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When To Stop Outlining and Start Writing Your Screenplay

And a 40-point checklist

 

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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting
screenwriting blog article

When is it time to stop outlining a screenplay and start writing pages?

You’ve done all the things — brain dumped, brainstormed, organized, and fleshed out the outline for your screenplay. But how do you know when the outlining is done?

The truth is, there’s no one or “right” way to do things in your screenwriting process, and that includes outlining a screenplay. From John August:

“Unlike screenplay formatting, there is no official standard. Generally, an outline provides a breakdown of how a story will play out. Outlines can take different forms based on many different factors including purpose, level of detail, method of creation, and writer preference. Some are incredibly detailed, listing every beat. Others give only very broad strokes.”

Want proof? Take a look at the difference in the original outline for Big Fish, and the revised outline after the first draft, both by John August and available for download.

Still… if you’re new or new-ish to screenwriting, it can be daunting to move forward. How do you know if you’re on the right track? It can feel like leaping into the abyss with no indication that your parachute will open when you need it.

And to that I say two things:

1. You’re not leaping into a literal abyss, so you don’t have to worry so much. If it doesn’t work you can rewrite it. You won’t die from bad writing.

2. You can vet your outline before beginning your pages by asking many of the same questions we’d ask of a finished screenplay. There will always be surprises and things that need adjusting. But you can check your work before moving onto writing the screenplay, to see if there’s anything glaring you’ve overlooked up to this point.

That’s what we’ll cover here. Again, you don’t have to use this checklist. But if you want a tool to give yourself a boost of confidence before pushing forward, then this list of questions may help.

How to vet your screenplay outline before writing pages

If you outline pretty fully, with the intention of using your outline as a blueprint for your screenplay, then it makes sense that the outline would have all of the major elements of the story represented.

That’s the point of outlining a screenplay, right? To figure out the story – at whatever level of granularity you choose. To give you a map – again, however detailed you prefer — to follow when you get into pages.

So to see how strong the outline is, we should be able to ask some of the same questions we’d ask of a screenplay. We should be able to see if the major components we’ll want to see show up in the screenplay are accounted for in the plan for the screenplay — the outline.

To that end, here’s a checklist you can use to vet your outline. It’s not intended to be a must-have list. This is a guide to help you look at your own work with a reader’s analytical eye.

  1. Can this story be reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds”?
  2. Is it clear who the protagonist is? (The “somebody” from the one-liner above.)
  3. If you have dual protagonists (two main characters), do they share a common goal? If not, would the story be better told via one main character?
  4. Does the main character make the majority of the decisions that drive the plot?
  5. What do we know about the main character from the scenes in Act 1?
  6. Is the Act 1 impression contrasted in some way with what we see of the main character in Act 3?
  7. What goes wrong, creating a new problem, desire, or opportunity that the protagonist must act on? (This is the catalyst or inciting incident.)
  8. What will happen if the protagonist fails to solve this problem, sate this desire, or exploit this opportunity successfully? (The story stakes.) How do we know this? (Where is it shown in the outline?)
  9. Where do stakes increase?
  10. Where are new stakes added?
  11. Who / what is the main antagonistic force? What does he/she/it want? How do we see this?
  12. Throughout the outline, do we see the antagonist getting in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goal?
  13. Does the antagonist have something at stake? How / where do we see this?
  14. At the end of the first act, is it clear what the protagonist’s story goal is?
  15. Is this goal achieved in Act 3? If not, is that a deliberate choice?
  16. Does the protagonist pursue his/her goal constantly and urgently? Can you see this in most, if not all, of the outline?
  17. In Act 2, does the protagonist face obstacles that result naturally from circumstances you set up in Act 1?
  18. Does the main conflict intensify?
  19. Do obstacles get harder to overcome?
  20. Are new obstacles introduced?
  21. Does the midpoint turn the action or raise the stakes in a significant way?
  22. Is there a “low point” or a dramatic ramping up of intensity or stakes at the end of Act 2?
  23. At the beginning of Act 3, does the protagonist have a new or revised plan for how to achieve his/her goal?
  24. Does the protagonist confront the antagonist in the climax?
  25. Does the climax decide whether or not the protagonist achieves his story goal?
  26. Is the climax built squarely on actions, decisions, and events that took place earlier in the story?
  27. For every conflict introduced, is there ultimately a satisfying resolution of some kind?
  28. Does every scene have a clear purpose that moves the story forward in terms of the plot progression, character arc, or both?
  29. Do scenes feel causally linked from one to the next?
  30. Are there scenes that could be removed without affecting anything in the story?
  31. Does the plot track from beginning to end without any holes or logic bumps?
  32. Does the plot progression repeat itself at all? If so, is there a deliberate reason for this?
  33. Are there any subplots?
  34. Are subplots intrinsically related and relevant to the main throughline or do they advance an overarching theme?
  35. Does each subplot have a throughline with a beginning, middle, and end?
  36. Are subplots all resolved by the end of the movie?
  37. Does every supporting character play a valuable role in challenging, stimulating, or aiding the protagonist along their journey and/or growth?
  38. Are there any characters who aren’t absolutely needed?
  39. Is there anything interesting, fresh, or surprising in the outline? Is there anything we haven’t seen before in another movie?
  40. Does the tone feel consistent from beginning to end?

How do you know when you’re done outlining a screenplay?

Really, it’s never done. Not while you’re still writing the screenplay, that is. And “writing the screenplay” is ongoing. Through many drafts. Often right up until the movie’s in the can.

So at some point, you just have to accept that the outline is fine for right now, and then start writing the screenplay pages.

You can do this whenever feels right to you, and that will be different for every writer. You do not have to wait for permission. Whatever you don’t have figured out now, will be figured out later.

 

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.

100% privacy guaranteed.