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Five Reasons the Outline Should Serve as the Foundation for Your Screenplay

There is so much more to writing a screenplay than just writing the screenplay. Before you ever get to writing scenes and dialogue, you need to spend hours and pages writing treatments and character biographies and answering series of questions on tone and mood, and just figuring out what kind of story you want to tell. Indeed, if you’re writing your screenplay properly, you’ll spend way more time doing the preparation than actually writing the screenplay. However, out of all of the prep work you can do, the most important thing to write before you write your script is an outline.

Treatments are great, and they certainly serve a purpose, though I’ve always believed that treatments are just as much external than internal. By that I mean that writing a treatment is providing a way to tell the story in prose form, and giving you a quick way to tell the story to someone without having to have them go through the exercise of reading the whole script. It’s also a good way to see in a big-picture if your story is working and how it flows before committing to writing it out in its entirety. However, an outline is just as effective, if not more so, in that regard than is a treatment. In fact, here are five reasons that an outline is the best of both worlds when it comes to developing your story.

1. You can easily see the pacing of your story.

An outline is a shorthand way to see your entire story. You can see right away how well the story is paced. You can clearly see if there are too many dramatic scenes in a row without and comic relief or action to break them up. If you write out your outline on note cards, you can change the order of scenes to experiment with the pacing to see if the story would work better that way. If the scene order is crucial, you can re-envision the scenes so that the way you tell those pieces of the story improve the pacing of the overall story.

2. You can easily see your story’s structure.

Having strong and clear dramatic structure, especially for undiscovered writers who are trying to break into the industry with a spec script, is essential. If you’re shooting to have 25-30 scenes in your script (which you should be), you’ll be able to see that your target for ending Act 1 will be around scenes 5-7, the stakes in Act 2 should be raised around scenes 12-15 and Act 3 should begin by scenes 20-25.

3. You can easily see how each scene moves the story forward.

In relation to example #2, you’ll be able to see if the adventure is beginning, the stakes are being raised and the hero loses everything in the appropriate scenes. Also, you’ll be able to easily look at the scenes of the story and see which scenes are moving the forward story and which scenes are not. You can then make a decision of those scenes can be reworked or should be cut before you waste a lot of time writing them.

4. You can easily see important places for character moments.

Your story should ultimately be tracking the growth and/or character arc of your main character. When the entire story is there in front if you, you can quickly see where those character moments are and if they’re happening in appropriate places.

5. Ultimately the outline will save you time.

The outline allows you to see your entire story all at once. Combining the four reasons above leads to the overall realization that you can see your entire story at once. It allows you to see what’s working and what isn’t before you spend a lot of time writing scenes that might ultimately have to be cut. It allows your first draft to at least have the core of your story in place so that the your rewrites shouldn’t have to include major story changes.

Now, with all of that said, I should point out that you won’t be able to solve all of your scripts problems in an outline. Some of them just won’t be apparent until you actually write out all of the scenes and see where the story actually goes. However, an outline will show you the obvious flaws in your story so that those can be corrected and your later drafts will be about improving what you have rather than reconceiving what isn’t working.

Do you have a story that is in the outline stage, and you need it evaluated? We can evaluate your outline and let you know what to look for in terms of what’s working in your story and what isn’t. If you’ve already moved on to a treatment or are¬†writing pages in your screenplay, we can help with that as well. Click the link below to see a list of our services.



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