Idea to Outline Step #2

9 foundation elements, a logline, and 5 plot points


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting
screenplay outlining process blog

If you’re working alongside me in this Idea to Outline process, you’ve taken the time to explore your screenplay concept through some free-writing, and have brain-dumped everything you know about it right now – including what about the idea inspires you, moves you emotionally, or feels connected to your worldview in some way.

In this post – Step #2 – we’ll begin to develop and shape your idea. We’re slowly but surely moving toward writing the screenplay. Ready? Here we go.

And by the way, I’m sneaking three parts into this step:

1. 9 foundation elements
2. A logline
3. 5 plot points

9 foundation elements

There are certain essential elements that form the foundation of your screenplay. Maybe because they feel so basic, they can be taken for granted or shortchanged. You might be surprised to know that most of the notes readers give on screenplays relate in some way to one of these elements.

Since a strong foundation makes building the rest of your screenplay easier, and so many other decisions you’ll make about your screenplay will stem from these foundation elements, we want to start working them out now, early in the process.

Here are the 9 foundation elements you’ll want to identify:

1. Protagonist: Who is the main character?
– For example, a young, female FBI trainee

2. Goal: What is the protagonist trying to achieve by the end of this movie?
– Catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill

3. Antagonist or Opposition: What’s the main thing stopping the protagonist from achieving that goal?
– Buffalo Bill, who wants to remain at large

4. Action: What does the protagonist do in pursuit of his/her goal? (A broad-strokes description is fine for now, i.e. plan and execute a heist, race across town before the aliens arrive, etc.)
– Accept help from notorious psychopath Hannibal Lecter in order to get into the mind of Buffalo Bill and track him down

5. Stakes: What happens if the main character fails to achieve his/her goal?
– The Senator’s daughter, Catherine, will die

6. Genre and Tone: What does the movie feel like?
– Thriller (Plus I’d come up with a couple of comparison movies to identify the tone)

7. & 8. Character change: How does the character transform? This occupies two of the points on the list because we want to think about the change in terms of the protagonist’s starting world view / belief system / way of thinking (Point A) and ending world view / belief system / way of thinking (Point Z). There should be a clear change, but it doesn’t have to be a big change.
– Point A: fears she’s too weak
– Point Z: knows she’s strong enough and capable enough to protect others

9. Climax: At the end of the movie, who does the protagonist battle and generally what happens? Hint: It’s probably going to be the Antagonist. Once this battle is fought, the movie is basically over.
– Clarice follows her instincts to discover Buffalo Bill’s lair, where she confronts him without backup, kills him, and saves the victim

You want to firm up these elements as much as you can, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of done. Do what you can. But know you can always change your mind later.

A logline

The kind of logline I’m talking about is the one you’ll use as a development tool. (As opposed to the kind you might want to use to pitch your project later.) Since this logline is a part of your development process and for internal use only, you can aim for clarity over cleverness, and stop worrying about spoiling the ending for anyone, okay?

And, good news: you probably have all the elements you need for your logline. Because they’re in the 9 foundation elements. Which you totally worked out already, right?

Here’s what you need:

  • Protagonist
  • Goal (and the action, method, or plan, if significantly different from the goal itself)
  • Opposition
  • Stakes (optional, but helpful)

At the risk of sending you away before you complete this step, I think this article about how and why to write a logline is pretty helpful (if I do say so myself). But the bare minimum you need to know is: take those elements I called out above and put them into a coherent sentence or two. That’s your development logline. The goal is to clearly and concisely convey the movie.

For our example, it might be something like:

A young, female FBI trainee must befriend a notorious incarcerated psychopath and use his knowledge to track and stop an active serial killer before his latest victim is murdered.

How does this break down into the elements?

  • “A young, female FBI trainee” = protagonist
  • “…to stop an active serial killer” = the goal, and “befriend a notorious incarcerated psychopath” = the action or method
  • The opposition is implied in the person the protagonist is trying to catch, and there’s also nice conflict in the idea of a law enforcement official befriending a criminal
  • “…before his latest victim is murdered” = stakes

Is it the catchiest logline you’ve ever read? No, definitely not and that’s okay. All I’m trying to do is give you a good sense of the story and what you’ll see on screen once you’re in the theater, while balancing specificity with brevity.

5 plot points

You may already know more about your story than these five points, and if you do – that’s great. Just hold onto the other stuff for a minute and let’s figure out the four big turning points of the story + the outcome.

Why those five things?

We’re talking about the major turning points, meaning the points at which the story will most likely (and should, for a dynamic story) turn in a new direction. You have to know the turns to know the shape, right?

And the fifth thing we want to know is the outcome, because if your story is intended to hit a particular target, it’s really helpful to know where that target is, right?

So that’s the final part of this development step — try to figure out these five points in your story.

And here’s a quick primer on what you’re aiming for with each one:

1. Catalyst – Introduces the story’s main conflict, which boils down to presenting a problem or an opportunity that the protagonist has to contend with.

2. Break into 2 – The start of the “Act 2 Adventure”. In many movies it’s recognizable because the protagonist establishes his/her story goal and embarks on a plan for achieving it at this point.

3. Midpoint – Raises the stakes and/or increases the opposition, and by doing so it injects new tension or energy into the story. It’s like rocket fuel to push us through the rest of Act 2.

4. Break into 3 – Usually at this point the protagonist is either embarking on a new plan to achieve his/her goal, or has identified a new version of their goal to pursue. Either way, the “new” is a result of what they’ve experienced and learned over the course of the story.

5. Climax – The main character’s final confrontation with the primary obstacle. This is the battle that determines the outcome of the war, once and for all. Will the protagonist attain the goal? This is where we get the answer, yes or no. And once it’s answered the movie is essentially over. (After this, there will probably be a bit of wrap-up to bring a feeling of closure and satisfaction. But that’s about it.)

If you know these five plot points, you’ll have a really good grasp on the big-picture shape of your story.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to discover these plot points in chronological order. Start with what you know, and use that to help you find the others. (And by the way – you’ve already narrowed in on a couple of these in the nine foundation elements above.)

Okay—so that’s a lot for Step #2. But I hope you can see how each smaller part is manageable and they all build on each other, which eases the process.

Another nice thing about working in baby steps is that if you feel dissatisfied at any point, you can back up to the previous one and re-think things without feeling like you’re losing too much ground. One of the reasons this is my preferred method of teasing out an idea.

So go forth and shape your story! If you have questions, come post them in the Screenplay Lab Facebook group. You’ll get input from me and other like-minded screenwriters. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.