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To outline or not to outline (your screenplay, that is)

June 8, 2021
6 min read time

When I first started screenwriting, I didn’t outline. I’d simply jot down various notes — onto various items — before writing a script, allowing inspiration to take care of the rest. Those initial notes were comprised of rough character details, snippets of dialogue, and the occasional idea for a gag or set piece. I was writing comedies, and this was how my co-writer and myself wrote the spec that broke us into the business, so we saw no reason to alter our formula. We had a basic grasp of three-act structure and had seen enough movies to understand the rhythm and timing of scenes, but short of our collected notes, we were essentially winging it.

There was an excitement to winging it. We had also both previously written novels, so we were confident enough writers to pull it off. We never ended up staring at a blank page. The writing was highly inspired, lively, and had a strong voice. We wrote two more spec scripts in this fashion: One sold, one didn’t. So in total, we sold two scripts without outlining and they were both big sales.

So who needs outlining, right?

Well, first off, we were writing character-driven comedies before they became a niche market. These days, it’s not likely you’ll score a script sale because people find the central character larger than life and funny. Secondly, my co-writer and I soon discovered we had to start outlining if we wanted to get hired for writing jobs. The language and terminology varied, but whether producers requested “a treatment”, “a take”, or “just a few pages”, it became clear we couldn’t just verbally pitch our way into a writing job. If a company was going to pay us to write, we had to map out the story. Rarely did they ask for a treatment out of the gate. Most of the time, they asked for a take or a few pages, but after we gave them two to four pages, they always asked questions and requested we flesh it out more. This process would go on for weeks and it usually ended with a ten- to twelve-page treatment. This was for original concepts we were pitching or, in many cases, the concept came from them and we were illustrating our spin on it. If we were up for a rewrite job, it didn’t require as much outlining since the basic outline was already there, but we still had to map out some of our bigger changes to the script and this required at least a take.

Even after providing producers with written takes and treatments, we still had to verbally pitch it to either a top-tier producer or studio brass, in order to land the job. Now, this couldn’t be the loose and open-ended pitch that initiated the process. It had to be a fully formulated pitch that adhered to the finished treatment and all its beats. My co-writer and I were not used to outlining or pitching, so it was really sink or swim for us. It didn’t take us long to adapt, however, and we both grew to enjoy the process. I also discovered that when it was finally time to start writing the script, having all of the story and scenes mapped out was liberating in a way. The part of my brain that had been constantly figuring out ‘What happens next?’ while writing didn’t need to be utilized now and as a result, the part of my brain that focussed on character, dialogue and nuance, was unburdened and not only did the writing become easier, it got better. I wasn’t doing two jobs at once anymore. I already had the slab of stone; now I could take my time and chisel it into the best and most effective shape possible.

Outlining reality

After several years of landing and working on writing jobs together, my co-writer and I amicably went our separate ways, and I had to prove myself all over again with a solo spec script. It took a couple of years, but I eventually started selling scripts and getting writing jobs again. Between adapting to a changing market and growth as a writer, I shifted from comedies to biopics. One might think writing biopics would require less outlining since many of the elements are already there for you: The who, what, when and where. From my experience, it actually requires more outlining.

First, you have to do research and choose what events from this public figure’s life you’re going to use in your script. It’s impossible to wing it when you’re building a story involving a real-life person. There might already be a basic framework for you to work with, but it’d be a daunting task to create a cohesive narrative without mapping it out beforehand, especially if you want to write something that’s dramatically and cinematically engaging and not simply a fact-based, cradle to grave retelling of your subject’s life. It still needs to work as a dramatic screenplay and as such, it must have a strong emotional through-line with obstacles and conflict throughout. Thus outlining a story that best accomplishes this is essential.

Last year I landed a job writing a script that involved several public figures and a major historical event. Even though it wasn’t required for this specific job, I wrote a detailed outline after months of extensive research. The idea of balancing all of these characters and events within a focused and compelling narrative without an outline was unfathomable to me. Generally speaking, the more complex the story, the greater the need for an outline.

Outlining the twist

Thrillers and horrors — both popular genres —require outlining even more, especially when they involve a mystery or twist. The best twists don’t come out of nowhere, and should work with everything that’s been established in the narrative, while at the same time, not tipping off the reader. This requires careful plotting and to do so without outlining the various beats culminating in your big reveal would be difficult, to say the least. Also, if you’re writing a horror film that involves various set pieces and a “body count”, it’s a good idea to know which characters are getting dispensed and in what order. You don’t want to spend a lot of time developing a character if they’re not making it to the second act (unless you’re doing Psycho-style misdirection). Also knowing what set piece your characters are going to be involved in will help you to tailor certain aspects of that character for the impending set piece or death scene.

In many horror films, a character’s primary personality flaw or obsession plays a role in their demise. Likewise, your script’s protagonist will have their issues — flaws and strengths — that should come into play by the climax. Whether your initial inspiration is the set piece or the character, it’s best to have it worked out by the time you go to draft. Otherwise, you’re likely to become lost in your own narrative and the end result will be a convoluted script in which even your best ideas don’t add up in a succinct and effective manner. Generally speaking, the more plot-driven the story, the greater the need for an outline.

Defying the outline

Although outlining is beneficial for complex or plot-driven scripts, this doesn’t mean the writer should become a slave to the outline they’ve created. An outline is just that: an outline. An architect might start with a blueprint, but real-world factors might eventually lead to a building not exactly like the one they first envisioned. In the same fashion that a director might reshape your script when on set, you might find the need to alter or deviate from your outline at times. From my experience, not everything that works in an outline works in a script. A moment that seemed cool or clever in theory, might land flat or untrue on the page. You can spend hours, if not days, trying to make it work, but if it simply doesn’t, you have to be prepared to change course and get to the next moment in your outline in a different way.

Think of it as going on a road trip you have mapped out with GPS. For the most part, you follow the navigation, but what happens if a road is blocked, you get a flat, or simply spot something or a place you want to check out? You don’t just keep following the GPS. You go off route and know you can always reactivate the GPS when you’re ready to. If you’re in the middle of writing your script and suddenly inspiration hits you and you think of a better ending than what you had originally outlined, then go with it. The outline is there to assist you, not obstruct you. Many times I’ve altered beats and moments from my outline while writing and they ended up becoming highlights. A screenwriter needs to use every tool available to them and oftentimes inspiration is the greatest tool of them all.

So in conclusion: Should a screenwriter outline?

Most definitely. 

But be prepared and open to further inspiration. Screenwriting is an ongoing process and until your screenplay is a film, it’s never truly done.

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