How to Outline Your Screenplay, Phase 3

Your screenplay scenes


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by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting
screenwriting blog article

If you’ve been following along with this How to Outline A Screenplay series, you’re ready to start planning your screenplay scenes. But before we push forward let’s take a second to celebrate the progress so far. You have…

Started with an idea, and now have a solid big picture plan. You know the major plot points. You’ve even thought about what supporting characters the story might need.

You’re on your way.

In keeping with the “small & manageable” method I’ve been walking you through, let’s talk about the next step toward a finished screenplay.

Your screenplay scenes

Before you start thinking about all your dazzling set piece ideas, let me clarify. In this step we’ll map out your screenplay scenes according to purpose. Later we’ll spend time devising the specifics of how each scene plays out.

Lay the foundation, then build the stunning architecture on top.

This is important: Right now we only want to focus on the purpose of the scenes. That way we make sure the functionality is in place, before we start shaping the beautiful form.

Where do we start? Why, where we left off of course.

Start with the sequence outline

At this point your sequence outline looks something like this one from The Ring:

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.

(Here’s the full sequence outline example.)

The sequence outline is made up of broad descriptions of what happens in each chunk of the story. From here, we’ll get a little more granular and break down this broad description into more specific parts. If it helps, think of the pieces as the individual dots. The audience will connect these dots to follow the story.

The great thing is, you already know a lot of the specifics. It’s just a matter of listing them out.

Break the sequence outline into smaller parts

Let’s take Sequence 2 of The Ring and see how we might start breaking it into pieces. If we go with what’s already in the sequence outline, that gives us:

  • Rachel learns of related deaths.
  • Rachel tracks down cursed video tape that could be the cause.
  • Rachel watches the tape; gets the curse.

That’s three things we know we need to show the audience in our screenplay scenes.

But… each of our eight sequences must be more than three scenes. In fact, each sequence (including its springboard), will average 5-7 scenes (roughly 12-15 pages). Where do these additional scenes come from?

Plot points vs. Scenes

Each of the “pieces” we’ve been talking about so far aren’t necessarily screenplay scenes yet — they’re plot points.

Remember from the Field Guide to Screenplay Plot Points:

The plot is the sequence of events in your story, in which we generally track a character’s pursuit of a goal or objective. A plot point is an event that changes the character’s orientation to that objective.

At each plot point, the character is either closer to or farther from the objective. In that way, plot points mark progress and propel the story forward.

See how each of the “pieces” fulfills that purpose?

Great, so what we’ve identified are the plot points that make up the sequence. They mark the protagonist’s progress toward her goal. That’s what the audience is tracking as they watch the movie.

But one plot point doesn’t always equal one screenplay scene.

Aha! So if we look at our example from The Ring, we can see how those three plot points played out over seven scenes:

  1. Rachel hears about rumored tape and Katie’s boyfriend who died same night.
  2. Rachel finds photo receipt in Katie’s room.
  3. Rachel gets photos from cabin trip. Sees final photo with blurred faces in front of cabin.
  4. Rachel learns all four teens died same night, same time.
  5. Rachel confirms Katie died same time. Tells boss she’s investigating this story.
  6. Rachel talks to innkeeper and finds The Ring tape.
  7. Rachel watches The Ring tape. Sees figure in white. Gets phone call – “seven days”. She’s cursed.

The Ring is structured as a mystery, and exists in the horror genre. So the scenes are created to provide the plot points (the protagonist solving the mystery) in a way that also teases out the suspense and allows for horror genre moments. You can see that in action in this sequence.

Translating plot points into screenplay scenes

That’s your goal in this phase of the outline: take the plot points you’ve listed from your sequence outline, and begin to plan the scenes that make up each sequence.

And keep in mind we’re not thinking about how the scene looks, or how it plays out right now. We want to focus mainly on the function of the scene as a part of the whole. That is, the plot points that we need to establish, and any consideration we need to give to the tone or genre of the story.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule to follow here. Or a definitive right answer. As the writer you get to decide how best to tell this story, to create the effect you want to have on the audience.

Again, don’t panic. If you’re feeling stuck, look at your plot points and ask yourself two questions:

  • Is there anything missing between the pieces? (Meaning, is there anything that needs to happen to make the next plot point possible?)
  • Would any of these plot points be better broken down into smaller pieces? (Either for tone/genre effect, or because we really need to drive home a particular point and it’s going to take more than one scene to do that.)

As you’re working out your story, it’ll be a process of zooming in and out. Looking at the forty thousand foot view of your story and figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish, then going down into the trees and identifying which ones you need for this particular forest.

My favorite outlining tools

For this phase, there are two tools that I return to again and again: notecards and Workflowy.

Notecards for screenwriting

Notecards are great if you want a tactile activity. Switching it up (and stepping away from your computer) can help spur your brain into action.

If you want some tips on using notecards, try:

Using Workflowy to outline your story

There are times when notecards feel like too much work. When it feels like I’m making more work for myself, and that work is just getting in the way of the actual work I want to do – figuring out the story.

In those cases, I use Workflowy.

Nesting lists make Workflowy an incredibly versatile organizing tool, especially for outlining. The great thing about nesting lists is you can collapse sublists so you only see a particular level of list a time. (That will make more sense if you check out their demo.)

Nesting lists means you can create a bullet point outline with sub-points that you can hide from view when you want to. You can add details you don’t want to forget about, but then collapse them out of sight so you can focus only on the description of the scene’s function, for example.

Because you can make as many sub-lists as you need, it’s great for keeping different versions on file. (I usually end up with several outline versions over the life of a project.)

Workflowy allows you to easily drag list items to re-order them, which is cool – a feature that gives you the flexibility of notecarding. And an added bonus: you can tag and sort list entries using hashtags. This makes it simple to see with one click all the scenes in, say, a romantic subplot or that take place in a particular location.

(I didn’t mean for this to become an advertisement for Workflowy. But I’ve been using it for years and still love it. If you want a tutorial video showing you how to set up your outline using Workflowy, let me know.)

The usual caveat applies here: the method I’m stepping you through in this series is just one of an infinite number of ways to approach writing a screenplay.

As we get further along in the process, it can feel like the pieces and parts and details we have to wrangle at once are multiplying exponentially. That’s where a tool like notecarding or Workflowy can really come in handy. Find one that works for you, so you can get it all out of your head and laid out in front of you.

Look at what you know. Use that to see what could be added. Figure it out one piece at a time. Move forward, inch by inch, to the finish line.


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.