Brooklyn Based Filmmaker

Screenplay Structure and Outlining

This morning I was doing some blog reading and came across Screenwriter411’s post STRUCTURE – The 9 Essential Scenes. It’s a good post about the necessity of structuring your story and outlining in screenwriting.

I’m a fan of structure. What I have never been a fan of is outlining and planning. I find outlining frustrating. I would much rather be writing. I just want to jump in and do it. I think most people would rather just write than spend the time planning.

As I started writing scripts before attending New York Film Academy’s (NYFA) Screenwriting Program I would get stalled a lot. The stories were always missing steps. When I attended NYFA we were introduced to basic screenplay structures and methods of planning and outlining a script. I didn’t care for them at first ,because of the aforementioned hatred of planning and outlining. Eventually, I came around and realized that my stories are much better developed and structured when I take the time to plan and outline before getting into the meat of the script.

I’ve developed a sort of intermediary outlining method between what I learned in school and my own aversion to outlining. My method is to create an outline defining eight sequences across three acts. The sequences I got from school and different teachers had different names for them but they were all talking about basically the same thing. They are roughly based around Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.”

    Act One

  1. “Ordinary Life”
  2. “The Call to Adventure”
  3. Act Two

  4. “Rules of the New World”
  5. “Plan Number One”
  6. “Happy/Sad”
  7. “All is Lost”
  8. Act Three

  9. “The Final Battle”
  10. “Aftermath”

That’s the structure I use for outlining. I create a simple text document and plug in a description of what should happen in each sequence. When I have specific ideas for scenes I write descriptions of those scenes. Otherwise the outline is very general. This mostly works for me. Still, I get stalled sometimes. I know something is missing or that a particular sequence is weak but I’m not sure yet how to fix it.

I think the structure offered on Screenwriter411 might just be the solution to my problem. On Screenwriter411’s post nine key scenes are described.

  1. The Opening
  2. What’s on Page 10
  3. Crossing the Threshold
  4. Pinch Point One
  5. The Midpoint
  6. Pinch Point Two
  7. End of Act Two
  8. The Climax
  9. The Final Scene

I like these. These are what I’ve been missing. I plan to integrate these scenes into my future outlining process. They fit very nicely into my existing process with the acts and sequences.

This is just an early step in the planning process. I have been trying to make a habit of writing “Step Outlines” (some have called them “Beat Sheets”) before digging into the script after this. It’s been a bit of a fight with myself to better integrate these planning stages to my writing process but I’m slowly winning out and it’s improving my scripts.

I’m interested in hearing other outlining and structure methods, if you’d like to share them in the comments.





4 responses to “Screenplay Structure and Outlining”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gary King, Sean Mannion. Sean Mannion said: New blog post: Screenplay Structure and Outlining […]

  2. Aurora Avatar

    Thanks for posting this. How long should a sequence be?

    1. admin Avatar

      Aurora, glad you like it. A sequence should be approximately 1/8 of the film. In a 2 hour film that’s 15 minutes (15 pages), though, that doesn’t hold for all sequences.
      Sequence 8 should be the shortest sequence. The story is done it’s time to go. Depending on genre other sequences might need more or less time. For example, a sci-fi or fantasy story (or any story in which you need to establish an unfamiliar world for an audience) might need to have a slightly longer Sequence 1. A romantic comedy usually doesn’t need a very long Sequence 1.
      Still, 1/8 of the story per sequence is a good rule of thumb.

  3. Aurora Avatar

    Cool, thanks Sean:) Aurora