How To Outline Your Screenplay

Like all advice, take this with a grain of salt. This is what I do, but another tactic may work for you. A lot of this method has been cribbed from Blake Snyder’s method in Save The Cat, as well as from other writers. And of course, a lot of trial and error.

START WITH THE GERM OF THE MOVIE

So for me, there’s always a key scene or moment that defines the movie. Years ago, I wrote a script called Freeloaders, which was a comedy about apartment squatters in Chicago.

The “key scene” for the movie was when Charlie, the main character, hears the question “What would you do if you didn’t have bills to pay?”. His face lights up and we dissolve into this really fun montage of Charlie and his friends playing roller hockey in the apartment, getting drunk at free museum day, and enjoying the hell out of his life.

That kind of silly, juvenile glee was the core of the movie.

SKETCH OUT YOUR “MUST HAVE” SCENES

After you have that first kernel of an idea, some sparks have started flying. Maybe now you have a few scenes that you can just see in your head, like you’re watching them on a movie screen. Write down some notes on those scenes.

I like to use index cards for this type of stuff. It’s helpful because a) they’re small and you can have them in your pocket for when inspiration strikes and b) you can’t write TOO much extraneous stuff on them.

This should really just be a single moment or glimpse of a scene. HOW you do this is up to you—there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I’ll also use slug lines at the top of the card, just so I can keep track of the locations as I’m going. It would look like this:

INT. MITCH’S APARTMENT

Here are some real-life examples of notecards I’ve written:

– INT. CHURCH: Ricky confronts Bonita.”What did you do? You made a deal!”

– EXT. DOCKS: Mona and Mitch karate fight.

– DREAM SEQUENCE: Charlie’s creditors chase him through the street.

USE INDEX CARDS TO PLOT OUT YOUR STORYindex card

Remember how you wrote your ideas on your index cards? Use more cards to flesh out your whole story.

You should be able to have a rough run-through of your story just looking at the index cards. I’ll put them on a corkboard to get a bird’s eye vie of the story.

I don’t plot out every single little moment. I want to have some surprises when I sit down to actually write the damn thing. But it’s nice to be able to look at a whole story arc and know there aren’t gigantic holes in your plot.

DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU

Ultimately, trial-and-error will be your best friend in the process.

You might decide to outline on a piece of notebook paper. Some screenwriting programs even have virtual index cards you can arrange on your computer. (Personally, I think it’s too clunky and less efficient than the real thing.)

Here’s a video with Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and his system. And look, he uses notecards, too!

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  • Khalid Maghni

    Hi, nice article you got here, right now I’m in the process of plotting out my story. I don’t use index cards but instead write down my ideas on my phone, although I have to admit it gets messy sometimes.
    This “germ of the movie” method is interesting, I’ve used it intuitively before. I also like to imagine the most dramatic scene of the whole story first, and then come up with the events that lead to it.
    I have a question: how do I fill the remaining gaps in my story, in order to achieve a continuous stream of events? I have the big picture in mind, I know my key scenes, but oftentimes I don’t know what should happen in order to transition from a key scene to the next one. I’m not sure if I’m clear enough, but I’d like your thoughts on that.

    • Indie Freedom

      Hey Khalid,

      Sorry about getting back to you after so long—didn’t get a notification about the comment.

      What I like to do is simply ask “What would happen next in these circumstances?”. Every scene should move the story forward. Put yourself in the shoes of the character.

      Say your protagonist robbed a bank. Your next scene could be a getaway chase, changing clothes, hiding the money, etc. It will all come from your character. A professional thief would have a much different next action than a guy who’s never committed a crime before.

      Hope this helps.

  • Khalid Maghni

    Hi, nice article you got here, right now I’m in the process of plotting out my story. I don’t use index cards but instead write down my ideas on my phone, although I have to admit it gets messy sometimes.
    This “germ of the movie” method is interesting, I’ve used it intuitively before. I also like to imagine the most dramatic scene of the whole story first, and then come up with the events that lead to it.
    I have a question: how do I fill the remaining gaps in my story, in order to achieve a continuous stream of events? I have the big picture in mind, I know my key scenes, but oftentimes I don’t know what should happen in order to transition from a key scene to the next one. I’m not sure if I’m clear enough, but I’d like your thoughts on that.

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