28 Days Later when Jim, Selena, and Hannah are at that large estate with the soldiers. Perhaps not a ticking clock in the classic sense (X hours to live), but if they don’t escape in a short time then things will become very…uncomfortable for the girls and Jim.

      • JakeMLB

        This. There are so many opportunities at ticking time bombs in this genre since zombies themselves represent unrelenting, impending death. Just come up with scenarios that amplify this tension by introducing goals and most importantly, complications. Many of those goals will be simply to escape but there should be mini-goals within. And of course, don’t make it easy on your characters. Something should go wrong.

        • gazrow

          Thanks Jake! Great advice! I’ve attempted to do exactly this in my own zombie script. (still working on it). But was worried that it lacked a ticking clock in the classic sense.

          • JakeMLB

            You can still apply a ticking time bomb in the classical sense: get to the ship before it leaves port, get to the plane before it takes off, get to the military outpost before it permanently closes its gates, cars running out of gas, people running out of food or other supplies, one of the group gets infected and it’s only a matter of time before he/she turns and so on. Problem is that genre has really been beaten to death so many such choices will seem cliche.

          • gazrow

            Yeah – Guess you’re right. It all depends on the story really.

            Cheers Jake. :-)

      • gazrow

        Yeah – good point! Though as you say, it’s not really a ticking clock in the classic sense!

        Thanks Jerry!

    • wlubake

      I feel like a common element is, “this will be a worldwide epidemic is 72 hours if we can’t contain its spread”, or the like.

      • gazrow

        Yeah – I agree. Sometimes the “this will be a worldwide epidemic in 72 hours if we can’t contain its spread”, is not even stated in the movie. I think the film makers expect us to know this simply because it’s a zombie movie!

        Thanks wlubake!

    • Poe_Serling

      Return of the Living Dead (1985)…

      Near the end, the Army initiates a nuclear attack on the infected zone… I can’t really remember if the main characters are aware of the attack or not… so maybe it was a device used to ratchet up the tension for the audience watching only.

      The Crazies (2010)…

      Though not technically a zombie film, the infected in this flick do share some of the same attributes of their bloodthirsty kin.

      This one also ends in an “containment protocol’ explosion to clear the area of the infected.

      • gazrow

        Thanks Poe.

        I knew if any one would have the answer it would be you!

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    Those are the ones that end up teaming up with the guy who has this brilliant idea to hit the bank where the mobsters stash all their cash.

    “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”

  • kenglo

    Again – EXCELLANTE’!! Funny, I’m outlining right now and ready to write, but some of your thoughts on the subject have perked me up and made me re-read the ‘LAYERING’ article also. Get ready for a trip into the atmosphere!

  • wlubake

    The one screenwriting class I took used Empire of the Sun and The Prestige. Apparently the teacher had a thing for Bale. Empire of the Sun was a great one for hitting the beats. Prestige follows a magic trick more closely than traditional movie structure.

  • Maggie Clancy

    It’s always nice to go back to the basics and refresh your memory after a while…for as ingrained as this is in every screenwriting student’s head, it’s not always a method people use. I am in the process of rewriting and I am going to outline to more clearly define some goals/characters – thanks, Carson!

  • Michael

    Of course people can use whatever method they feel comfortable using that keeps their creative juices flowing. I’ve previously posted that if you get hit with inspiration and start writing a vomit draft, that’s great, I’ve done it myself. Everyone gets a spurt of creative activity they don’t want to interrupt. However, be prepared to do massive rewrites and kill your babies. 99% of all scripts written by amateurs using the method you describe end up having huge deficiencies.

    If you want to break the rules of classic 3 Act structure, it’s probably a good idea to outline anyways and keep track of what most likely is a complicated script. Outlining really has nothing to do with breaking the rules.

    I don’t know why every time someone gives solid advice to novice writers, someone comes along and advises them to do the worst thing possible by quoting examples of seasoned professionals with years of experience and who have disciplined their craft as screenwriters before they started breaking the rules and displaying the brilliance in the examples being cited. This is true in all art forms. All of the impressionist painters were classical painters before they invented the genre. They knew how to use form, before they dispensed with form. Charlie Kaufman worked in television for years before writing “Being John Malkovich.” You can’t write an episode for television today without first presenting an outline.

    Learn the craft first. Get success in the professional ranks, and then break any rule you want. I may be stepping on the toes of a one in a million genius writer with my advice. I’ll take that chance and stand by my advice. Outline, you’ll be better off for it.

    • PatKirkSS

      “99% of all scripts written by amateurs using the method you describe end up having huge deficiencies.”

      You are very right there. But what you are leaving out is the other fact. 99% of all scripts written by amateurs using the outlining method end up having huge deficiencies.

      I’m with grendl. To each their own. Trying to force people to adopt a method of writing by stating it’s the supreme way of writing is pretentious at its worst and misguided at its best.

      I teach a screenwriting class and I will say it’s a lot easier to teach outlining than it is to teach vomit drafts and rewriting but to say that outlining is part of the classical, fundamentals of writing is wrong. It’s not even part of what story-telling and writing is. It’s a prewriting tool.

      • JakeMLB

        “It’s not even part of what story-telling and writing is. It’s a prewriting tool.”

        This is where you’re wrong. Outlining, if done well, is a fundamental part of story-telling. At it’s very barest, outlining is story-crafting. It allows you to build the story from 50,000 feet before you get into the weeds.

        But I’m with you and grendl that it’s not a prerequisite and there are varying degrees to its usefulness. Too much outlining can be detrimental. Similarly, too little outlining can be detrimental. But you need to have written at least 5 or so scripts if you want to write a competent story with little to not outlining at all.

        It seems as though both you and grendl are equating outlining with “formulaic structure” or the Blake Snyder approach to screenwriting. Those are fundamentally different concepts.

  • Will Vega

    I’ve only started to outline a little more recently. Before I used to go into scripts cold and the early efforts took alot more rewriting then needed.

    There are only a couple of instances where I don’t need to outline cause I figured out the whole story from beginning to end mentally. It is possible but it doesn’t happen all the time.

    For this new script, I outlined it first cause there’s a major detail I need to figure out in order to make it work. I guess I can start writing it anyway, but for this I rather have it all figured out than go into it cold.

    • m_v_s

      Do you fuse outlining with (some) screenwriting? I did a sixteen page outline in the week and it was fun working out the logic of my story. If certain scenes appeared whilst outlining, I’d surmise them, if characters started talking, I’d start writing their dialogue. It was a lot of fun.

      • Will Vega

        Like a scriptment (combining an outline with a screenplay)? I do that sometimes and the story slowly comes to life that way.

        But nothing beats talking to someone about the story verbally and getting some good feedback right then and there.

        Writing is a very solitary thing but when you get people on it and they start giving feedback your ideas as you’re constructing it, it can be extremely helpful. That’s how I did the last screenplay I finished (which quite alot of people downloaded but haven’t heard any comments on!)

  • m_v_s

    If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Screenwriting, I’ve painfully learnt, is different from other kinds of writing in that it isn’t free thought (like a poem), it’s structured, structured to sell. The feedback I’ve received so far on stuff I’ve written points to a lack of focus, a lack of resolution and a lack of a clear trajectory. Thank you for this article!

  • Brainiac138

    So, who here doesn’t outline?

    • JL

      I don’t sometimes. Depends on the story.

    • Citizen M

      I didn’t, and I have many half-finished scripts to prove it.

      Some good advice in the article and comments.

      • JL

        I have a ton of half-finished scripts that I meticulously outlined :) All depends on what works best for you.

      • Brainiac138

        I ask because I know many professional writers, and quite a few of those do not outline, at least in the film school sense. There is a writer of some really popular thrillers that just spends all day thinking and banging the story out in his head, he talks as the characters, and he talks to everyone he knows constantly about it, but does not commit the script to paper until he is comfortable he’s lived long enough in the world.

        Quite a few other writers just crank out 3 pages a day. Once the first draft is done, they basically do a page 1 rewrite. I know it seems like the most inefficient system in the world, but their quality and quantity of work is far above all the people filling out Blake Snyder beat sheets at Starbucks.

    • Midnight Luck

      I don’t.

    • Midnight Luck

      then again, all my trips and vacations are by the seat of my pants. No planning, no schedule.

      And it is the best.

      When I have to go on vacation with others (and it seems everyone else plans everything to the boring T) it is the most painful experience in the world.

      All I want, is to be left to my own devices. If I want to sit doing nothing by the water and soak up the sun, so be it.
      They of course freak out because they had an “underwater pufferfish ballet dance” scheduled, and “how on earth can I make them late or miss it”?

      I eventually just say, go on without me. Enjoy. I will find those things that make me excited,
      Just like with my writing.


      Rewriting is structure.

  • Alexander Felix

    Great meat-and-potatoes screenwriting article. When I look back at some of the stuff I wrote before I knew about outlining, it’s random as hell. Although everyone has their own preferred style, I think this is great advice for amateur writers, especially ones who haven’t outlined before.

  • rsuddhi

    Thanks for another great article!

    I wrote my first screenplay when I was 15, so my knowledge of screenwriting was pretty limited to nonexistent. While I didn’t physically write out an outline, I think everyone (whether they put an outline on paper or not) in a way somewhat outlines the story in their head before writing it – they have to know the general direction the story will take before actually writing it, otherwise it’s kind of a lost cause. This was the case on my first script, I knew exactly how it was going to end (the ending was actually the initial spark of the idea when I came up with it), and I developed the rest of the story from there. Of course, that first script was still bad, but it was a good start. The point is that I don’t think anyone could sit down and devote so much time to writing a story you don’t even know yourself – to some extent, even if you don’t type or write one out, you still outline a general arc of a story and then fill in all the gaps as you write the script.

    Of course now, with the uptight nature of my personality, I have to know exactly where the story will go before I take the time to write something. Outlining is also a good way to test the concept – if you can’t really come up with anything for the story, it’s probably a good idea to write something else. It would be an unfortunate waste of time to realize an idea doesn’t work after you wrote the script.

    Again, great advice Carson, thanks for the article!



    “Facade” (94 pg; Drama, Noir, Mystery): A noir drama set in the idyllic 1950’s American suburbs, an unknowing police detective investigates the murder of a teenage boy, slowly realizing that not everything, or everyone, is as they appear.

  • JakeMLB

    The big difference with all of your examples are that these are working professionals, the kings of their craft, who have honed their craft by writing dozens of scripts, many of which have been produced into successful films. They are professional, working writers, not amateurs starting at a blank page.

    You have to remember that i) they’re often writing adaptations or writing stories that aren’t they’re own, ii) they’ve written dozens of scripts, iii) they have a particular and unique voice that affords them the ability to go off-structure, iv) they’re working with producers, directors, writing partners, agents and managers, all of whom they can discuss the structure with in plenty of detail before they begin writing, and v) they often still outline in a cruder sense of the word.

    As an example:

    So it’s a bit disingenuous to cite these writers as examples. Very few, if any, successful spec scripts were written from scratch. Is it possible? Sure. But be prepared to write literally dozens of rewrites as you hone in the structure. And 99.99% of the time that an amateur writer attempts this it will result in a poor product, one that they’ll then spend months rewriting when they should in fact be moving on to the next project.

    An outline is a framework. Nothing more. It doesn’t stifle creativity since coming up with that structure is a creative process in itself. Outline writing is still writing. You really shouldn’t even attempt a detailed outline until you know the characters intimately. And then, even in the end, you can deviate from that outline as you see fit. The difference is you’ll have a first draft that’s far more polished and maleable.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t forge a path that works for you but if you’re still writing from scratch without success it’s time to rethink your process.

  • UrbaneGhoul

    I outline and I always like seeing different outlining techniques that can help me with my writing. One thing that I always keep in mind is that just because a plot point or scene is written in the outline doesn’t mean it’s in stone. I use my outline as a means to keep my story focused and headed to the right direction. If there’s something that I feel needs to change, I can do it and with the outline know how it would effect the rest of the script and adjust accordingly.

  • JakeMLB

    Your two favorite examples: Charlie Kaufman and Tootsie. You need new material. No need to get so perturbed, I’m seriously not trying to get a rise out of you merely pointing out that many of your heroes don’t outline in the full sense of the word because of reasons I cited above.

    And outlining is a shortcut, used in television writing because they’re on a deadline and there’s a certain formula which demands 22 outlines a season or whatever number of shows it is.

    If you truly think that you need to listen to some professional writers outside of Mr. Kaufman. Outlining is writing. I imagine the only reason you think otherwise is because you’ve never committed yourself to that process. If you share Mr. Kaufman’s views on the matter, that’s great. Honestly, it is. But there are indeed far more writers, including Mr. Towne (another personal favorite of yours) who espouse the exact opposite so don’t pretend this issue is black and white.

    On one hand you endlessly refer to Tootsie — the poster child for structure and rigid outlining — and on the other you claim that outlining is only for TV. To each their own I guess.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Thanks, man.

  • JKA

    Help. This is a huge challenge for me. I need lots of detail in my outlines to determine the next beats. Dialogue, multiple conflicts in a scene, setups for later in the story come to me all at once and I want to remember them all. I don’t know how to keep track of this along with beats…note cards haven’t worked for me (too small/too many/I type way faster than I write).

    I end up having to outline act 1 then write it before I can outline act II, etc. So my first few drafts are handled one act at a time with only a vague idea of subsequent acts.

    I end up using treatment-like narratives which include details and dialogue (in my own weird shorthand). I’ll then be overwhelmed with a 15 page outline that I can hardly navigate. But I really don’t want to lose all my details. Is there an easier way to keep the broad strokes where they can easily be seen, and still have the detail readily available? Plus this is labor intensive. Is this how it should be or am I an a black-hole of outlining?

    • JakeMLB

      SCRIVENER can help with this. It’s a screenwriting software that has built-in story mapping capabilities.

      I have also started using STORMBOARD ( — a free visual sticky outlining board (you can split into 3 columns for 3 acts). There are similar apps for Mac or you can use an actual poster/tack/magnet board with cue cards or colored post it notes.

      I would suggest having one MASTER OUTLINE (or BEAT SHEET) document where you outline each story beat in a succinct bullet point or paragraph. Don’t add too much detail here. Just a few words to a small paragraph. I may write a massive paragraph when I’m first fleshing the beat out but eventually I cull it down to just the main story/character points. The idea is to have a document that only spans a few pages to give you a wider view of the story. I then add these beats to my stormboard for a better visual snapshot.

      You can then create secondary documents/folders for each of those specific beats (or sequences, scenes, characters — however you see fit). Here you can add far more detail. I actually do this in Google Docs using multiple folders but many people use Scrivener as it allows this tree functionality.

      Just one example but that might help! The key is organization.

      • JKA

        Thank you JakeMLB!

  • carsonreeves1

    yeah but the thing is, nobody says you can’t allow your characters to go wherever they want to go if you’ve outlined. the outline is not set in stone. it’s a tool to help you keep your story focused. if you come up with something better, explore it.

  • alanbsmithee

    Whether someone uses outlining or not, this piece of information may be of use. I had an opportunity to speak to Billy
    Ray recently and he said that when a studio gives a writer an
    assignment, the first thing they have to submit is a treatment. This
    treatment will move up the ladder to various executives and producers
    and upon approval does the writer begin working on a draft. This of
    course applies to assignments which is to assume that there’s a story
    (book) already in place and may not be needed when someone is writing a
    spec. But the way I see it is if you plan to work as a professional you
    might as well learn and get used to outlining and writing treatments.

    • qwerty


      People are completely free to debate the artistic merits of the outlining process…but since it’s a skill we’re going to have to learn anyway, why not start now?

      You don’t even have to follow the outline. Just make sure you have enough material for a feature length film and practice jotting down your plot points in readable form.

  • carsonreeves1

    I agree with breathing life into characters, especially if you’re writing something that’s character driven. I might not put a lot of emphasis on the outline in that case. If you’re writing something that’s plot driven, however, outlining is very helpful.

    Whatever the case, you’ll probably have a lot to say next week when I talk about outlining your characters. :)

    • Gregory Mandarano

      I agree with carson here. It depends on the script. I recently wrote a biopic and if I didnt have a full treatment and outline it would have been a bitch to write properly.

      In my experience writing a script is similar to being the game master & the player in a table top role playing game. First you decide the system and genre, set the world in stone and decide central themes. Then create the outline of the adventure, the major villains and non player characters involved. What the design of the adventure is. Then create the characters. The hook is the inciting incident. Once the rpg begins the players and not the gm would control the characters and their choices can drift away and back into the outline. Keeping them wrangled to the core story without making it feel like a railroad track is a skill that comes with experience. You can also run the game without an outline. Just create the world and let the players go and do whatever they want with it. Its fun but you better have a lot of time, because if there arent clear inciting incidents and a defined adventure, the game can and will wander chaotically.

  • JakeMLB

    It really depends how granular you get with the outline. There is obviously a point where too much becomes too much and you’re limiting the process of discovery.

    But the characters can still speak to you through outlining. Often when I’m outlining I end up writing out a full scene and then return to the outline with that placeholder scene in place, knowing that I’ll likely rewrite it but I at least have it in memory. I know I’m not alone in that process. There is plenty to discover while outlining and the story often still takes a life of its own. In fact, it often breeds better characters for me because the outlining process brings me closer to the characters before I start writing. I feel like I’ve spent far more time with them and can be sharper when writing.

    But as you say it is a personal process so there will always be a balance between when to outline and when to write. I only suggest that those newly approaching screenwriting would benefit from outlining more than they would be hindered by it. This will be particularly true when vying for assignments. Once you’re comfortable in the craft and better established you can start to diverge.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Ahh, the classic”I know you are” retort, usually abandoned by middle school as being simply too immature.

    The point isn’t that you’re not successful, grendl. Most of us here haven’t sold anything.

    The point is that many of your posts are unremittingly negative rants about mainstream Hollywood. You hate the system so much, why hang around a site dedicated to getting INTO it?

    Carson’s just posted a kick-ass article today about outlining. I already outline, but before I read this I didn’t think about setting up what he calls “jolts.” That’s a great idea. I just learned something new. This is going to improve my outlines, and by extension, my scripts.

    Don’t agree with outlining? Don’t think the model he suggests works? Great. Let’s have a discussion about it, trade ideas and techniques.

    But instead all you see here is an opportunity to have one more dig at people who write screenwriting books. So what some of these people haven’t sold scripts? That mean they can’t analyze scripts and figure out tips on what usually seems to work? Of course not.

    Only people I’ve encountered as bitter as you are the ones who’ve already given up.

    • RayFinkleLacesOut

      Jakebarnes going in hard as a mother trucker.

  • Ken

    I get what you mean, grendle. By the way, do you have an IMDB page link?

    • grendl

      Here’s the difference. I never pretend that I do.

      • Ken

        Cool. Your point still stands anyway.

  • Weekend Read

    Everyone here is looking at this from the perspective of an unknown trying to break in with a spec, and that makes sense, given the majority of the crowd here are operating outside the gates of Hollywood.

    But I think it’s safe to assume nearly everyone here aspires to be a working, professional screenwriter someday. It’s worth mentioning that the majority of scripts working writers write are not “pure specs” in the way the word is generally interpreted. They’re re-writes or assignments or commissioned scripts based off sold pitches; even the “specs” are generally ideas that are developed with a production company attached from the ground level. When you’re working within the Hollywood system, they don’t let you start writing pages until they’ve signed off on the treatment. Writing is a series of steps; they don’t just let you run off and deliver a first draft. They want to know where the story is going, so they can identify the problems before you even commit to typing “Fade In.” There’s no getting around it.

    So, while you’re an unknown writer trying to break in, go wild. If you don’t want to outline, don’t outline. Do whatever you feel best for you. But just know that once you’ve “made it,” you’re going to be expected to outline/write a treatment, so it might make sense to get into the habit of outlining now.

    • wlubake

      Cue next week’s treatment article! That is a step I don’t have a great feel for.

  • Charlestoaster

    Alternate Monkey Plague ending: It turns out that the plague didn’t come from monkeys at all but from human beings wearing celebrity brand cosmetics (Thus the slaughterhouse) and the monkeys were only more susceptible to the virus becoming more of an early warning system! DUN DUN DUN!!!

    I’m with Micheal Ardnt in that I try to figure out a kickass ending once then outline the crap out of the story. So far it’s the way I feel most comfortable with.

  • newo

    I’m with you, writing the plot points out, thinking about
    end, climax and how you develop the problem at beginning, Carson.

    Also I think its right to go between these points for bringing clearity for yourself in
    which world/ especially places your characters are living.

    In second part of your article I would like to have more connection to the audience.
    There is no way you discuss: what is the audience thinking, feeling, when watching the film
    and when they leave the cinema. What do you want to say? Isn’ that important in the outline. In detail.

    You filled up the monkey movie with these scences like: hero get a call – he is needed

    For me that is: CIA is calling the hero- he is the only one to safe white house or
    I need Dr X he is the specialist for that monkeys
    Before that we give our DrX his problems with women, authorities, anything… so on well
    He goes on his journey…

    I try to say: Your pushing it into old blockbuster rules. No problem with that. People
    will buying it, if the monkey story has good action, environment, originality,
    between these structure.

    But, for what these kind of outline-

    What are you doing now? The notes are 100% predictable.
    Only possibility is to take your notes and try to build secrets- doing
    the opposite “of what you outlined” .

    This point I don’t understand, even about my own work. I think it’s absolutely interesting.
    It is worth thinking about more…

    Once again:
    Do I really have to dissociate, go away from my predictable own notes? Paradox…

    Better do another outline about the things which are new for the audience, which is behind
    your research, research, research. That’s the power goes to the audience. When do I show the strength of my story? This is the point from where my thoughts should develop the story in every way from A to Z. That is the level, I want to have all of it IMO

  • Somersby

    Lawrence Kasdan (who’s done all right for himself) says he “writes what he sees.” He doesn’t sit down and determine the story in plot points before he writes it. He allows himself the freedom to listen to the story he’s set out to write.

    Listen, young writers are probably wise to outline to a degree, to know where they want to go with the story they’re telling. But if, as a writer, you live by the outline and you’re only intention is to hit page “marks” in the script, you’re not storytelling. You’re painting by numbers.

    Anyone can paint by numbers and think they’re an artist. But only an artist creates. The rest duplicate.

    Ask yourself what you want to be.

    …I’m not dissing here. Hollywood is full of successful duplicators, writers who wouldn’t know a fresh idea if it fell on them. If that’s what you want to be, go for it.

    But what is Hollywood sadly lacking? Duplicators or writers with a fresh idea, a freah approach?

    Granted, fresh ideas and fresh approaches aren’t likely to be well received.

    So if you’re looking only for success, you might be wise to follow the formula.


    • JakeMLB

      “So if you’re looking only for success, you might be wise to follow the formula.”

      Outline does not equal formula.

      Outline does not equal lack of fresh ideas.

      I’ll never understand this mindset because there are literally hundreds of critically acclaimed films that have benefited from outlining and yet people cite these generational talents who may or may not outline as proof that outlining is unnecessary.

      And who says Kasdan doesn’t outline? The story for Raiders and all of the Star Wars scripts were fully developed and fleshed out prior to him writing. And I consider this process outlining. Kasdan doesn’t just sit down and write.

      Maybe there’s simply an issue of semantics and definition and we’re likely all beating around the same bush. I feel like “outlining” to some means creating specific beat-by-beat instructions that are then transcribed nearly exactly to a script. That’s the most rigid example of outlining and sure, that can limit creativity in a sense. But only if you adhere to that outline like dogma. In reality though, you’re free to throw out the outline as you see fit.

      My definition of outlining includes all pre-story mapping, planning, research and brainstorming as these are all essentially forms of pre-writing and story crafting.

      Kasdan on his writing process:

      “I used to outline what I was going to do. I don’t do that so much anymore. It’s part of trying to loosen up the process and not know what’s happening. But I think I’m a linear person, and when I write I don’t write a quick draft and then go back. I don’t like to leave anything behind me, because I’m uncomfortable with it. I tend to write a scene many times over before going on. The last time I was really doing drafts was when I was working for George Lucas. Now, I will sometimes revise and make little changes, but the essentials don’t change. I take a lot of time and effort with the first draft, and I’d rather shoot that.”

      As I said above: once you’ve mastered the craft you can throw out the outline. Until then, it’s your friend.

    • JakeBarnes12


      A teenager who’s gonna do things HIS way cause his creativity can’t be stifled by rules, man.

      How unique.

  • Will Vega

    Funny thing is, when he saw a test screening of Django Unchained with an audience, Tarantino said the long scenes he wrote that read great on paper…were BORING even to him.

    And I read the whole script. All 167 pages of it. It’s an absolutely brilliant script all around except near the end with the Australian guys. But as a movie? I think it hurt it, especially when I went and saw it myself. I can totally tell where they cut stuff and it felt watered down.

    This is why Tarantino wants to have a career as a novelist. He thinks when the script is done, the story is done. But since he loves movies he trucks on with it, making cuts on the way.

  • Matty

    “It’s very Machiavellian, writing. The ends justifies the means.”

    Exactly. Well said, sir.

  • Paul Clarke

    Clearly people have a different idea of what outlining is. I ‘write’ the movie in my head. I go through it, over and over. Fill it in. Create the characters. Take it through to completion. Several ‘drafts’. If it doesn’t work I discard the idea, move on to something else. If it feels like a movie, a movie I would go to the cinema to watch, then I write down an abbreviated outline so I can visualize the story as a whole piece.

    It allows me to see big story issues before I go to the trouble of writing the first draft. For me, the only difference between the outline and the first draft, is the level of detail. Why fill in all those trivial details when they are most likely to change? All those trivial decisions you make on a first draft that need to be redefined once you truly understand your story world and the characters in it.

    For me, neither step is necessarily at the creative step. The creating comes first. An abbreviated version simply helps me see big problems before I steam full speed into them during a proper write.

  • Sanjay Madhavan

    I am not a professional writer but I have written about 8 short scripts and 1 Full length script. I agree with the “Toy Story” writer with the fact that the ending needs to be decided. What I personally need is the image in the start of the script, and the image at the end. Those two things are most important for me. I believe good scripts don’t move in linear way, but in a circle. More often than not, my starting and ending scenes are set exactly in the same way, except the way scene plays out is different..

  • Marija ZombiGirl

    Outlining.. Love it !

    Very good article, C, and very interesting reactions in the comments section. Hey, there’s no shame in outlining. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who reacted as if I’d just insulted them by asking if they outline. “What ?? I’m an artist !” Yeah, a storyteller is a creative spirit by definition but as it happens, I don’t see a script as art but that’s just me.

    I’m a firm believer in knowing where I’m going but as others have pointed out, there seems to be a confusion in some people’s mind about that, leading them to believe that every little thing is meticulously planned out and no way does the writer deviate from the recipe. Not necessarily. I write the treatment at the same time as doing the cards-on-the-board thing. I know what my Act break points are as well as the beginning, the end and the mid-point. I know something needs to happen ideally every 10-15mns and that’s all I need to start telling my story. Nothing is set in stone and there’s all the room in the world to create. And what you create is a story thats’s focused and structured which is what a script should be.

    I didn’t start out like this. Like others, I was impatient (= arrogant) so I just wrote a brief synopsis and then started on the script. It took me three scripts before accepting the errors of my ways (those three did have a three-act structure but the story floated around too much) and the first one I wrote with a detailed outline was the first one to receive professional praise. Bottom line ? Outlining is good for me but each their own methods :-)

  • Malibo Jackk

    Happy Solstice everyone
    (the best day to get a tan.)

    Watch for the supermoon coming June 22-23.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Let me fix that analogy for you, grendl.

    People like you who go on journeys without planning get lost, waste lots of time wandering around, and end up bringing their passengers somewhere boring.

    That perfectly explains the 130-page (!) script you posted here awhile back that got ripped apart.

    Charlie Kaufman?

    In your dreams.

  • Avishai

    Would the script that might have inspired Monkey Plague be Y The Last Man by any chance?

  • Bob Byrne

    Wow. Did you have a tramautic childhood outlining experience? It’s a tool, with a logical application. You act as if it were an act of censorship.

  • Nate

    I have a question that isn’t about outlining (which I never do, but I’m about to start), it’s more about a character.

    I’m writing a script where the wife of the secondary protagonist (Logan) is murdered four months before the story gets into action. Logan is doing everything he can to find her killer but he’s also sleeping with his co-worker at the CIA.

    I remember reading in Carson’s book I think it was (pretty sure it was The Fugitive section) about how the protagonist should never have a love interest if their wife/husband has died because it will make them look unlikeable.

    I’m just wondering if there’s an exception to that rule. If there’s a way you can do that without having the audience turn on them.

    As I’ve already said Logan is searching for his wife’s killer so because he’s doing something that could be considered a ”good” thing in the eyes of the audience, could I get away with giving him a love interest?

    Also it does come into play later on. His love interest has a young son that is kidnapped by the bad guys and Logan is forced to choose between revenge or rescuing the boy. Obviously he chooses the latter option (he’s not a monster) so will that give him a free pass so to speak?

    • wlubake

      That’s your secondary protagonist? Your lead must have a hell of a role, because that sounds like a very active character.
      There are a few ways to do this, I think.
      If he’s truly a secondary character, he doesn’t have to be likeable. Just make your lead very likeable. The audience won’t turn on the script/movie.
      Another option is to show severe guilt over it. Show the inner tumoil he suffers balancing grief over his wife’s death and his love for the new woman. Perhaps have the relationship start BEFORE the wife dies, adding to his guilt. Maybe he was with the other woman when his wife was killed.
      Think of Moonlight Mile with Jake Gyllenhaal. In that, he was set to break off his engagement to his fiance. She was killed while waiting at the restaurant for him (on his way to break it off). He starts a relationship with Ellen Pompeo. Don’t think anyone turned on him because there were problems with the relationship.
      NOTE: The last two have another problem. If you weaken the husband/wife relationship, you weaken Logan’s motivation for seeking revenge.
      Last option that will help. Have the love interest be a widow. She started as comfort, and now they each fill the hole for each other created by their lost loved ones. I think an audience’s sympathy for both characters’ losses will overwhelm any yuckiness of the new relationship. I know there are examples of this, but I can’t think of one right off. The closest I can do is the relationship between Ryan Gosling and the war widow in the Notebook (though Gosling’s loss was obviously not through death).
      Good luck.

      • Nate

        The lead is actually his father, Mitch. He’s a CIA operative whose eldest son Sam is implicated in a terrorist attack. So Mitch and his two sons are chasing the real terrorist in order to clear Sam’s name whilst Logan’s love interest is chasing them down. All three characters are pretty active. They all have a part to play in the story.

        Anyway Logan is sort of anti-hero. He cared about his wife and he still does. He’s willing to put everything on the line to avenge her death. But as the story moves forward he gets more and more violent. He’s willing to smash a few skulls to get what he wants.

        At one point there’s a scene where Logan, Mitch and Sam break into the home of a banker who helps terrorists hide their money. Logan threatens to cut out the eye of the banker’s grandchild if he doesn’t give them the information they want. But I’m very reluctant with that scene because I feel that might just cause the audience to say ”screw this, I’m not gonna root for a guy who threatens to mutilate a child!”

        He immediately regrets it afterwards (well right after Mitch knocks him out that is) and he realises he’s slowly becoming what he hates the most.

        I think your last option might be the way to go. Originally the love interest was gonna be the wife’s best friend. And because they both lost someone they cared about, their relationship just sort of happened. But I think making her a widow might be a better idea.

        Also I think I should that say later on in the script you find out that Sam had a one night stand with Logan’s wife the night she died. He’s a private security consultant who was assigned to protect her (she also worked for the CIA) and he failed. He regrets both the affair and failing to protect her so when he finds out Logan is planning revenge on her killer he offers to help any way he can. That’s probably not a good idea either as it might also make him unlikeable.

        Anyway thanks for your help.

  • ximan

    AWESOME article! Just awesome. I’ve read the arguments of both sides, pro-outline vs. no-outline, and they’re both compelling (the former moreso though). As for me, I’m a combination of both. OUTLINING IS IMPORTANT! I think everyone can at least admit to that. However, creative freedom is equally important to the imagination and the organic unraveling of the story in my head.

    I remember a Nicole Kidman interview where she was discussing her approach to her Oscar-winning portrayal of Virginia Wolf in “The Hours” and she said that a famous writer (who I’m forgetting at the moment) said that when writers write “it’s like electricity” and that once they have an idea, their hands just tap into the current and flow until the circuit is broken. I completely agree with that, and once I even wrote 60 straight pages in one sitting (and that script was my first Nicholl top percenter).

    But, like Arndt, I ALWAYS have the ending in mind before I write. And I ALWAYS know my inciting incident. How? By outlining! Or at least writing notes on the scenes (sometimes including dialogue). But after while, I get so excited about the story that my creative freedom COMMANDS me to begin banging out the script. So it’s a combination of both for me.

  • K.B. Houston

    I strongly disagree. There’s this idea out there that the more nonsensical, the more “artsy,” the more introverted — the better the film (or script, in this case). Being John Malkovich was brilliant. One of the best films I’ve ever seen; one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. But Synecdoche, New York was a steaming pile of crap. And yes, I read all the articles about it’s “hidden meanings” and watched interviews where people with tweed blazers and scruffy Birkenstocks swooned over it’s brilliance. Guess what? None of that matters. You can be as preachy as you want and touch on every last moral dilemma on Earth, but if you can’t convey those messages in an exciting, fun or captivating way, then all you’re really doing is wasting film when you should be writing a boring book that nobody would buy. The whole point of scriptwriting and film is being able to mask those life lessons in an interesting and visually compelling way. S,NY was just brash and self-centered, which seems to be Kaufman’s specialty these days.

  • fragglewriter

    Even though I bought your bought, thanks for doing an article on outlining.

    This article has given me a clear idea how to outline, as I outline based on act breaks on what should happen at those act breaks. I do have my ending, so I just need to do an overall outline, and then make sure that my midpoint shift makes enough sense and will intrigue the reader.

    You mentioned the second draft of the script will be the powerhouse. How do you feel about treatments? Are they necessary? Would a treatment be a wise idea after the outline and before the first draft?