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.
STEP 1 – FIGURE OUT YOUR ACT BREAKS
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. :(
STEP 2 – HOT SPOTS
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!
SETP 3 – FILL IN THE REST
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!