Posted by: steveonfilm | February 16, 2011

Outlines… Part 5

[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.]

When you’ve got all high level beats for acts 1, 2A, 2B, and 3 completed, you’re faced with a decision…

Do you start screenwriting, or do you explore a bit more.

There is no right or wrong here. Sometimes your vision is straight forward enough, or strong enough, that there are no doubts on how you’ll accomplish each of your high level beats. Sometimes there’s still some ambiguity on how you’re going to go about writing the scene(s) that accomplishes the beat.

If you feel like you’ve got everything you need, then go ahead and type FADE IN and get started.

For me, I like to do something I call “deep diving.” Mainly, I don’t like surprises when I’m writing my screenplay. I want everything planned out so that literally I’m just putting a skin over a fully formed skeleton, muscle structure and everything. So what I do is actually figure out the scenes surrounded each high level beat. This accomplishes a few things.

Number one, it allows me to explore my story idea on a micro instead of macro level. Sometimes problems don’t become apparent to me until I’m taking a ground eye view. When it comes to my writing style, I prefer to trouble shoot these issues before I start actual screenwriting. Some people can work through these problems in a screenplay itself. I can’t. It’s just one of those things you start to figure out the more you write.

Number two, while deep diving there are times when I’ll find myself going on a tangent, or thinking about a subplot that I want to work in. Sometimes these ideas fade away and I realize they’re taking away from the story. Other times that become strong enough that I decide to shift around some of my high level beats. I’m not scared of experimenting with my story. I still have no whims of trying out something just because it feels right. When I’m actually screenwriting I get VERY hesitant about that kind of stuff, so I take advantage of my time before I start the script.

Number three, since I put so much time into this part of the outlining phase, it actually helps my screenwriting go MUCH faster. Anyone who’s followed the blog has seen that I can turn out a draft in usually 30-45 days. This isn’t because I’m some sort of insane screenwriting genius. It’s because I do all my critical thinking while still in the outlining stage. This probably won’t work for everyone, it just works with me. So I stick with it. Again, part of this whole process is just learning what works for you.

Number four, when I’m done, I’m left with a scriptment. It’s usually a 10-15 page short story that reads like a script. If I need a treatment, I’m all set. If I just want to read it as a short story. I’m good to know. This is typically the last point where I can go over my outline and tell if they story I’ve structured is any good. I find this to be a useful tool. Other’s might not.

So what does my deep dive outline look like? Here’s a sample of a few beats from Act Two A of Served Cold, with the high level beat section bolded:

1. Koteric and Lim at the scene. No one can find the guard. Fill in on the brewing Laroque vs. Cipriano feud. One angry and scared “executive” is in the corner.

Koteric walks in. Place is a mad house. Paramedics attend to a few of the patrons. Lim greets him. “Tell me something I don’t already know.” “The atomic weight of is cobalt 58.9.” Koteric makes his way into the vault foyer, quick survey of the damage. Where’s the guard? Gone. High tailed it before DPD arrived. Personnel file is missing too, must have grabbed that on the way out. “Find him.” “Already on it.” Spots the nervous executive. Lim fills him in. Koteric is familiar with the guy’s name. Name’s come up in some underground gambling rings in Windsor. Specifically, rings related to one Luis Garnier, point man for the Laroque cartel in the metro area. The same guys who gunned down Cipriano’s men a few months back in Pontiac. Yup. Koteric wants to know why the exec guy is here. Lim says the money was his. Koteric smiles. You know why he looks so nervous? Because he was probably going to use that money to pay of a gambling debt he owes Garnier. Lim laughs. “That means…” “The smooth motherfuckers that have been hitting banks just scored a job on the mob.”

2. Meet Vasser and the third tier guys. Vasser gets his order from Garnier (who we see somewhere else, maybe boarding a jet in Quebec) to find the guys who took their money.

A multi-car garage. Vasser, black suit, no tie, well groomed, could be a stock broker, walks toward a black Mercedes S-Class, flanked my three men (Issac, Bruce, and Roland). He’s on the phone. “All of it.”

Luxury jet. Another well dressed man, Garnier. Other end of the call. “Who?”

Back in garage. “Don’t know. I’ve got the personnel file of a guard missing from the scene. We’re heading there now.”

Luxury jet. “You’d better have them before I get there.” Another man sits down across from Garnier, Martin Laroque, his boss, and picks up on the troubled vibe. “Problems?” “It’s nothing. My men are on it.” Laroque doesn’t press farther.

Vasser and his crew get into the Mercedes. Inside they check their guns. Vasser tells Bruce to get a move on. They pull out of the garage to reveal the multi-car garage is on a very large, lush, and wide open estate. Big two wing white house nearby.

3. Norman packing things frantically in the house, rambling about things being easier for him and his wife. Knock at the door. It’s Vasser.

Norman is frantic and giddy. Tossing clothes haphazardly in a suit case. His wife is standing in the doorway confused. Wants to know what’s going on. He breaks down he fixed things, everything. This shithole, his 7 dollar an hour job, never having money, all of it. They’ve just got to go meet someone and then they’re off to Arizona, just like they always talked about. She’s still confused. He grabs her and looks her in the face and just says, “Trust me.” The doorbell. Dogs go ape shit. Wife goes to the door. Opens it. It’s Vasser. Asks if this is the residence. She nods. He takes out a gun and shoots her in the forehead. They move into the house, Norman yelling from the bedroom “who is it?”

I don’t have huge amounts of information in the deep dive. But there are some hints of dialog. Some scene description. And when I’m done I’m left with a clear idea of how I want the beat to play out. Not everyone will need or want this level of detail, but it works for me.

In the next part I’m going to go over an additional problem solving exercise you can use while you’re outlining. It’ll help you stretch your screenwriting legs while still staying focused on your outline.

Until next time, keep writing!



  1. Good stuff. I need to be more patient with the initial outlining process. I get too anxious to dive right in and then I get stuck. I do enjoy surprises though; sometimes you discover really great things that you never would have discovered if you had just stuck with the outline.

  2. The depth of outlining needed for a good script varies by writer. Some people need it a lot (like me), some people don’t. I think as long as you have a clear vision and a solid structure, the story will turn out okay. It might not be good, but you’ll have something to work with.

    I’m all for straying from the outline if it feels right. When you’re on the page, and into the characters, if you feel like you should go in a different direction, do it. More often than not it’s going to be the right move.

    I’m actually going to go into this quite a bit during my next piece.

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