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Setting Up a Screenplay Outline

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/6/2010

Here is a look at how to put together an outline for your screenplay that will guide the formation of your final script.

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    It's Just How to Write a Screenplay

    Screenplays, in a general and commercial sense, are not just free flowing pieces of writing. Instead, they rely on a series of commonalities that, while they do not direct how your storytelling should go, do go back to some principles on which the medium and audience expectations are based on. This is the dramatic structure that is common to the screenplay formula and is often what we look at in successful screenplays that can be made into successful and engaging films. When writing a screenplay, this structure can be difficult to develop and see because of the length, multiple characters, motifs and themes that are in place, so you may actually outline it to begin with. What this outline ends up looking like is a simple skeleton for your finished screenplay, and with it you will then have a roadmap for working on your screenplay. This may be one of the key features of how to write a screenplay in a successful way.

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    Screenplay Outline Structure

    There are different possible formats for a screenplay outline, but a standard screenplay outline that will remain successful breaks down into a section for every individual scene. This means that you will give a sentence or two to summarize each individual scene in your screenplay, from start to finish. The format of this is going to force you to take your general concept and premise and materialize it into a story that has a start and finish. You will then also be forced to go through and create scenes that are concise and appropriate for your screenplay. Oftentimes, a scene that you write undirected can end up be amorphous, lacking in real direction, and will not move the story, characters, or ideas in a real direction. In this type of outline you are forced to do that since you visually see each scene moving in to the other. The short nature of the description, which should remain as short as possible, forces you to see whether or not you are able to communicate the base events of that scene to the audience. If you cannot do this in a single sentence, and in special occasions two sentences, then your understanding of this scene may remain cluttered and off base. Once you start putting together this outline you will see that you finally have a fairly detailed look at what your screenplay could be. Avoid putting subjective elements into your scene descriptions, any amount of dialogue, any internal feelings, and anything that will not be seen on screen.

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    Don't Stick Too Close

    The first thing you have to remember about the outline is that this does not have to be what you finished screenplay looks like. You may learn different things about your characters when writing, make a series of new choices, and completely change the story. This is fine, and you should also try to update the outline when you do this. At the same time, you may not be able to clearly know what happens in your story until you start writing, and in this case you may want to start writing while you are working on the outline or leave a couple parts of the outline blank. What you want to do is put what you can into the outline so that when you are writing you have something to turn to for direction.

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    Using the Screenplay Outline

    When you have a complete outline you can then begin writing the scenes that you have listed one by one, knowing that the structure you have is essentially solid. This is only going to be true if you are actually pleased with your outline, so feedback from third parties is the most important thing you can have during that process. If the outline is not working then there is no way that your script is going to. One of the main problems that you will encounter in this situation is that by following the outline the screenplay will look as though it is working because it follows the format that is already imagined, but it may not be because the base screenplay outline is still questionable. Once it is working, however, your screenplay is going to flow much easier and you are going to be able to be much more confident in your choices.