How Pro Screenwriters Outline a Script

Award-winning screenwriting duo Alisha Brophy & Scott Miles (Inside Job, Netflix) use a 4 phase process to outline their script and turn a story idea into a finished screenplay.

Why outline?

Scott Miles: “When you’re first starting out, it’s tempting to skip the outline stage. Just go straight to pages, knock out a vomit draft and hope to fix it all later. But why do that to your future self? Outlining is basically time travel for screenwriters. You’re gifting future you a blueprint for how to write the next great movie or binge-worthy tv show”.

Outlining Quote

Phase 1: Logline

Alisha Brophy: “Some people try and do a Mad Libs logline“.
A [CHARACTER]
In [WORLD/SETTING]
Must do [OBJECTIVE]
Otherwise [CONSEQUENCES]
With [OBSTACLES]
Alisha Brophy: “So you’re basically filling all of those in. If you’re missing one right there from the logline step, you realize ‘Oh wait, I should work out my story a little bit more“.
Example Logline:
Example Logline
Scott Miles: “You should definitely be able to see what the conflict of the movie is going to be in that logline“.

To create a Logline for your script outline:

  1. Hit the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + 0 to change your active line to an Outline Line Type (or click Outline in your available Line Type above the editor.
  2. Type your logline.

Want to hide your logline and just focus on your script?

  1. Click “Options” above the editor.
  2. Uncheck “Show Outline”.

Phase 2: Paragraph Pitch

Alisha Brophy: “Once we’re confident in the logline, we’re going to write out just purely as a story, usually three paragraphs, each paragraph dedicated to an act. So we’re making sure the story has a beginning, a middle and an end”.

Scott Miles: “Or if it’s a TV pilot, we’ll write out a paragraph for each A, B, and C storyline. And we never go more than a page”.

Alisha Brophy: “It’s just a way to stay very blue-skies, very macro and make sure at that larger level the story works. We don’t at this stage have a ton of specifics yet, but we know what they need to be in general so we’ll write things like ‘he does a big sacrifice for his ex.’ We don’t actually know what the sacrifice is yet, that’s a later problem”.

Scott Miles: “Here we just need to know: does the story check out? Are these characters you want to see? Is this the journey that’s necessary for character growth? Will this be a satisfying end? Figure these things out now, and Future You is going to beternally grateful”.

To organize a paragraph pitch into 3 Acts for your script outline:

  1. Click “New Act” from your available Line Types above the editor
  2. Type “Act 1”
  3. Press enter to create a new line and type your 1st act
  4. Click “End Act” from your available Line Types
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for Act 2 and Act 3

Phase 3: Sequences

Alisha Brophy: We break our stories out into those eight, roughly 15-page blocks of  story so we’ll have two for Act I, four for Act II, and two for Act III. 

Scott Miles: “We just find that it’s more manageable to write in blocks. And also, if you treat each one as a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end, it always keeps the script moving ahead with purpose.”

Alisha Brophy: “We don’t keep it as macro as just hero’s journey headlines but we but we do use broad headline titles. It’ll basically give you a sense of what that section is going to be about. So it will be like ‘The Truth Comes Out’ or ‘Preparing for the Big Event’ – that kinda thing.

Sequences

Scott Miles: “Once we have these big headlines, we write short bullet points under each one for the scenes that need to happen to get from the beginning of that story block to the ending, which ideally asks a question or ends on a story beat that propels us into the next broad sequence.”

To break your script outline’s Paragraph Pitch into 8 sequences:

  1. On a blank line under your Act 1 line, click Sequence from your available Line Types above the editor
  2. Type the name of your first sequence (a brief summary)
  3. Press Tab to create an Outline line underneath that Sequence line
  4. Write as many Outline lines as you need for that sequence
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for 7 more sequences (2 for Act 1, 4 for Act 2, 2 for Act 3)

Phase 4: Beat Sheet

Scott Miles: “We treat it [the Beat Sheet] as a true blueprint for the script, so it needs to be as worked out as possible. We even put scene headings in there and you know with the comedy it needs to have all the fun setups and payoffs and the big comic set pieces before we go to pages. And so we sometimes write in dialogue but we don’t get bogged down in that; we’ve found that funny dialogue can hide story weaknesses. So the project has to be funny in paragraph form just at a pure conceptual level for each scene before we move on.”

Beat Sheet

To create a Beat Sheet of scene cards for your script outline:

  1. Click “Page” on the top left of your document
  2. Select “Cards” to view your document in Cards view
  3. Click the + icon underneath each sequence to create a new Scene card
  4. Write your scene heading
  5. Press Enter/Return and type content for your Beat Sheet into your scene card

Any edits made to your content in Cards view will be visible in the Page view of the document since they’re identical.

Turn Your Outline Into A Screenplay

Scott Miles:It pretty much is a road map the entire way which is kind of nice because it means that writer’s block isn’t really a thing. So when we sit down in front of our computer first thing in the morning we may not know exactly how we’re going to tackle a scene but we know what we’re gonna be writing that day.”

4 Phases to Rough Draft

Alisha Brophy: “If you’ve done all the hard work at the beat sheet level it’s now just having fun like now you’re just like finding all the little details and the character moments that surprise you, they pop up as you’re flushing it all out. I mean that is in WriterDuet so we’re actually building out from the outline and we are just making it 90 pages longer”.

Scott Miles: “Right, and that’s you know that’s the gift of an outline it just makes it easier to make those changes because when you’re writing forward you know what’s coming”.

Alisha Brophy: “But also it helps you write backwards there’s the time travel right all those little discoveries along the way. You don’t want to get rid of them but having them land this late, it feels kind of out of left field. But if you go back in the outline you can just kind of skim backwards and find a great place to put in the setup for it so then it feels organic. At the end of the day your screenwriting it’s just making all these connections from the beginning to the end, back and forth, and you should be able to at that macro level look it over and connect all the dots that highlight the character’s arc or all the scenes that make this twist work. Building an outline is like building a cheat sheet to your own story”.

Outline End Quote

Scott Miles: “Outlining is super hard but not outlining is just infinitely harder so just do the heavy lifting up front and your future self will thank you or you know don’t but who in the right mind is going to turn down a free time machine.”

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