How to Write a Screenplay Outline
For me, I decided at a very young age that I was going to be some sort of writer. I didn’t know what kind yet, but I knew that I just wanted to tell stories. After I published my first two books, I realized how long it took me to get through it. I had always considered myself a non-outliner; I didn’t like the feeling of restricting myself by planning out a story before I wrote it. When my second book, Samhain Island: Episode Two, was a short novel but took nearly a year of revising and rewriting, I knew I had to find a better strategy for writing both my books and my screenplays.
Like many writers, I found myself getting halfway through the first draft of a piece of writing to realize I had nowhere to go. What happens next? What does the character do now? This was at the same time I was studying screenplay structure with a special, well-known book: Save the Cat by Blake Synder.
Even if you have taken the most basic screenplay class, you know Save the Cat. If you haven’t heard of it, Save the Cat; The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need is a novel published in 2005 that outlines how most Hollywood screenplays are structure. If you read this book in a screenwriting class, you will most likely be using the outline below from the book, which is dubbed the “Beat Sheet”
Copied from the official website:
Blake Synder’s “Beat Sheet” (Based on 100 Page Screenplay)
Opening Image (Page 1) – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
Set-up (Pages 1-10) – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life
Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) (Page 5) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
Catalyst (Pages 11-12) – The moment where life as it is changing. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
Debate (Pages 12-25) – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) (Page 25) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
B Story (Page 30) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
The Promise of the Premise (Pages 25-50) – This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint (Page 50) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
Bad Guys Close In (Page 50-65) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/ “awful” situation disintegrates.
All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/ “great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
Dark Night of the Soul (Page 65-75) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) (Page 75) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale (Page 75-100) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.
Now, for the first time screenwriter, this can be a great tool. Going back to your favorite movies and putting the Beat Sheet against the structure is an awesome way to learn structure. But I have found that constricting myself to this structure a bit limiting to my creative impulses. Not all great movies use the beat sheet, but all great movies have structure. Based mostly on Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet, this is how I structure my screenplays:
Act 1: The beginning of the story. “Set Up,” “Theme Stated,” “Catalyst,” “Debate.”
Act 2-A: Act 2 is split into two. Act 2A is the “Fun and Games” sequence while…
Act 2-B: contains a part I call “Tensions Rising”
Act 3: The Final and Epilogue.
Based on 100-page screenplay;
(note: You can calculate the accurate page numbers for an outline at this site. You do not have to constrict yourself to 100 pages; this is just an example. For the outline calculator, visit this site.)
Act 1: Set Up
Length: 1-10 pages. Can be a bit longer, like maybe up to 13 pages, but I never do shorter than 10 pages.
In the Set Up, you need to introduce the protagonist, the supporting characters, and their problem. Now, you can also introduce the setting, but if you have a story that moves around a lot – it doesn’t have to introduce the setting.
Set Up is also a fun time to not only introduce characters and problems but small things that could foreshadow future events in the story.
Act 1: Theme Stated
Length: Page 5, but personally I believe that the theme can be stated anytime in the Set Up.
The theme is something that is overblown, particularly by high school literature teachers. Theme can be as simple as one word, (for example, “Family”) or can be as longs as a sentence (For example, “One man learns the importance of family and love during the Christmas season.”)
Act 1: Catalyst
Length: Page 10-12, right after Set Up. Should last between 1 and 3 pages.
The Catalyst, or also called the Inciting Incident, is when the protagonist’s world changes. The world that was established in the beginning is no more.
Act 1: Debate
Length: Page 11 (or so) to 25. This part can be shorter or longer.
This is the part where the protagonist questions if he or she is capable of the journey ahead. Will they answer the call to adventure or chicken out? (Obviously, they will answer the call to adventure or else there would be no story.)
Act 2A: Break into Two / Plot Point 1
Length: 25-26 page.
The protagonist actively makes a decision to answer the call to adventure. This would be the first plot point. Catalyst could happen by a coincidence, or outside of the protagonist’s control, but Plot Point 1 should always be a decision the protagonist makes.
Act 2A: Fun and Games
Length: 25-50 pages
This is the promise of the movie, and it’s also the entirety of Act 2A. “The Promise of the Premise.” This when the protagonist is trying to succeed at his goal, and it’s the protagonist going on his adventure. Yes, the protagonist is still trying to reach his goal, but unlike the next act, Act 2B, there is some wiggle room.
Act 2A-Act2B Transition: Mid-Point
Length: 50-52 pages
The mid-point is the part in the screenplay that is quite literally the midpoint (page 50 if your screenplay is 100 pages, page 60 if your screenplay 120 pages, etc.) but it is also the turning point. The tensions rises, or there is a “switch” in the story. For example, in Panic Room, the first half of the film the protagonists are trying to stay in the panic room to avoid the home invaders, but at the mid-point, when the main character’s child has a seizure, their goal switches to getting out of the room to aquire medicine.
Act 2B: Tensions Rise
It is Blake Synder’s “Bad Guys Close In” and then later right before Act 3, “All is Lost” but personally, I like to combine both of them into a sequence I call “Tensions Rising.” Now that we have hit the mid-point – and changed our story’s path to be more challenging for our protagonist – this is when everything starts crumbling. Our protagonist should feel his or her defeat looming, and the stakes should be even higher now. With every scene, you should be making it harder and harder.
Act 2B-Act 3 Transition: Plot Point 2
The protagonist makes the decision to head into dangerous waters. It might be a difficult choice, but it’s one they have to make.
Act 3: The Finale
This is the end! Everything has now coming at the protagonist at once, and he or she has to combat it head-on. The protagonist, at this point, should be different than how he or she was in the set-up. They must have developed.
The end is always the hardest for me to write, so here is Blake Synder’s strategy he calls the “Five Point Finale” in which to construct the finale. Here are his exact descriptions:
Step 1: The hero, and the hero team, come up with a plan to “storm the castle” and “free the princess” who is “trapped in the tower.”
Step 2: The plan begins. The wall of the castle is broached. The heroes enter the Bad Guys’ fort. All is going according to plan.
Step 3: Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won.
Step 4: The hero now has to come up with a new plan. And it’s all part and parcel of the overall transformation of the hero and his need to “dig deep down” to find that last ounce of strength (i.e., faith in an unseen power) to win the day.
Step 5: Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan, and wins! Princess freed, friends avenged, Bad Guy sent back to wherever Bad Guys go when they are defeated (Two Bunch Palms?) — our hero has triumphed.
Act 3: Epilogue
Length: 96/97/98-100 pages
The epilogue wraps the story up nice and neatly. DO NOT RUSH THIS. I find myself always rushing to finish this part in order to say “I completed a screenplay!” but do not do this. Your ending is just as important as your beginning!
Based on the beat sheet but my own personal tweaks, this is how I outline my stories, both literary and for the screen. You do not have to follow anything to a tee, but it’s usually good to practice and outline a treatment when you are just beginning as a writer – especially for screenwriting!