[DISCLAIMER: This is just the method that works for me. I’ve put it together over the last few years as I’ve studied and experimented with various screenplay theories. I’ll likely continue to change it more as I move on with my screenwriting education. This isn’t the answer for everyone, it’s just a starting point.]
I subscribe the theory that a screenplay is actually four separate sections, Act One, Act Two A, Act Two B, and Act Three. This theory was originally introduced to me by Syd Field, but Blake Snyder and other’s also subscribe to it in some degree. When I prepare my outlines, I actually create four separate outlines for each section of the screenplay, each with 14 beats as suggested by Field. Some people might find 14 too many, Blake Snyder suggests roughly ten for each section (40 in total), but I’ve found 14 works for me.
You might be thinking that coming up with 14 beats for 4 separate section seems like a lot of work. This is where coming up with the “main beats” part three comes in handy. In essence, we’ve come up with about two beats for each section already. If you think of the “main beats” as fence posts, we’ve already created the fence posts for our yard. The other beats we’re left to come up with are the pickets in between the posts.
There are a few different ways to do this. Some people, Field and Snyder included, suggest using 3×5 index cards. After doing this myself, I find it tedious and much prefer to write things out on a computer screen. But if you’re curious, here’s what 14 index cards look like with all 14 beats for an section.
Now, what I personally do before I start outlining is create a text file with 14 lines that look like this:
I’ll title that document “Act One Outline” then copy the file until I’ve got one for each section of the screenplay, 4 in total, and rename accordingly.
For act one, I’ll plug in the Inciting Incident for beat 7, but the reality is this beat can occur for beat 6, 7, or 8 depending on how things are moving in your story. Earlier than 6 any it’ll likely be too soon. Later than 8, it’ll likely be too late and too slow. I’ve found that if my inciting incident hits at beat 6, 7, or 8 things tend to flow just right, and it allows for me some flexibility in my structure.
I’ll plug in Plot Point 1 at beat 4. This is non-negotiable. Plot Point 1 is the turning point of the story and the event that really gets the ball rolling dramatically. It MUST occur here.
Here’s what Act One looks like in my document with those beats plugged in:
7. Greg is arrested for possession of narcotics and forced to attend group therapy.
14. Greg meets Salim and Robert at his first therapy session.
In Act Two A and Act Two B, Pinch 1 and Pinch 2 will follow the same track as the Inciting Incident in Act One, each appearing anywhere between beats 6-8 in their respective section. The Mid-Point and Plot Point Two will follow along the same lines as Plot Point One, appearing as beat 14 in their respective section.
In Act Three you’ve got a lot of flexibility, with the only beat that’s predetermined being the “Darkest Moment” or “All Is Lost Moment,” and this can occur really anywhere after the third act starts. I like to plug mine in in the same 6-8 range as the Inciting Incident and Pinches, but it doesn’t always fall there. Ultimately, this is just a beat that expresses the hero being at his weakest moment, with the odds fully stacked against him. It’s from that point on that he begins his final push toward victory. It might not be in every film you’ve ever seen, but I think it’s a VERY strong moment and a story beat you should heavily consider when crafting your story.
You can see what I mean when I said now it’s just a matter of connecting the fence posts. The main structure of the story is already laid out for you. You just need to fill in the gaps. When doing this I’d suggest keeping things very high level. A beat should read something like this:
“The hero meets up with his main ally at the rendezvous location. They go over a plan to ambush the villain.”
The nitty gritty of the actual scenes that will accomplish this beat and the dialog don’t need to be explored here. STORY BEATS AND SCENES ARE NOT THE SAME THING. I can’t express this enough. What you’re looking at here is a beat, not a scene. This is a point or event in the story that needs to be accomplished. How you accomplish the said beat will come next. For now don’t worry about it. Sometimes it might take half a page and one scene. Sometimes it might take five pages and three scenes. This work will come later. Don’t worry about it for now.
Feel free to shuffle around beats as you’re working through your outlines. Toss down beats for sections you’re not working on. Plug them into places you think they might go. Don’t worry about specifics until you actually get to that section. This is why some people like notecards. They can just swap them and move them as they need to. I hate writing by hand when I need to change things, so that’s why I use a text file. But ultimately do what you feel comfortable with.
When you’ve got all 56 story beats across all for sections complete, you’ll be ready to move on to the next and final step of the outlining process. But until that point, take advantage of the time you spend on this step because you are in effect planning out the story. What you do with this step will be your project plan. With experience you will tinker this idea to suit your needs, playing with the formula and theory as you see fit, but you will still be putting together a plan. The more thought you put into things now, the less chance you’ll run into “writer’s block” when you actually start screenwriting.
Also keep in mind that the beats you are putting together need to reflect the story you summarize in your logline. If it’s not meeting that high level goal, you either need to change your outline, or go back and give some serious thought to your logline. It’s not unusual for things to change will working through your outline, but make sure you aware of them and staying on top of these changes. If you lose focus with this step, that lack of focus will just be amplified when you actually start writing the screenplay.
Until next time, keep writing.