Should you outline your screenplay?

How could you possibly come up with an intricate plot, juggle all those characters and motivations on the fly? The answer, most likely, is that you doesn’t. No one does. Because you should outline your stuff.

But you also shouldn’t.


Since the dawn of time, or at least since movies became a cultural mainstay about a hundred years ago, a debate has raged among industry professionals. There are fewer mediums as simultaneously free and rigid as the script for a movie or TV-show. And so, the question begs itself: To outline or not to outline? 


And I’m going to go ahead and spoil the article for you, there is no real answer. Despite what film schools and professors may tell you, there are pros and cons to both methods. Pretty much every writing course strongly recommends that you do outline your stuff, but surprisingly, successful screenwriters and authors seem to differ amongst themselves. So I thought we’d take a gander through the hall of fame of film, TV and literature to see what the biggest and baddest writers have to say. But first… 


What is outlining, anyway?

There are many different types of outlining. Broadly, you could describe it as the process of planning your story ahead of time, before starting a draft. For example, that may be done through what’s called a “beat sheet”, where each major event or sequence is written down and the transitions are left to the writer’s imagination. The concept was made famous by author and screenwriter Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat, and his website lists the beat sheets of a whole slew of famous films: https://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets-alpha


Other ways of outlining are writing in-depth character descriptions, planning out character arcs in advance, or simply writing and revising the story as a novella or book, which is a method used by both Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, First Reformed) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight).


Some outlining is obviously necessary in most stories. Very few people jump in completely blind, and every writer’s process differs slightly, but on the whole, those are the most widely used methods of outlining. Where the problem comes in is… well, I’ll let some people you might recognise lead us down that path.


In other(‘s) words…


In possibly the most famous piece of opposition against outlining ever written, On Writing, Stephen King notes: 


“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”


In researching this issue, this quote particularly surprised me. Not because of the strong language used, that’s to be expected from the author of It, Carrie, and The Stand, but because King’s books always seem so well planned when you read them. For the most part, at least. Take Cujo, for example. That book is one of the tightest I’ve ever read. Every single piece of the story mentioned in the first half comes into play in the second. All the puzzle pieces fall perfectly into place. And yet, King proudly proclaims himself to be a “pantser”.


Authors and screenwriters who don’t put stock in outlining often choose to call themselves either “pantsers” or “gardeners”. Instead of planning ahead on a sheet or post-it notes, they writing “flying by the seat of their pants”, or let the story grow, like a gardener her flowers and trees. 


“I’m a storyteller. And the stories emerge from some place that is beat sheet-proof. […] Why would I take all the fun out of discovering [the story]?” 

– Larry Wilson (Beetlejuice, The Addams Family)


Another author, you may be surprised to learn, proclaims himself a gardener and not a planner, is George R.R. Martin. Yes. A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t outlined. That’s surprising, isn’t it? Yeah. I could hardly believe it when I first read it. How could he possibly come up with all that intricate plot, juggle all those characters and motivations on the fly?


The answer, most likely, is that he doesn’t. No one does. Because you should outline your stuff.


But you also shouldn’t.


What the hell am I talking about?

The thing about screenplays are that they usually are built up by a very rigid structure and very clear puzzle pieces that have to come together in a certain order. The inciting incident, rising action, the second act point. For that reason, most screenplays that aren’t deliberately outlined quickly turn into downward spirals of plot threads that don’t go anywhere and confused character motivations. 


But that isn’t necessarily true. Screenplays don’t have to follow that structure. They don’t have to do anything. It all depends on the story you’re telling. Many, if not a majority of the best films ever made break more screenwriting rules than they adhere to.

That being said, you shouldn’t do that. But you also should. Do whatever you want, as long as you can do it with confidence. To break the rules, you need to know them. Stephen King, who is so against outlining, also said you have to write about a million words before you become an okay writer. If you write enough, the rules will come naturally to you and you’ll know how to navigate disobeying them. 

In the meantime, when writing those million words you need before it all comes naturally, outlines are a great help. Why? Well, for one, they are basically the antidote to Writer’s Block. There’s really no excuse to get lost when the entire story is laid out in front of you. 


What I do

And with that, I’m done telling you what to do. As compensation, I thought I might  expose my own foolish method before we go. I’ve written a handful screenplays, the overwhelming majority either unfinished, terrible or both. I’m 18 years old. I don’t know anything. And that’s the biggest reason I had for choosing to frame this article by using the words of people who actually know what they’re talking about.


Then, what’s my method?


Well, when I first started writing scripts, I had no method. Without any sort of outline, I would write pages and pages of laughably meaningless discount-Tarantino drivel. So many pages in fact, that I got 93 pages into my first feature length screenplay before I realised I was only about halfway through the second act. So I quit. That happened two, three more times before I realised I had to change something. 


As a change of pace, I thoroughly outlined the next script. Or, rather, I tried to at least. I spent weeks planning ahead, anticipating every hiccup or storytelling roadblock I might come upon on my travels to the mythical “The End” prompt we all strive toward…


Then I disregarded everything I’d written and came up with a method that, surprisingly, kinda works. Here’s a five-step list.


Step 1: I jot down a chaotic mess of notes, ideas and half-formed images that may turn into something later on. 


Step 2: Read through those notes until I have some idea of where I want to go. 


Step 3: Spend weeks being terrified about actually starting.


Step 4: Write the entire first act (25-40 pages), without any outline, while also inserting the beginnings of plot threads as they come to me.


Step 5: Read through that, go back to my notes, read through it again, and then throroughly outline the rest of the script.


What’s my reasoning behind this? It goes into what I think are the upsides and downsides of outlining. It is my firm belief that you do not truly know your characters until you actually begin writing. In the spur of the moment, a million things might happen, and you might realise things about your protagonist you would’ve never thought of, despite how much you outline. This is especially true at the start of a screenplay. 


Because of that, the method that works best for me involves spending 30-ish pages seeing how my characters react once I place them inside their stories, what they do when faced with difficult decisions. 


“Let your characters talk to each other and do things. Spend time with them — they’ll tell you who they are and what they’re up to.” – Greta Gerwig. 


In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch points out that you “never really understand a person until you see things from their point of view… Until you climb in their skin and walk around in it”. And that’s what I do. I write the first act and use it as an opportunity to climb in their skin and walk around in it.


It is affectionately named the “Buffalo Bill” method. 


To Summarise…

Outlining is good. Outlining is great. Outlining is crucial. Outlining is not necessary. It all depends on the story. Many people claim outlining is limiting their creativity, others disagree. Really, it all depends on what you find most comfortable. Truly, the only surefire way to find out which method works for you is to try both and everything in between. My personal recommendation is that you learn how to outline even if you don’t plan to use it. Learning the elements of storytelling and the structure of a screenplay is essential to writing anything worthwhile. 


Thanks for listening. To end as we began, here’s a quote from Alfred Hitchcock. 


“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”


Hello, and welcome to the part of the article where the article is over. Congratulations on making it all the way down here, cause it turns out I had a bit to say. 


Anyway, as a price for making it all the way down here, here’s the first page of the first feature script I ever wrote. You’ll remember it as the one I wrote 93 pages of before admitting that I was only halfway through and that most of it had been pointless. 


I was 13 or 14 years old and the script was called Interview with the Damned. Most of it is garbage, but honestly, this first page isn’t half bad. Enjoy!

actbuffalo billmethodmoviesoutlinescreenplayscriptwriting

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