Writing a Screenplay: Part 1 of 4 – Outlines

20091111 IDB Writing a Screenplay 1 Outlines.Photo license.

Writing a Screenplay: Part 1 of 4 – Outlines

This four part series will give you a brief introduction to the steps you can follow to write a quality screenplay in a minimum of time. Skipping a step makes the steps that come after more difficult or even impossible. These articles should be enough to get you started. More in depth articles will follow later.

The steps for writing a long piece are usually the following;

1. A story idea of a paragraph or two.

2. A synopsis or script treatment.

3. An outline.

4. First draft.

5. Second draft.

6. Final version.

The first three steps will go quickly and are great time savers. If you don’t work up a good story by the time you’ve finished the outline, doing the last three steps will be a waste of time. Nobody will like your product. For that reason, some writers will keep a file with hundreds of story ideas. Out of that file they create dozens of synopses based on the story ideas that have the most potential. Then they pick only the best of the synopses for development into an outline and work through the three drafts. The idea is to put lots of effort into the light early work so that the heavier full document drafting is worthwhile. I’ll take you through each of these steps.

Still not convinced? Are you thinking it would be easier to just skip all of that and write the final version directly? Writing that way is popular with new writers and you should go for it just to get it out of the way. When you’re back from your experiment we’ll continue.

The Story Idea

A story idea is anything you can come up with that sounds like it would make an original film. There are only so many kinds of stories to be told. You need to find some twists to make your material appear fresh and engage your readers and viewers. Readers? Yes. Your screenplay will be read by a lot of people before it ever becomes a film.

Here’s a story idea: “A retired sheriff’s family is killed and he spends the rest of the story getting revenge”. That isn’t quite enough. It’s too little and it’s nothing new. You want an idea that will take your audience in different directions. Put this in your “story ideas” notebook to be fleshed out later when you have more ideas. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” put some twists on the revenge story using flashbacks and samurai swords.

Here’s another story idea: “The main character feels like human stupidity is too obvious and there must be higher beings controlling things. Then one day he is awakened. He finds the world he imagined existed passed away some time ago due to environmental problems. A system was set up to support a large low maintenance population under heavy anesthetic as a gene pool to support a small population of guardians that maintains the sleep chambers and the machinery to produce food. The awake human population is more intelligent than the wisest people in the character’s former dream world. But there’s a problem. The system has been running for hundreds of years and the environmental crisis is long over. The earth has rejuvenated itself. The protagonist wants to wake everyone up but the guardians disagree.”

The second story idea has more to it. It also has the three act structure which will be discussed shortly. The main theme sounds like “The Matrix” and a few dozen other movies. The conditions that cause the dream world and the state of the “real” world are different from those movies so we have a different twist on an idea that has been around for at least 2000 years (see the writings of Pyrrho or Chuang Tzu).

Add to each of your story ideas as much as possible. Then, cut out the mundane. Keep it to a paragraph or two.

The Three Act Structure

Most screenplays are divided into three sections with changeovers between the sections. A changeover is a major change of direction in what’s happening in the movie. Good luck turns to bad. An important character dies. A new group arrives in town that has an impact on the main character.

The second story idea above used the three act structure. In the first act, the main character lives in the normal world but imagines there must be some higher intelligence. The changeover is when he is brought out of his drug induced sleep. The second act is his introduction to and education about the real world of greater clarity and intelligence. When he realizes he must change this world that he used to dream about, it’s the second changeover and the start of the final act and final conflict.

The Script Treatment (Synopsis)

Before doing the outline, you’ll expand some story ideas into script treatments. This is basically the same as a synopsis for a book. My method for either a screenplay or book is to include chapter headers as part of the synopsis / script treatment while I’m developing it. You’ll see why I do this in the Outline step.

A script treatment is a summary of the screenplay. The length is up to you. I prefer to keep it to a page or two. Some recommend you make it between 2500-5000 words. If you’re submitting it somewhere, follow their guidelines. Use your treatment to reveal the subject of the script, the characters and the action. Bring in cause and effect. Why are the characters acting and reacting the way they do? Does the story flow naturally? This is your chance to write a short version of your story and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t wasted as much time as you would writing a full screenplay.

If a full script treatment seems like too much to do all at once, throw a synopsis stage into your plan. Write your story ideas as one or two page synopses and then pick the best of the bunch to turn into a full script treatment. The more ways you can break the screenwriting process down into stages, the easier it will be to succeed. Also, smaller tasks are less intimidating and provide more emotional rewards as you complete more milestones.

The Outline

At the outline stage I take advantage of my word processor’s table of contents feature. The first level headings give me the major points of the outline. Now I add the secondary points as second level headings. I can add as much information as I want under each of the headings and return to the table of contents for the big picture. This lets me re-visualize the whole story and make changes before I have too much material to work with. When I’m happy with the second level outlining, I add a third level, again using the table of contents to get the big picture. When the table of contents is up to about 60 headings, I know there’s sufficient material for a full length book or screenplay. A book needs to be at least 60,000 words. A screenplay needs to be between 90 and 120 pages.

Expanding the Outline

In order to create a good plot structure, you’ll need to outline each scene. Once you have a good number of scenes (headers in my example), each scene needs a location, the main characters involved, a summary of the action, and a description of the main conflict. Keep your scene descriptions concise.

One way to practice writing short descriptions of every scene in a script is to do it for an existing movie. Pop in a movie you’ve seen at least once. Pause after every scene and write a one or two sentence description.


If you’re going to follow along with this series and give basic screenwriting a try, you’ve got plenty to get you going. Start a story idea file. Try to find a three act structure for each story idea. When you have some great ideas, make them into synopses / script treatments. Then pick the best and work up an outline.

The next article will look at writing the first draft. It can either be the most frustrating step or the most fun. I’ll show you how to love it.

Article by Ivan Izo.


One thought on “Writing a Screenplay: Part 1 of 4 – Outlines

  1. baibridourigh December 12, 2009 / 1:46 am

    I highly enjoyed reading your article, keep on posting such exciting articles!!


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