A script outline is a screenwriters best friend. Not only is it the basic structure of a feature or short film, it gives the writer a chance to fix plot holes, attack multiple angles, monitor length, spark creativity and serve as a layout for beats and act turns.
While some screenwriters write strictly from passion, most find it necessary to have a outline. The notecard method makes outlining easy and can take the intimidation out of tackling a screenplay.
Note: For this outlining method, I follow Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet for structure purposes.
For each beat, I write it in the top corner of the notecard and highlight it.
Step 1. Get a stack of notecards. Colored notecards work great for dividing between the 3 Acts. From there, designate a large space to layout the notecards. If you don’t have a big enough desk, I suggest getting some painters tape and putting the notecards on the wall or closet doors.
Make sure you have enough space to layout out notecards in accordance to the 3 acts. The purpose is to not have to stack or overlap your notecard, but to have them each laid out with their own space.
Step 2. Decide how many beats you want in your script. For feature-length scripts, there are about 15 beats. For a short script, it varies depending on the intended length. Then, write your beats out on the top corner of your notecard.
Don’t fill in any other information yet since this step is only about assigning the card where the beat will go. To emphasize this, highlight the beat.
Step 2. Act 1. For each scene you want in Act 1, write it on a notecard. This is where you include the scene header, minimal action lines, and any dialogue that pops into mind.
I tend to write the beat notecards first. In Act 1, the beats I choose are the opening image, theme, inciting incident, and the break into act 2. Once I get those first 4 notecards done, I move to the rest of Act 1.
After I complete a notecard, in the bottom right corner, I number what scene it is. This is so that the notecards can never get out-of-order. However, only use a PENCIL to number the scenes because they will most likely change in later steps.
TIP. Whether you believe you should have 10 notecards per act like Blake Snyder does or 14 notecards like Syd Field does, make sure all your acts feel complete but not overstuffed before moving on. Have in mind how many pages you want your final draft to be and then be mindful of that when building your scenes.
Step 3. The best way to tackle the depths of Act 2 is by breaking it into two parts. Act 2 part 1 should be from the beginning of the act to midpoint (around page 55) and act 2 part 2 should be from midpoint to the end of the act.
Breaking it down this way makes it much easier to tackle the 60+ pages. However, if you don’t want to break act 2 into two parts, just remember that by the midpoint of the story, it should take a turn and raise the stakes.
Step 4. From here, outlining your 3rd act should be a breeze. Remember, Act 3 is all about resolution. This is the time to wrap everything up and solve all the problems your protagonist has faced to this point.
Step 5. Now here is the best part. Repeat! Just like you rewrite a script, you should rewrite your outline. Don’t settle on the first draft. Work on it until you see no more problems.
This is the time to cut out weak and unnecessary scenes, add in transitions, get rid of pointless characters and so on. The purpose of an outline is to get everything out of your head and put right in front of you. Now that it’s all there, don’t be afraid to make changes.
TIP. Be honest with yourself. If you feel bored reading through your notecards, that’s a sign the pacing is off. If you have an excessive amount of scenes,start cutting them out. If you realize you have too many characters, combine them. If your act 3 doesn’t tie up all loose ends presented in act one, tie them up. By having a strong notecard outline, your writing process will be more focused and smoother. So, take your time and work on creating a really strong outline.
Step 6. After you’ve made the final changes to your outline, visualize every scene you have. Basically, you want to ‘watch your movie’ by reading each scene back to back. After all, you have an entire movie right in front of you. If you enjoy what you read, great! That means it’s finally time to write. If you feel like it could be better, revise step 5 and make the necessary changes.