Screenplay Outlining Tips From 8 Professional Screenwriters

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Professional screenwriters share their tips for outlining screenplays.

Mark Sanderson – Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: What does an outline look like?

Mark Sanderson, screenwriter and author: Well, for me on these assignments that I do they are usually 10 or 12 pages. It’s the entire story, treatment and it’s not just line-by-line. I mean there are some outlines that it’s just a line, literally. But for television they’re 8 acts, so everything has to be broken down. But I write it as a story, so if you were to sit down and read it, you’d be reading the story of the movie, which I think is essential to create, in fact I’ve had friends that do this “Oh, I’m just going to sit down and I have the vague idea and I’m just going to write.”

And I’m like “You’ll be lost in the barren wasteland of Act 2. With no water, you’ll be in the desert lost and you’ll wonder how you’re going to trudge through the 75-pages or whatever.” I’m a huge advocate of starting outlines before starting writing and I know it’s probably 50, 60, 70 percent of the work because it makes the load a lot easier and you can write a faster screenplay if you have an outline.

Now that doesn’t say there is no room for changes or improvising, but if you don’t have a solid roadmap going in…it’s almost like a pre-draft of a first draft. And I’m not an advocate of what people say the vomit draft or just spill it out. But I don’t have the luxury of spilling it out on my assignment jobs, I don’t. I really have to turn in (let’s say on a ten scale) turn in probably an eight…an eight out of ten…because I’m now holding up development and I’ve also done rewrites on other screenwriter’s work/projects that means that the script that they had went through multiple drafts and still is not there. And they have a buyer, they have network who is waiting on the script and so I’ve also been hired to do rewrite job where I can come in. But it’s like a page one rewrite where the script that you have you can’t use any of it. The names yes, the concept yes but you basically…but that’s something that I’ve learned how to do, which is good because there is a lot of rewrite work out there and some writers look down on it…(Watch the video on Youtube here)

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“I’ll have a really specific idea of the objective of every single scene and ultimately it saves me time.”

Adam Skelter – Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Adam do you outline every story that you write?

Adam Skelter, writer, director, story artist: Yeah…I’m pretty thorough with outlining. I’ll spend quite a bit of time outlining before I even write the full…like I’ll usually have a complete full outline and then jump into the story. So I’ll have a really specific idea of the objective of every single scene and ultimately it saves me time.

When I first started writing I was anti-outline. I kind of had the attitude, you know the young attitude I’m just going to write and my gut’s going to tell me what’s right and what’s meaningful and stuff like that and that works for a lot of writers.

But I noticed I hit a lot of dead ends and I became emotionally attached to those dead ends and then it became very hard to rewrite and then it drove my stories off the cliff.

And so little by little, (honestly that Ron Mita 24-plot-point-thing) was huge because it was so simple. You could literally just sit there and plot out a story in an hour and you could have a really good idea about where it was going. And then from there…for me that’s where you go from discovering your story to actually becoming a craftsman (or craftsperson), where you are working on the story and start to take control of it and you take a step back. It’s almost like a render machine, you’re rendering your story before you ever sit down and write it. So then the script really just becomes kind of like secondary artifact of all the work you’ve put into it. So yeah, I spend a lot of time outlining…(Watch the video on Youtube here).

“When I’m writing for other people, I do whatever it takes to make them comfortable with it, which normally involves an outline.”

Blayne Weaver – Watch the video interview here on Youtube

Film Courage:  Can we talk about outlining…do you prepare an outline before you write?

Blayne Weaver, actor, screenwriter, director I’d rather not. But usually that’s required for the job. Like if I am getting paid for it, they’ll want to know…these days to get hired to write a script you pretty much have to write the script, like you have to write a 35-page outline for a 90-page script and turn it in before you can get hired to write the script. So when I’m writing for other people, I do whatever it takes to make them comfortable with it, which normally involves an outline.

For me, it’s kind of like…I’m not a musician, but I feel like it’s just jazz. I feel when it’s time for a change, I can feel when we need to know more about a character. It’s very (my way of working) it’s very artificial to say “At this point on page 12 we need to learn that Charlie has a secret.” You know what I mean? Because I don’t know what the secret is? Do I make it up now? Or do I wait until I get to know who Charlie is? You know, write that in. And I feel like the music of it, I just know on page 12 that maybe there is something he’s not sharing with us, maybe it’s this?

It’s just way more organic and I feel like it flows. A lot of times with outlines I’ll find when I’m writing the actual script I won’t feel it going the way that the outline was, you know what I mean? So it’s either I do something false. Writing for me (a lot of times), especially the rewrite process for other’s people’s work, is taking a round peg and putting it into a square hole. It’s like here’s a movie…(this is an actual true story) I had written a film that was a beach, sports, kind of romantic comedy that was set in Thailand. The note I got from the studio was “Great. Love it! Only now it’s in Bulgaria and it’s Christmas.” So my rewrite was to completely and utterly change the entire scenery and what’s happening right now.  Round peg, square hole and it’s like a Rubik’s Cube kind of problem. It doesn’t necessarily lead to good writing. Like when you’re trying to problem solve instead of telling the most compelling story, that’s what I hate about outlining. Like being pushed into a corner by some random decision I made three months ago when I was just trying to make people feel comfortable about what the movie was going to be, does that make sense? I can ramble about it for the next two hours because it’s something that I struggle with a lot…(Watch the video on Youtube here).

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“You feel these characters and you put them in this situation that they are going to have to fight for their lives to get out of.”

Larry Wilson – Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Can you talk us through how you make a beat sheet?

Larry Wilson, screenwriter BEETLEJUICE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE ADDAMS FAMILY: I don’t. I don’t. I will if contractually obliged to doing a beat sheet or an outline, I will do it. And sometimes you are and what usually happens is you spend all this time on this beat sheet and this outline and it’s the most bastardized thing in the world because it’s not a script, it’s not a story, it’s this thing that exists halfway between a script and a story. But I will do it if contractually obliged to, I’ll do an outline and I’ll do a very detailed outline and I’ll do it always to the best of my abilities, I won’t slum but I’ll do it and hand it in and the producers will go “We love this outline! This is a great outline. Now go write the script.”

And you’ll go write the script and you’ll have your outline and you’ll say “Okay, here’s what the outline is telling me” and you start writing and it will immediately start changing and better ideas will emerge and the next thing you know the outline is completely out the window and you’ve written a script and you’ll turn it in and the producers will go “We love this! This is just like the outline.” And everyone has forgotten the outline and I know again, my beat sheet is obviously…you kind of know the beginning. You know you’re putting your characters and you feel these characters and you put them in this situation that they are going to have to fight for their lives to get out of.

I kind of know what the end is going to be (kind of sort of) and then it’s the great unknown and to do that in a beat sheet to me it’s just taking all the fun out of it.

So don’t listen to me, listen to all the other people out there who say outline, beat sheets. Please, if that’s what you need to do and there’s great writers who do that, of course they do that. And sometimes when you’re collaborating it becomes more necessary because you’re sending stuff. But for me, they don’t work for me and any time I do them everything starts changing anyways so much that they quickly become irrelevant.

Film Courage: Why don’t they work for you?…(Watch the video on Youtube here).

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“I’ll write out a premise line, like the foundation of the script.”

Gary Goldstein – Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage:  Can you take us through your outlining process?

Gary Goldstein, screenwriter and playwright:  Sure.  Generally I’ll start with the premise line. I’ll write out a premise line, like the foundation of the script.  A couple of sentences that begin from start to finish. Then I’ll expand that into (I don’t know) two, three, four pages and sort of write it in sections.  So basically (if it’s movie), I’ll divide it into three acts but they are more in quarters. So it’s like the equivalent of quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter, which takes me through the 4 quarters or three acts of the movie.  One of the things that happens (for me) when I start writing an outline (Watch the video on Youtube here).

Barrington Smith Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn – Watch the video on Youtube here

Film Courage: I was looking at another talented screenwriter’s site and her name is Shelley Gustavson. And she says in this one article “There are stories that you figure out and then write. And then there are stories that you figure out as you write them.” Any thoughts?

Barrington Smith Seetachitt, screenwriter: Oh…that’s interesting. Stories that you figure out and write. Or stories that you figure out as you write them…

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, author and screenwriter: I think that’s true both for my work as a journalist and a screenwriter. I can go into an interview believing that it’s going to go one way and it turns out to be an entirely new thing. [This] is a little off topic but I remember when 9/11 happened and I was supposed to have interviewed John Schneider at that time. He was Superman…

Barrington Smith Seetachitt: Father…

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn: He was the father of Superman.

Barrington Smith Seetachitt: Smallville…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

Danny Strong – Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage:  When do you start writing everyday?

Danny Strong, screenwriter, director and actor: So I have basically the same pattern when I’m writing. Sometimes if I’m in production it will change.  But if I’m just in a writing phase (which is my favorite to be honest with you because I love my schedule as a writer) I wake up, I go somewhere, have breakfast and usually I can go somewhere and write and then I’ll open my computer…so now it’s around 10:30…(Watch the video on Youtube here).

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