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Idea to Outline Step #5

Completing the scene list and how much outlining is enough

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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting
screenplay outline blog

Let’s talk about options.

In this series I’ve been laying out a typical process you could use to develop a screenplay idea into a full outline. But that doesn’t mean this is the only process, or the “right” one. The best process is the one that helps you make progress.

How much you “need” to know before you begin writing the draft is up to you. I’m showing a pretty thorough pre-writing process, but that’s not for everyone. And I’ve said this before, but why not say it again: we all do the same amount of work in the end, but where in the process you do it is up to your personal preference.


So at this point in our step-by-step, we’ve started organizing all of our ideas for plot and character into eight “buckets” using sequences and springboards as our guide.

Looking at this 8-part map of the story, it definitely looks rough and full of speed bumps and potholes. But the path is there. Each of the eight sections contains good stuff that will move the plot and develop the characters. The goal of the next step is to tighten up each individual chunk and smooth the flow from beginning to end.

From a collection of beats to a scene list

Continuing from the Game Night example we started in the last step, if I had finished out the process of translating sequence description into story beats and organizing relationship beats into the sequences as well, I might have something like this for sequence 4:

  • Max, Annie, and friends break into couples and begin to play, pursuing different leads and trying to solve the “case”, which they still think is all a game.
  • Annie gets first hint from Max he’s worried about losing their freedom if they have a kid.
  • Kevin learns when Michelle’s tryst occurred.
  • Max and Annie decide to track Brooks’s iphone.
  • Ryan and Jillian decide to track down the company that arranged the game.
  • Jillian realizes Ryan only invited her because he needed a ringer; it’s not a date.
  • Kevin tries to find out who Michelle’s celebrity tryst was with.
  • Kevin and Michelle solve the first clue riddle, but get locked in the room by Ryan.
  • Max and Annie follow kidnappers to a bar, where they see Brooks is tied up in a back room.
  • Max and Annie rescue Brooks.
  • When actor-kidnappers show up at Brooks’s house, Kevin, Michelle, Ryan, and Jillian learn Brooks’s kidnapping is real.
  • Springboard 4 / Midpoint: The crew learns the kidnapping was real. Max, Annie, and Brooks narrowly escape the kidnappers.

As you can see, these are plot things and character things I’m pretty sure should happen in this section of the script but:

a) they’re not in chronological order
b) they’re not scene ideas – yet. Right now they’re just plot or character arc beats.

From here you can shuffle these ideas into chronological order and begin to combine things you think can or should happen in one scene. You don’t have to come up with how the scene will play out just yet. Right now we’re thinking of the “what” but not necessarily the “how”.

We’re trying to solidify what needs to happen in the entire movie, and we’re doing it one section at a time so it’s less overwhelming. That’s the strategy here.

For the sequence above, this initial scene list might look like:

  1. BROOKS’S HOUSE – Max, Annie, and friends break into couples and begin to play, pursuing different leads and trying to solve the “case”, which they still think is all a game.
    – Max and Annie decide to track Brooks’s iphone.
    – Ryan and Jillian decide to track down the company that arranged the game.
    – Kevin and Michelle solve the first clue riddle, but Ryan locks them in the room.
    – Kevin learns Michelle’s tryst occurred before they were married.
  2. CAR – Max and Annie follow kidnappers to a bar.
    – Annie gets first hint from Max he’s worried about losing their freedom if they have a kid.
  3. BROOKS’S HOUSE – Kevin and Michelle work on breaking out of the room.
    – Kevin tries to find out who Michelle’s celebrity tryst was with.
  4. BAR – Max and Annie see Brooks is tied up in a back room.
  5. GAME COMPANY – Jillian and Ryan bribe the receptionist to tell them the final clue.
    – Jillian realizes Ryan only invited her because he needed a ringer; it’s not a date.
  6. BROOKS’S HOUSE – When actor-kidnappers show up at Brooks’s house, Kevin, Michelle, Ryan, and Jillian learn Brooks’s kidnapping is real.
  7. BAR – Max and Annie realize the kidnapping isn’t a game – it’s real, they’re in real danger.
  8. BAR – Max and Annie rescue Brooks, narrowly escaping the kidnappers.

This still may not be precisely how the screenplay will look from scene to scene, but it’s getting much closer. We’re getting more and more granular with each step.

Next steps

Try this with each sequence, keeping in mind you’re not aiming for perfection. You want to have a pretty good sense of how the movie will play out, but you don’t have to sweat the details just yet. Remember, we’re focusing more on what needs to happen than how it happens right now.

You may find it helpful to move to something tactile, like notecards. Or a digital tool like Workflowy if you like to stay on the computer but you want the flexibility of dragging things around to play with the order.

The full outline

When you have what feels like a complete collection of the scenes for your movie, you can write the full outline. This is where you get specific with the “how” of each scene.

This is where you go from:

1. BROOKS’S HOUSE – Max, Annie, and friends break into couples and begin to play, pursuing different leads and trying to solve the “case”, which they still think is all a game.
– Max and Annie decide to track Brooks’s iphone.
– Ryan and Jillian decide to track down the company that arranged the game.
– Kevin and Michelle solve the first clue riddle, but Ryan locks them in the room.
– Kevin learns Michelle’s tryst occurred before they were married.

To:

INT. BROOKS’S HOUSE
The men hustle Brooks out. There’s a beat as the group continue to sip their drinks, believing this is all part of the game. Kevin’s mind is still on Michelle’s “infidelity” and he digs at her, learning it happened before they were married, when they were on a break. Max and Annie waste no time, grabbing a game dossier and sneaking away to get a jump on everyone. Jillian notices, grabbing Ryan and heading off to do the same. Kevin and Michelle, caught up in their own drama, are the last to realize and start playing the game. Intercut between each of the three teams trying to solve the clue riddle. Not wanting to be shown up by Brooks yet again, Max quickly suggests he and Annie find a shortcut and they discover they can track Brooks’s cell phone. Ryan and Jillian see Max and Annie leave and decide to find an advantage – calling Brooks’s credit card company to get a lead on the game company. Kevin and Michelle solve the riddle and get the next clue, but before they can make any more progress, Ryan locks them in Brooks’s home office while Ryan and Jillian depart for the game company.

When this is later translated into script pages, there will be additional slugs or mini-slugs as we bounce between locations. And things will probably continue to evolve as the action and pacing is worked out. As always, the goal of each step is to do what you can with what you know right now. Progress over perfection.

Every screenplay passes through phases of pre-writing, writing, and re-writing. Doing the heavy lifting in pre-writing aims to set you up for an easier time in the other two phases, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only approach that will work.

You could vet your story well enough using a simpler beat sheet or synopsis, and then make more of the “how it plays out” decisions while you’re writing the draft, for example. Or, you might prefer to speed through a draft without too much planning, and work out the issues in a longer re-writing phase.

Your process is yours so, as always, do what works for you.

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Starting a screenplay? Pitching a project? Write a logline that launches your screenplay with this free 15+ page guide - including 8 logline templates. Enter your email address below and get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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