How to Outline Your Screenplay

You must, must, must … outline your story before you sit down to write your screenplay.

Wait, here’s a better way of putting it. You must, must, must … outline your story before putting it in screenplay form.

The second version is way better because outlining is an integral part of the screenwritng process. So, to say that you must outline BEFORE you write your screenplay is misleading and undermines the importance of one of a screenwriter’s most important tools.

Now when I say outline, I don’t mean a little two-page beat sheet that you can jot down in 10 minutes. I mean a full scene-by-scene outline of your entire story from the beginning to end. An outline that clearly defines the act breaks. An outline that even describes what the dialogue will be in every scene. An outline so insanely detailed that when it’s finally time to transfer your story into screenplay form … you only have to think about one thing: How to make it all sound awesome on the page so that the read will be a breeze.

In the same way an artist first sketches his subject before he commits paint to canvas, you must also sketch out your entire story before you commit words to Final Draft. (Granted, you can use Final Draft to do the outlining, but we will get to that later.)

The great thing about the outlining process is that it’s freeing. When you outline you can make tons of changes to your story without the pressure of writing or rewriting the actual screenplay. You’re free to play with your idea and get your plot points structured correctly without stressing about writing snappy dialogue or finding a cool way to describe your car chase.

The outlines for my screenplays are sometimes 40 pages long. I was once hired to work on the rewrite of a pretty well-known horror classic. The producer was a straight-up maniac who didn’t know what he wanted. I delivered three 40-page outlines to this joker before he even cracked a tobacco-stained smile. Then it took one more version for him to give me the go-ahead to write the script.

Let me repeat that. I wrote four 40-page outlines just to get the story perfect before putting it in screenplay form. Yeah, I do not screw around.

Now, I know that some of you are on the lazy side and I can already hear the whining. “Forty page outlines? Are you crazy? That’s too much hard work.”

Damn right, it’s hard work! Do you think studios will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for some half-baked story that you threw together between X-Box sessions? Get real!

Sure, there are some freaks of nature who can write brilliantly without an outline. I’ve heard that Stephen King writes whole novels without planning a single moment. But … he’s Stephen King! He’s a writing god! You’re not … at least not yet.

Usually, what separates the wanna-bes from the pros is HARD WORK. I personally know many professional screenwriters—brilliant cats with talent coming out of their ears. Every single one of them outlines extensively before working in screenplay form. Okay, not all of them write 40 pages like I do but their outlines are always incredibly detailed. A lot of pros, myself included, will tell you that most of the real work of screenwriting is done in the outline.

So, now that I’ve convinced you to outline your story you’re probably wondering what your outline should look like. Good question.

Here’s what I do. I list every single scene in the movie and fill in details for each scene. (You can use the outlining tools in Final Draft to do this.) I give each scene a header just as it would appear in the final screenplay. Here’s a brief example:

David, professional screenwriter, works on latest script in coffee shop. A Wanna-Be screenwriter comes over and asks David to read his script titled GREEN MAN SAVES THE EARTH. David asks the Wanna-Be if he outlined the script before writing it. The Wanna-Be says, “Nah, it just flowed out of me, but it’s printed on recycled paper and bound with twine.” David responds, “Well, can you flow away from me, I’m busy.” The Wanna-Be stomps away mad.

David whistles as he strolls toward his Ferrari. The angry Wanna-Be rushes out swinging his un-outlined spec like a club. David unleashes a decade’s worth of Jujitsu lessons on the Wanna-Be. The Wanna-Be limps away, the pages of his spec script in tatters.

David talks to his agent on the phone while driving. “NO, NO, tell Spielberg I’m too busy outlining Avatar 3. I can’t do—” CRASH! Another car rams the Ferrari. David is shocked to see the crazed Wanna-Be giving chase in a Prius.

It’s that simple. Some people use index cards for each scene while others, like myself, just list the scenes as in the example above. I don’t prefer using index cards because the amount of information you can write down for each scene is limited to the size of the card – unless you are using the Index Card feature in Final Draft.

I like my outlines to be infinitely and easily expandable so that I don’t have to be overly selective about what ideas I jot down. I can include as much or as little as I please without worrying about space.

One last thing about outlines. Your outline is there as a detailed guide but don’t let it become a crutch. As you transform your outline into screenplay form, try to always remain open to inspiration. Maybe you should listen to your characters when they insist on taking a scene in a slightly different direction than what you planned.

I’ll tell you a secret, and this is absolutely true.

After I’m done with my meticulous outline and it’s time to transform it into screenplay form, I rarely refer to it. Crazy, right? I’ve never really understood this but my theory is this: I’ve worked so hard to figure out every moment of the story that it feels real to me.

As I’m working in Final Draft, I’m not dreaming up a story any longer, I’m just describing a movie that I’ve already seen.

Final Draft has many powerful features designed to help you plan you screenplay.

Index Cards

This feature has double-sided cards that display a scene from your script on one side and its summary on the other. The Summary View allows you to enter ideas directly into the Index Card such as your basic outline, notes, sequence or act markers, comments, locations, blocking… anything you need to build and organize your story. Simply select one or more individual Index Card Summaries and copy the content directly into the script and the text will appear at the end of any previously existing content in the scene.

You can also color your Index Cards to help organize themes, character arcs, A and B stories, etc. Select and rearrange multiple cards at once if you need to reorder your scenes or print your Index Cards directly on 3x5 or 4x6 cards for visualizing and organizing scenes outside of the application. Double-clicking on a card in Split Panel View will automatically sync the scene selected with your script.

Scene Properties Inspector [Final Draft Exclusive]

Add scene titles and colors to track your story lines, characters, and more.

Use this new floating pallet to track data specific to each scene, such as the story beats that will eventually make up the action, characters, and dialogue of the scene.

Add and edit your scene’s title such as “Villain introduced,” and add color to the scene to help you track elements like storylines, character arcs, and material you need to review later. Like the Scene Navigator, the SPI will display the details of whatever scene you’re working on in your script so you have summary notes handy when you need them.

Scene Navigator [Final Draft Exclusive]

Manage and view the important details of your scene in this sortable floating pallet.

Manage the pace and flow of your story and keep track of up to nine categories of information related to your scenes. The Scene Navigator is a sortable, customizable floating pallet that displays details about your script including a scene’s title, color, page number, length, and location. Best of all it syncs with the script with a single-click. As your script progresses, you can pick and choose the columns of information that are relevant for your current phase of writing.

Scene View

Outline your script ideas and reorder scenes in this high-level overview.

With Scene View you can see your script from a 5,000-foot view and select, drag and drop one or more scenes to reorganize your ideas as you outline. Insert new scenes easily, and hide or show information important to you such as a scene’s action, title and summary. Scene View also displays a scene’s color so you can quickly identify one scene from another. Print your Scene View or just view it alongside the script. With a double-click you can sync the script and instantly go to any scene you’ve selected in Scene View.