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How to Outline Your Screenplay, Phase 2

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting
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When writers tell me they can’t finish their screenplays, one of the most common reasons is that they feel overwhelmed by the process. They say they’re stuck because they aren’t sure they’re ready to move onto the next step, from outlining to notecarding, or from notecarding to pages.

How do you know if what you have is good enough?

The first thing to accept is that there is no right or best way. There is only what gets your story on the page.

The second thing to accept is that writing isn’t a linear process. You’ll always revisit and adjust as you discover and develop your story.

Embrace “good enough for now.”

But knowing there’s no right way doesn’t give you much direction, does it? It doesn’t help you narrow down your options, or give you a jumping off point.

So in this series, I’m giving you a peek at my own process. Not that it’s the only or best way to do it. But it’s one way, and it’s worked for me. Use what you want from it, discard the rest.

Outline Your Screenplay

Build a strong story spine

After last week’s How to Outline Your Screenplay, Phase 1 post, you have a bunch of notes, answers to story questions, and ideas you want to remember to work into your screenplay. And all of it is organized into the 3 or 4 major sections of your story.

From here, it’s time to identify the plot points that will create a spine for your story. For me, these are:

  • Catalyst
  • Break into Act 2
  • Midpoint
  • Low Point
  • Break into Act 3
  • Final Battle

A quick description of each of these points would add up to the entire story in a nutshell.

What I’m thinking about when identifying each of these points is both what’s happening in the plot – what the event is – and how it’s affecting the main character, tying into the character arc, and/or how the character is reacting to it. Essentially, why the event is meaningful in the story.

Once you’re happy with that spine of your story, you’re ready to go to the next step.

Springboards & Sequences

I like to look at the story in 8 sequences. Not every story fits into this pattern, but it’s a good starting point. Begin here, but hold it loosely. Be willing to adjust as you discover more about your story. Sometimes learning what doesn’t work is just as important as – and leads you to – what does work.

*A note: This is how I think of the geography of a story that I’m developing. But it is strictly a development tool, not a standard I impose on script analysis.

So, each quarter of the screenplay is made up of 2 sequences. Each sequence ends in a springboard, which launches the next sequence. (Except the final sequence, which ends the movie.)

A screenplay structure map

A map of this story geography would look like this:

screenplay plot point sequence structure chart

Putting your screenplay structure together

You can see that some of these springboards are plot points you’ve already figured out. You can fill in those blanks quite easily.

The sequences in between those points form a bridge, to take us from one springboard to the next. In the case of Sequence 1, you’ll want to think about where your character is when the story begins, the “normal world” that will be interrupted by the Catalyst.

At this step of your outline, we’re looking for a simple description of the action that occurs in the 10-15 pages of each sequence. What the character is trying to do, or the mini-goal they’re trying to achieve.

Feeling at a loss? Remember to refer back to the notes you have from last week. Take each large section of story, and see if you can summarize what’s happening. Describe how one plot point or springboard propels the next section of story, which results in the next spring board. Look also for events that can serve as the additional springboards – the ones that aren’t already filled in as plot points.

Springboards & Sequences in The Ring

If you were writing a movie like The Ring, at this point your outline would look something like this:

ACT 1:

  • Sequence 1: Single mom Rachel, an investigative journalist, and her young son, Aidan, try to cope with the sudden and mysterious death of Aidan’s teenage cousin, Katie.
  • Catalyst / SB 1: Katie’s mom implores Rachel to investigate Katie’s death, tapping into Rachel’s feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
  • Sequence 2: Rachel learns of several more related deaths, and — though skeptical — tracks down a “cursed” videotape that is rumored to be the cause.
  • Break into Act 2 / SB 2: Rachel watches the tape. She receives a phone call, warning her that she has seven days to live.

ACT 2A:

  • Sequence 3: Rachel attempts to find if and how the tape could possibly be a real threat.
  • Springboard 3: Rachel visits the lone survivor from Katie’s group of friends, Becca, and finds her nearly comatose in a mental institution. But Becca flips out at the sight of a TV. She finally speaks: “Four days.” Shaken, Rachel is now convinced the curse is real.
  • Sequence 4: Rachel races against time to research the images on the tape in order to track its origin. The tape begins to break through to torment Rachel’s real world.
  • Midpoint / SB 4: Aidan watches the videotape, and now he’s cursed too! Now Rachel has to solve the mystery in order to save not only herself, but her son.

ACT 2B:

  • Sequence 5: Rachel follows the clues on the tape to the Morgan family, and learns they had a daughter.
  • Springboard 5: Rachel discovers the picture that Aidan drew for her is of the Morgans’ house — a place he’s never seen. When asked, Aidan reveals “the girl” told him to draw it.
  • Sequence 6: Rachel investigates the Morgans’ daughter and learns she had “visions” which hurt people. She was kept in an institution where her interview sessions were videotaped. Rachel follows the clues to a remote location.
  • Low Point + Break into Act 3 / SB 6: Rachel’s reached a dead end and has run out of time. Her death is imminent. But a last minute clue is uncovered. There’s one more thing to try…

ACT 3:

  • Sequence 7: Rachel follows the clues into an underground well, finds the girl’s skeleton, and communes with the dead girl to give her closure. Rachel doesn’t die.
  • Springboard 7: Just when Rachel thinks it’s all over, Aidan reveals it’s not! Rachel realizes her son’s life is still in danger.
  • Sequence 8: Rachel finds out the real reason the curse didn’t kill her — she made a copy of the tape and passed it on. To save her son, she helps him do the same.

As you can see, these are pretty broad descriptions. There are a lot of details I’ve left out, including a major character! And that’s okay at this phase. You’re building your story house piece by piece. Focus on the main character at first.


This isn’t a linear process — but that can be a good thing. If you accept this, it takes the pressure off. You don’t have to complete each step perfectly. In fact, there’s no such thing.

The process almost can’t be linear, and that means that you have plenty of opportunities to adjust, rethink, and improve along the way. Just keep moving forward with the next small step.

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ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Writing a screenplay? Pitching a project? Start with the Work Your Logline worksheet. Enter your email address below and get it delivered straight to your inbox!

100% privacy guaranteed.