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How to Write a Script Outline That Will Save You Months of Rewrites

And How to Truly Master the Process by Writing Outlines of Films as You Watch Them

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by Script Reader Pro in Concept, Story and Theme
May 21, 2019 24 comments
script outline example

How to Write a Script Outline That Will Save You Months of Rewrites

Writing a script outline is probably the most important preparatory step you can take as a writer.

It can save you from having to go back and fix things in a screenplay that could’ve been fixed much earlier—fundamental things like a basic problem with Act 2. Or a missing character flaw. Or a faulty three-way triangle of conflict between protagonist and antagonist and stakes character.

In this post we’re going to show you how to write a screenplay outline and figure out all your character motivations and plot points before writing the script.

In other words, how to figure out your story first and then transpose it into screenplay form. All of which will potentially save yourself months of rewrites and frustration. So let’s get to it.

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Why Writing a Script Outline Is So Important

A movie is essentially a story. The blueprint for that story is a script. But the blueprint for that script is a movie outline. In other words, a breakdown of the story beats in prose that will make up the script.

Hence, the process of writing a script for most professional writers goes something like this:

Story Idea > Notes > Script Outline > Script

(Some writers also like to add a screenplay treatment in there before or after the outline.)

There’s nowhere for the story to hide in a film outline. Without all the distractions of dialogue and formatting, a movie outline either interests the reader, or it doesn’t.

If you read it aloud to someone, they should be able to understand it as a fully realized, comprehensible story. And if your story doesn’t interest people in prose form, it’s unlikely to in a screenplay.

But What About Tarantino? He Doesn’t Bother Writing a Script Outline  

Some of you may be asking, why do some famous writers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers not bother writing a movie script outline?

Granted, some professional writers dive right into writing the script with only the bare bones of a screenplay outline in place. Or none at all. Or a mix of both.

Here’s screenwriter, Judd Apatow, on the subject:

“There’s some simple theories about writing. One of them I read in a book was just the down/up theory: get it down, then fix it up. You can’t do that at the same time. You want to allow yourself to write freely and not judge it, and then pick another time to judge it.”

Apatow famously calls this the “vomit draft.” This amounts to basically having an idea for a movie and rolling with it. The purpose is to “just get it out” and finish it without editing as you go, and without judgement.

We’re not saying this is a “bad” approach because there’s no such thing as the “right” way to go about writing a script. What we are saying is that the writers who use this method are probably in the minority.

More than anything, we recommend forgetting what Quentin Tarantino or Judd Apatow or any other writer does. You’re not them. You’re you. So find what works best for you—whether that’s banging out a screenplay in three days, or taking six months to perfect a movie outline.

script outline example

How to Write a Script Outline

The very best way to learn how to write a screenplay outline is to write them for existing movies. By writing script outlines for a ton of movies as you watch them, you’ll learn a great deal about story, structure, scenes, beats, etc.

The process involves simply writing a script outline of a film as you watch it—scene by scene—and then breaking it down into acts, sequences and segments.

This is an invaluable exercise and we can’t stress enough the benefits it can bring to your sense of what makes a good story. Here’s how you do it:

Step 1. Choose a Movie to Outline

We suggest sticking to movies in your favored genre, so you get to really familiarize yourself with its conventions. Also, pick a Hollywood film post-1990, as these will generally be easier to break down.

Filmmaking mores have changed, such as the length of time taken to set up Act 1, and so it’s generally best to stay as current as possible.

Step 2. Write Down Only the Essentials of Each Scene

As you watch the film, simply write down on your laptop what you see. This should be a simple summary of each scene as it unfolds on screen.

Sentences should be short and to-the-point, describing only the basics of what happens and avoiding extraneous details. You may find it hard to keep up at first, but your speed will improve the more you do.

Here’s a script outline example: 

Let’s take a look at the classic comedy, There’s Something About Mary, as a script outline example. Watch this scene in which Ted is questioned by the police over the highway murders, and then read our movie outline of the scene.

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Here’s how you could write this scene in a script outline:

At a police station, Ted is interrogated by two cops. They think he’s a serial killer, but Ted thinks he’s been arrested for picking up the hitch-hiker. One of the cops smashes his head against the table.

It’s always a good idea to start with a location, as in “at the police station” in order to establish the scene. Only the major beats of the scene need recording, so you should never write anything about how someone’s dressed, for example, unless it’s important to the story.

Write out what happens in each scene and by the end of the movie you should end up with a script outline that’s three to five pages long.

Below you’ll find a full script outline template pdf of The Bourne Identity you can download. This will give you an idea of what the finished product should look like before it’s broken down into acts and sequences.

Download The Bourne Identity script outline template >>

Step 3. Break Down Your Script Outline

The next stage is to examine exactly how the story works and is pieced together. This means breaking down your outline, noting the major plot points along the way.

Start by breaking it down into three acts. Then break the three acts down into seven or eight sequences. Then break each sequence into three segments—or “mini acts.” You can also add the major plot points: inciting incident, call to action, midpoint, etc. along the way.

These big plot points should be quite easy to add to your outline as they’re usually pretty obvious in most Hollywood movies. (We go into how to write a screenplay outline in much more detail in our book Master Screenplay Sequences and online screenwriting course, Script Hackr.)

It’s not too hard to see that the midpoint in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, is when Indy and Marion get thrown into the Well of Souls and the Nazis steal the ark.

Or that the end of Act 2 in (500) Days of Summer is the “Expectations vs. Reality” montage in which Tom realizes Summer’s engaged.

Read a (500) Days of Summer script outline >>

Script Outline Practical Exercise

Another great exercise would be to grab a copy of the movie, Greenberg, and then write a screenplay outline of it.

Then break it down into acts, sequences and segments and compare what you have to our screenplay outline template below.

Download Greenberg script outline template >>

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How to Write a Screenplay Outline: Conclusion

Many screenplays we receive need extensive rewriting. But often these problems could’ve been avoided if the writer had spent some time concentrating on the story before penning the script. And writing a script outline that captures the throughline of that story from A to B.

Not only that, but writing script outlines can actually help you write faster. It can help you become a writing machine, capable of churning out three (or more) scripts a year, rather than going backward and forwards fixing basic problems in one.

Yes, any screenplay is going to require a number of rewrites before you know if it’s good enough to send out into the industry. But nail the essentials of story and character first, and you’ll likely avoid having to do more rewriting than you have to.

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Do you write a script outline before starting on the script? Or do you just start writing the script and let your imagination dictate the story as it goes? Let us know in the comments below what your preferred method is.

script outline example

Enjoyed This Post? Read More on How to Write a Script Outline and Plot Your Screenplay

How to Use a Script Analysis Worksheet to Bulletproof Act 1

How to Write a Logline: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

High Concept: What It Is and How to Apply It to Your Story Idea

[© Photo credits: UnsplashWikimedia Commons]

24 Comments
  1. Jeanne Watson says:

    100% agreed. Writing a script outline is the most essential step of writing a successful screenplay. It really changed the quality of my scripts and it makes rewrites way less painful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jeanne!

  2. Michael McDaniel says:

    I wrote a script( not a scriptwriter but that’s what I want it to be) a few years ago, and ever since I’ve been seeing different programs and ways of doing it and all this screen writing stuff. because in my mind i’am just a novice with no experience and the idea of rewrites discouraged me But I wrote the script like I was at the Movies watching it, it was great the way it came out but still I didn’t want to do rewrites, again with the spacing the font, the no shot directions, visuals( because filmmakers don’t like that one column said. i didn’t want it to be stolen, so I got it copywritten. it’s a very good screenplay if ever it were to be produced as written, so to make a long story shorter I wrote it like I was in a theater, so I guess I let My Imagine lead

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, visualizing your script up on screen in a movie theater is a great tool. Good luck with the writing, Michael!

  3. Marie says:

    I can’t help myself from writing like a machine-gun once I get started. Outlining is tough but for sure a thing I would love to master. I guess I need to work a bit on it. Could probably save me for a million hours of rewriting hahah thanks SRP 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Learning how to write a script outline takes practice but you’re right it’s totally worth it.

      1. Maria says:

        Hey SRP!
        Thanks for your great website, toolkits, help etc. I’m learning so much!
        I would LOVE to see a blog/article about how to pass page 30 and actually get through the 2. act. I feel like act 1 and 3 are safer, since I know where it should start and end, but act 2 is the real killer haha. Maybe you already made one?
        But just tips and tricks that will make it easier to write act 2. 😀 Could be so awesome! Thank you! 😀

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          Hi Maria, great question and a problem many screenwriters face. We always recommend using the sequence approach to help combat it as this breaks Act 2 down into 4 sequences, or “mini movies.” You can read more about it in this post – Script Structure: What All Those Screenwriting Books Aren’t Telling You.

  4. Themalethu says:

    Thank you SRP.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Chuck says:

    Why post-1990? The writer said, more on that later, but I did not see any followup.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the heads-up, Chuck, it’s been edited.

  6. Don Bwibwi says:

    I`m appreciating for all your knowledge I am receiving.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Don, great to have you around 🙂

  7. Tony Li says:

    How to write a script outline that can get me an agent?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’ll probably need a script to get an agent rather than just an outline.

  8. William Whiteford says:

    It would be nice to be able both to visualize the script a la longue and write a script outline perfectly for say three days. The first thing is the question of imagination. The second one – the question of training clarified here in a virtuous way.
    Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, William!

  9. michelle says:

    Love this, thank you so much SRP!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Michelle!

  10. James Petersen says:

    I used to write a synopsis first but now I just barrel into the script. I write horror and its kind of like a vomit draft but more sick hahaha!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Whatever works! Thanks for the comment, James.

  11. Jo says:

    Hi, Do you have an example of the outline breakdown of a film (like The Bourne Identity)? I’m not sure I exactly know what you mean by the 7/8 sequences.
    Love your advice! Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jo – there’s a link in the article to a breakdown of (500) Days of Summer at the end of Step 3.

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