HOW TO OUTLINE AN EFFECTIVE SCREENPLAY
There is no magic formula when it comes to structuring your screenplay, however there are some essential items you should include. When I go to write a script, I start with a very basic idea and outline to see where it goes. I start with genre, add a character and then figure out the adventure I take them on. From these elements, I’m able to build out the story.
After identifying genre, character and adventure, I set a 25% goal for my character to work towards and build it out. The 25% mark gets your character on the adventure and into the actual story that is being told. This gives us some direction and a better understanding of what the story is and who is in it.
As I outline my way to that 25% mark, I fill my story with several characters outside of my main character which was established early on. This helps bring the story to life but I need to give these characters qualities so I know who they are and how they will interact with each other throughout. This is the most important part of the process.
Character work can seem daunting but there’s a simple technique you can use to help build them out quickly. I like to call this, the game of opposites. Starting with the main character, figure out their flaws and a few characteristics. Also think about your adventure and give them a quality that plays against that adventure. For example, if the adventure is a love story, maybe your character has commitment issues.
Once you finish work on the main character, move onto the other players. Work on their characteristics but try to make them opposite of the main character. Again, if your main character has commitment issues, then his love interest doesn’t. If your character is afraid of heights, the love interest isn’t. If the main character is an introvert, the love interest is an extrovert.
With our characters built out, we can work through the second act of our outline.
At this point I typically set a 50% goal and work towards it. I keep in mind that I need to move my character towards the goal and slowly away from their flaws. I also consider the ending. If I want a happy ending, I set a 50% goal that’s also something good and happy. If I want a sad ending, I set my 50% goal as something bad for my character.
After working to my 50% goal, the job gets easier. I develop out any new characters that may show up and then set a 75% goal. Again, I must keep in mind that we are moving away from the flaws and towards the goal. If it’s a happy story, then the 75% mark is sad or ends on a down note. Opposite if it’s a sad story.
Outlining to 75%, we either need to hit rock bottom or touch the heavens. In a happy story, you need to seem as though your character lost and will NEVER achieve their goal. Opposite holds true for a sad story. This is all to set up the audience for an emotional wave, overcoming them in act 3.
As we reach act 3, your character has officially overcome their flaws and won the day. It’s time to wrap this thing up and hand the gift off to the audience.
I set my act 3 goal, again keeping in mind whether it's a happy or sad story, and work towards it. The other thing we need to remember is answering any questions that might still be out there. We don’t want to leave any gaps in our story that shouldn’t be there. It’s time to make the story complete.
The simple steps above are exactly how I approach outlining a screenplay. Upon finishing the outline, I determine any modifications I want to make to the story and finalize the idea. If I like it, I write the script. If I hate it, I start over!
The steps are listed below.
Set genre, character, adventure
Outline to 25%, getting us to the adventure
Outline to 50%, moving away from flaws and keeping in mind happy vs. sad story
Outline to 75%, overcoming flaws and keeping in mind happy vs. sad story
Outline to completion, answering any last questions
If the above remains unclear, you can get a more in depth look as I walk through the process, step by step, in my screenwriting seminar.
Do you have a similar method? How do you approach an outline? I’d love to hear about your methods in the comments!