THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
HOW TO OUTLINE
You've got a great idea for a screenplay... how do you get started? Though
everyone has their own way of going from brain to page (I use that direct plug system - hook it
up to my brain and the pages just start shooting out of the printer) - here is a basic method for
organizing your thoughts into a simple step outline. The best thing to do is to find the method
that works best for you.
1) What's your story? You need to have a character in conflict. The character should have
an emotional conflict to overcome (character arc) and a physical conflict (something we can see - it's a movie)
to deal with (plot) and it's best if those two conflicts are connected.
Martell's Instant Story Creator
"My story is about a person (__________) who is forced to deal with their emotional problem (_______)
in order to deal with a physical problem (________). If they fail to deal with the physical problem,
(_______) will happen - destroying their life forever! (The stakes)"
That works for almost any story, whether it's an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or a shy girl
pursuing her one true love.
2) What's the big idea? Your story idea should be something interesting enough that
millions of people worldwide will want to spend $10.50 to see it. You need to start with a great
idea. Many writers finish a screenplay with a dull idea, then wonder why nobody wants to read it
after they tell a producer what it's about. It's better to come up with 100 ideas and select the
*best* idea, than to write the first idea you come up with. Even if you are writing for a niche
market or the indie/art house world, you need to have some sort of story hook that makes your
script idea *unique*. If there is another film with the same idea, you need a new idea!
3) Figure out the antagonist's plan or the main conflict of your script. Story is
conflict - and the antagonist is the character who brings the conflict. That means the
antagonist is usually the most important character in your screenplay. Who are they? What do
they want? How does this impact your protagonist? Make sure you understand the conflict and how
it works in your story - the conflict is the engine that runs your story.
4) Next thing I'd do is write a 75 word logline (synopsis) of my script. Put the idea
into words. This will help you focus on what you want your script to be. If you can't condense
your story down to about 75 words, you don't know what your story *is*. Every single movie will
be distilled down to even fewer words in that description in TV Guide Magazine - even indie films
and dramas. If some employee at TV Guide can distill *your* story to a couple of sentences, you'd
better be able to. This logline will be what you use to pitch your script to producers in a query
letter... but it will also be a guide when you are writing your script. I always tape my loglines
to my computer monitor so that I can stay on track while writing the script. Anything that isn't
covered by that 75 word description isn't part of my story - and belongs on the cutting room
5) Now brainstorm a bunch of scenes that illustrate your conflicts. Just come
up with as many scene ideas as you can... including bad ones. Later you'll
select the best for your outline. Sometimes you have to dig through bad ideas
to find good ones.
Let's say your script is about a ladies man who is framed for murdering a
woman... by someone with intimate knowledge of his bedroom practices. Now he
has to track down all of these women he's screwed and dumped because one of
them may be the killer. Outer Conflict: the police are chasing him (think
FUGITIVE). Emotional Conflict: he has to deal with all of these women he has
hurt... and realizes he's not a very nice guy.
So you'll need scenes that deal with the police chase and scenes that deal
with the ex-girlfriends. You'll need other scenes, too. Write down every scene
that pops into your mind.
A) Make a list of conflict scenes between hero & villain. You're probably going to
need 3-5 scenes or more... but brainstorm up as many as you can. You want to make sure this
aspect of your story is covered - and there aren't any missing steps.
B) Make a list of scenes that show the lead dealing with his emotional conflict.
Again, at least 3-5 scenes will probably be required to show the problem, the character struggling
with the problem, and then the character taking the steps to solve the problem, then the problem
being solved. Again, you want to come up with as many scenes as you can so that you can select the
C) Make a list of all of the ways the hero tries to solve the problem while avoiding
their emotional conflict. These are Act 2 scenes - and part of B. But if you brainstorm them
separately, you'll make sure you have enough scenes... and you can come up with some different
and inventive scenes. We always want to make sure our scripts are filled with scenes we haven't
seen before - so sometimes you have to work through a bunch of bad scene ideas to find the good
D) Makes a list of all of the stuff that could go wrong in your story. These are physical
conflict things that will probably go in Act 2. The physical struggle your protagonist deals with in
your story. Sort of part of A - you want to figure out the absolute worst things that can happen
to your hero in your story. Let your imagination run wild. New writers often try to protect their
heroes, and that's *wrong*. You want to have the absolute worst things you can come up with happen
to your hero - because that's conflict and that's interesting. It's obvious that you want things
to go wrong in a drama or thriller or action flick or horror movie - those are the exciting
scenes! But even if you are writing a comedy, the worst thing that can happen to your hero is fuel
for humor. Think of all of the things that go wrong to our heroes in SUPERBAD... and all of
those things are what is funny.
E) Make a list of all of the scenes you need to tell your plot. Though most of these
scenes are probably covered in your other lists, sometimes your hero will need to gather
information or do some other connect-the-dots stuff that may not be on your other lists.
You want this list to give you the step-by-step for your plot - so that you can make sure one
step leads logically to the next and you haven't left anything out.
Now you have a bunch of "menus" to work from. Just order off the menu. Come up with an outline
using these scenes, where the conflict escalates. Combine scenes (one scene might be both a hero/villain
conflict scene and a plot scene, plus have the hero try to solve the problem while avoiding their
inner conflict). The key to screenwriting is combining different things into one scene that does
the work of several scenes.
6) A step outline is easy - it's just putting the scenes in order. I take a lined sheet
of paper or two and pick the really great scenes, then put them in story order. Hey, you're
going to have a lot of arrows and cross-outs and stuff. That's okay. You're figuring out how the
story works, organizing your thoughts. One thing leads to the next and that leads to the next.
7) Now I keep playing around with my outline until I've got the story right. You can
write dozens of drafts of your screenplay trying to get the story right, or a dozen drafts of your
outline. The outline takes less time. Here's where you want to make sure that one things leads
logically to the next. You want to look for plot holes and characters who do things without
motivation - and *fix them*. You also want to twist your plot at this stage - if you've seen a story work this way
in some other movie, twist it! Find the unique road to your destination. The "playing around stage" is also where I try to find the best version of the scenes
I've come up with - sometimes I can come up with a more unique and exciting scene once I know
how the story comes together... and the details of the scene I always save for the first draft.
Though I'm flexible when I'm writing the first draft, I want to have my *story* figured out, so that
I can use my creative energy for all of the details. Solve your problems while you are still in outline - that is the
*purpose* of an outline. Solving problems here saves a bunch of rewriting later. You don't want
to waste time on rewrites for basic story issues, you want to spend rewrite time improving your
script. Eventually you do a "final" version of your step outline that is the very best way the
story can be told with all of the story, character motivation and logic problems solved.
8) I also try to figure out pacing in my outlines - get rid of slow spots and keep the
story flying along. You want to make sure you have an exciting genre scene about every 10 pages -
basically *within* those 10 pages. Make sure there are no slow spots in the story. There's a
script tip here about your screenplay's heartbeat - you want your script to have a regular
heartbeat with an exciting scene every 10 pages. If you are writing an action script, that will
be an action scene every 10 pages. If you are writing a rom-com, you want a scene where your
couple almost hooks up... then something goes wrong (that is funny) every 10 pages. If you are
writing a horror movie, you want a scray scene every 10 pages. If you are writing a drama,
you want a good meaty dramatic scene every 10 pages. You want your script to have that regular
heartbeat - not die for 30 pages where nothing interesting or exciting happens. This is basic
pacing - you want it built in, so that it is *organic to your screenplay* rather than have some
scene forced into a slow spot later. Built in is alway better than tacked on.
9) Around the same time as the outline, I do some other basic pre-writing... Sometimes
I try to figure out what my acts MEAN. Each act tells its own little story, so I try to figure
out what that story is, and how it ends. This will be tied into those two conflicts, with Act
2 being the character avoiding his emotional conflict and trying to find band-aid solutions to the
outer conflict...and it only gets worse!
10) I often will do a little character bio. Not how they look, but WHO THEY ARE.
You want to know their attitude, their personality, how they see the world and how the world
sees them. The more I know about my characters before I write, the better my screenplay. I
believe that stories are *about* characters, and the events (plot stuff) is there to bring their
character to the surface. One of the biggest problems I see in scripts by new writers is that
they didn't really know their characters. I usually hear the character's voices in my head before
I write the script... but sometimes I will put pet words & phrases, unique sentence structures
for this character, and other elements of speech in the character bio. You want every character
to sound different, and that begins with knowing what makes every character in your script
11) One of the things I think about in the outline stage is how the audience is supposed
to react to each scene - what they are supposed to be feeling. We are in the *emotion* picture
business - you don't want the audience to just sit there, you want them to feel something. I
often write notes on my outline that deal with the emotions & reactions I'm looking for - this
helps to remind me when I write the scene. This isn't what your characters are feeling (though
that is also important) but what you want the audience to be feeling.
12) Sometimes I do a 10 page treatment (story version). I find this helps me find
hidden flaws in my outline, and really think about the characters. You might try this step or
ignore it - whatever works best for you.
13) Then I do that writing part - turning the outline into a screenplay. Though I try
to solve all of the story problems in the outline, the outline is just a guide. If I come up with
something better (that still fits the story I set out to tell) or find a more unique way to do
a scene - I'm free to do that. The outline is flexible. What you don't want to do is go to all
of the trouble to figure out how your story works with an outline, then throw it away and write
something that doesn't work. There is a reason why every pro screenwriter I know outlines - it's
a great way to solve problems and organize thoughts before you write 110 pages that don't work.
As Terry Rossio (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) once noted over on Wordplay, some people's first drafts
are part of their outline process. They write draft after draft until they find their story,
then they write a few drafts to focus the script on that story. If that's the method that works
best for you - go for it. But remember, once you figure out the story, you need to rewrite your
script until it conforms to that story.
On a really good day of writing, the characters talk to me and I just take dictation...
14) On a really bad day, I may outline every page before I write it. Many years ago I
wrote an article fro Script Magazine called THE JOB OF WRITING which explains my methods for
fighting through bad days and still getting pages written. As a professional, usually with a
deadline that can not be broken, I must write a certain number of pages every day, whether I
feel like it or not. I suggest you try to write regularly so that you get in the habit of
writing. As I've mentioned in other tips - if you write ONE PAGE every fay, you will have
THREE first drafts by the end of a single year. When I had my day job at the warehouse,
I averaged 3 scripts a year.
15) The more stuff I have figured out ahead of time, the more effort I can spend on
making sure the dialogue and actions and characters are exciting and entertaining. I want to
have plot problems solved before I start typing!
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
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will soon be novels.
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guides for finding agents and producers... all with at the
BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS
FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48
pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!
THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON CD
CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!