There are two types of writers: those who prepare every last detail, and those who prefer to wing it. In reality, a writer always needs both – creative freedoms and safe structures. Depending on your personality type, your writing process swings more in one direction or the other. The only question that remains is what form the screenplay outline will take in your own individual process.
From Premise to Synopsis
The goal of a screenplay outline is to capture everything necessary for the writer to refer to later. It’s important to note that nothing is set in stone, you can always go back and rewrite anything. Nevertheless, you still have something to rely on. Basically, writers start with a screenplay idea, also called a premise, and write it down in one line. One step further, they write a short synopsis that tells the whole story of the screenplay. Every further step can be a part of your screenplay outline: From your main character, the whole character orchestra, the world of your story, the theme and so on.
Plotting with a Beat Sheet
The next step in the screenplay outline are the plot beats of your story. How does the story unfold – what are the individual events that make it up? Many writers use the hero’s journey model to develop the plot. When the writer writes down a list of story beats, more or less detailed, this is called a Beat Sheet.
Step Outline or Treatment
Depending on the level of detail the writer pursues, each outline looks very different. If they go into more detail than the simple beat sheet and they’re already creating a list of each scene, then it can be called a Step outline. Some even go further and already plan every single scene, with a precise outline of each one. Of course, from this kind of outline it’s not far to the script – only dialog is missing.
Examples for Screenplay Outlines
Always remember that you don’t have to be a slave of a standard, this tool is meant to help you as you write. The screenplay outline for BIG FISH by John August is a prime example of how you can be very sparse in your wording while getting your point accross.