Screenwriting 101: the Outline

So you have a cool idea for a movie. Congratulations! Now all you have to do is figure out how to turn that idea into a screenplay.

What a lot of people do once they have a cool idea for a movie is sit down at their computers and type FADE IN:… And then they sit there for a few minutes staring at the blank screen until email, eBay or their blogs call them away. The flashing cursor on the blank screen is one of the most powerful inducements to go do something else with your time ever created.

(For a complete list of things one can do instead of writing a screenplay, see me after class.)

Here’s the answer to your anxiety of the blank screen: go back to lesson 1: All Writing Is Rewriting. Don’t try to write the whole screenplay in one go, write it in incremental steps.  You rewrite as you go along.

Start with the cool idea. Don’t worry about making it artful, just worry about making it clear.

Here’s a cool idea: a man’s wife is murdered, and he is accused of the crime.

So, you write that down. Nothing else, just that. And maybe that’s your work for the day.

And just keep that file open on your desktop. Call it MURDER GUY or something.

Don’t worry about making it a big hit screenplay yet, just worry about getting ideas down on paper.

Ideas come to you over the days: the man accused of the crime is a surgeon. The actual man responsible for the crime has a prosthetic arm. There’s a spectacular bus crash. There’s a showdown at a dam. There’s a chase through a hotel laundry. So forth.

You write down all those ideas as they occur to you. In no particular order. Maybe you’ll use all of them, maybe you won’t. Carry a little notebook in your pocket so you can jot them down as they occur to you. I ride my bike around Santa Monica in order to think and can often be seen stopped in the middle of a parking lot, jotting little things down in my little trustynotebook.

And the cool thing about computers is they don’t care what order you write stuff down in, they’ll let you painlessly organize it later.

Okay. So you’ve got your cool idea for a movie, and you know who your protagonist is and what he wants. Congratulations! You’ve completed the most important part of writing a screenplay.

Now: who will be working against your protagonist? Well, there’s the guy who really killed the doctor’s wife, and there’s a US marshal who is out to get the doctor whether he’s innocent or not, and there’s the guy who hired the guy who killed the doctor’s wife, and there’s everybody else in the world who thinks the doctor is guilty and should be in jail. That’s a formidable array of adversaries and you’re well on the way to writing a big hit blockbuster.

Okay. So you’ve got a protagonist with a very strong want and a set of strong antagonists to oppose him. Here is where you sit down and rough out an outline.

Shouldn’t be more than a few lines. If you know who your protagonist is and what he wants, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out a basic three-act structure for his story.

(In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve chosen for my outline model The Fugitive, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy’s masterful 1993 thriller.)

So let’s say that Act I is the doctor’s wife’s murder, the doctor’s trial and incarceration and his miraculous escape from that. That’s some freakin’ first act! You take a wealthy, successful man, kill his wife, take away all his money, his reputation, his freedom and damn near his life, all in the first 40 minutes of the movie. This is what we in the business call a “reversal of fortune,” and it’s one of the story tricks that help make hit movies.

Okay, so you just write down:

ACT I: Dr. Kimble’s wife is murdered, he is accused, arrested, tried, convicted, sent to prison, but somehow escapes.

So, all of Act I’s energy flows in one direction: Making Dr. Kimble a fugitive of justice. We could call this little 40-minute movie “Dr. Kimble Becomes A Fugitive.”

Now then, if you’ve seen The Fugitive recently, you know what happens next. Dr. Kimble runs for a few minutes, but then he realizes that he cannot run forever, and in fact, he has something he absolutely must do that will require him going back to his life and sneaking around. What must he do? He actually announces it at the end of Act I: “Find That Man!” he remembers telling someone, and so he, and the narrative, literally do a 180 and head in the opposite direction, and all of Act II, the next 40 minutes of the movie, are another expertly paced little narrative called “Dr. Kimble Finds The One-Armed Man.” Every scene is about Dr. Kimble’s pursuit of the One-Armed Man, every roadblock is there to stand in his way of Finding The One-Armed Man.

But all you need to write down for now is: ACT I: Dr. Kimble Becomes A Fugitive, ACT II: Dr. Kimble Finds The One-Armed Man.

What’s left? What’s left is Dr. Kimble Finds The Man Responsible For His Wife’s Death. And all of Act III of The Fugitive, every single scene, is dedicated to Dr. Kimble’s step-by-step figuring out who is The Man Responsible For His Wife’s Death.

So that’s just three sentences, but it is, honest to God, the bulk of the work of writing a screenplay. The problem, of course, is knowing what those three sentences are. Once you do, everything else can begin to fall into place.

Once you have those three sentences, then you can start filling in your empty spaces. Don’t open your screenwriting program, you’re not there quite yet. Just concentrate on the next step. Take your time, there’s no rush. Keep jotting things down as they occur to you.

The next step is figuring out your broad strokes. How do you begin to figure out your broad strokes? You go back to your beginning: who your protagonist and what does he want?

Who is responsible for Dr. Kimble’s wife’s murder? Well, Dr. Kimble is a wealthy surgeon — it’s probably someone in the medical profession. Who would stand to lose so much that they would sanction a murder to keep their secret? Probably someone in the pharmaceutical business. How is Dr. Kimble going to find the one-armed man? Well, he’s a doctor, he would understand something about the manufacture and distribution of prosthetic limbs, or at least he would know how to gain access to hospital records.

You see? By simply knowing who your protagonist is and what he wants, everything else begins to fall into place. Who is the US marshal pursuing Dr. Kimble? Well, if Dr. Kimble is single-minded in his goal, so should the US marshal. If Dr. Kimble is filled with moral outrage regarding his wife’s death, well, let’s make the marshal morally abstentious — make it that he literally doesn’t care if the doctor is guilty or not. That makes him a formidable adversary and will most likely win the actor who plays the character an Oscar.

Everything the protagonist does, everyone he meets, everyone who’s against him, everyone who helps him, should be, in some way, related to who he is and what he wants. This relationship can be literal, consonant, assonant, thematic or opposite, but the more you link every possible thing in the script to the protagonist and his goal the stronger your script will eventually be.

But we’re still not ready yet. What you need to do first is build your three-sentence act description into a three-page outline, a document that will give you a rough idea of the order of your scenes. This document should be very loose and informal — don’t worry about sentence structure or wording or anything like that, no one is ever going to see this document except you.

Break each act down into smaller sequences:

ACT I: Dr. Kimble’s wife is murdered, Dr. Kimble is brought in for questioning, Dr. Kimble is suspected of murder, Dr. Kimble is arrested, Dr. Kimble is tried, Dr. Kimble is convicted, Dr. Kimble is sentenced, Dr. Kimble is put on a bus and sent to prison, the bus is involved in a spectacular crash with a train, Dr. Kimble escapes and becomes a fugitive.

There, that’s ten narrative beats, that’s a goodly number for an act. It’s still just the broad strokes. And you do that for the other two acts as well. And you can try to work in the the cool beat ideas you’ve had. The bus crash — hey, maybe that’s how Dr. Kimble gets out of having to go to prison. The showdown at the dam, maybe that’s the scene when Dr. Kimble first meets his chief antagonist. The chase through the laundry, maybe that’s the final struggle between Dr. Kimble and his adversary. So forth.

The point of all this is that you don’t want to sit down and sweat through forty pages of screenplay and then suddenly realize you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Because if you sit down and sweat out forty pages of screenplay before you realize you’ve painted yourself into a corner, the temptation will be to try to come up with some absurd piece of dramaturgy that will miraculously allow you to move on and not have to go back and fix the first forty pages of your screenplay. The end result will be that, instead of spending a little time at the beginning of the process thinking out your outline, you will find yourself at the end of the process with a screenplay that doesn’t work.

You’re still not ready to start yet. Next, The Treatment.

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10 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: the Outline”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I just finished reading a biography of Alfred Hitchcock which described the process he went through on every one of his scripts. Especially on his early films, he used different writers at each stage of the process. One writer worked on the initial screenplay construction with him, which usually involved adapting material from another source. Another would flesh out the characters with him. Then he would engage a dialogue specialist to put words into their mouths. Finally he would go over the script shot by shot with yet another writer until he had it fully in his head. Then, and only then, would he think about stepping behind a camera.

    Hitchcock kept this working method pretty much intact until the mid-’50s, when he met John Michael Hayes and actually worked with Hayes exclusively on every step of the process for Rear Window. Writing with Hitchcock, which concentrates on Hitchcock’s four-film collaboration with Hayes, is highly recommended for anybody who wants to know how the Master of Suspense earned that title.

    • ndgmtlcd says:

      You’re saying that AH didn’t use storyboards at all until the mid-fifties? Text only?

      Which leads me to a question for Todd Alcott: In all the steps you’ve described here, you’re sticking to text only? No taking pics with camera phone? No rough sketching? No cutting and pasting found images (digital or other) in a scrapbook (digital or other) as things unfold?

  2. Anonymous says:

    So, to carry on from Cloverfield somewhat…

    Would you say there’s a definite link between the inciting incident and the protagonist’s goal? That one, in a sense, creates the other? I’m assuming that the goal here is “Dr. Kimble wants to clear his name”. If the inciting incident is being falsely accused, then it seems like the protag’s goal came out of that. Or is that just some of the time, but not necessarily a hard and fast rule?

    Also: I noticed that each sentence in the three-sentence outline is essentially the climax of that act. Admittedly, you say as much when you say “the energy flows towards” the act sentence, but calling it the climax… I don’t know, opened my eyes a little. Or is that also one of those things that may or may not be true, depending? That is, could there be an example of a three-sentence act outline where one or more of the sentences don’t refer to the climax of the act?

    • Anonymous says:

      D’oh! That was me, Kent M. Beeson again.

    • Todd says:

      The inciting incident in The Fugitive is that a guy breaks into Dr. Kimble’s apartment and murders his wife. The protagonist’s desire does rise from the inciting incident, but the incident itself does not have to be directly related to the protagonist’s goal. Ben-Hur, one of the great scripts of all time, has a tiny little inciting incident — Ben-Hur’s sister knocks a tile off the roof. From that tiny little accident, a gigantic series of ever-escalating events are set into motion, ending with the protagonist’s understanding of the nature of God. Incredible script.

      And yes, you could say that in a well-written three-sentence outline of a movie, each sentence builds to the climax of the act. The Fugitive has three very well-defined climaxes, which makes it a good model.

  3. dougo says:

    This is remarkably similar to How To Write a Computer Program.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    Thank you for posting these. I’m reading and adding them to memories, but don’t have anything insightful to say.

    I have actually written a treatment… turns out to be one of the last things I wrote that wasn’t for work or web.