A script outline is often confused with a beat sheet, but there is a significant difference in the screenwriting world. Where the beat sheet is like a bullet point list of a screenplay, the outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire story of your screenplay. It is a very detailed document depending on the writer or whether you’re creating an outline on spec or if you’ve been hired to write one.
When you first start writing, the ideas feel exponential and exciting. The idea of starting on a blank page, however, is extremely daunting. Creating your outline is the most helpful step toward bringing your screenplay to life. The more detailed it is, the easier it will be to actually write your screenplay.
Your outline will also help you identify any weaknesses or problem areas before you write yourself into a corner and waste energy or feel frustrated.
Read More: 4 Tips to Starting Your Screenplay
Have a great script? Enter it into the WeScreenplay Feature Screenwriting Competition!
Where to Begin?
I recommend starting with a beat sheet — whether you list it out in bullet points, on index cards, or up on a whiteboard, get your story structure out of your head and onto the proverbial page. Below I’ve listed Shonda Rhimes’ five-act structure for episodic drama to give you an idea of the blueprint. I will often start my drama pilot beat sheets with this exact skeleton, including the act descriptors (“hook ‘em” in the cold open, “launch the world” in act one, etc).
- COLD OPEN – HOOK ‘EM
- ACT ONE – LAUNCH THE WORLD, CHARACTERS, INCIDENT
- ACT TWO – THINGS GET WORSE, ESTABLISH CHARACTERS/WORLD MORE
- ACT THREE – CHARACTERS FEEL LIKE FAILURES + TICKING CLOCK
- ACT FOUR – NEXT LEVEL OF INCITING INCIDENT
- ACT FIVE – CHARACTERS CLIMB BACK OUT OF HOLE
Add in Sluglines
Once you have the overall structure of the screenplay, start building detail by opening your screenwriting software and filling out the act structures. Then, begin writing the sluglines for the scenes as well as descriptions of what will happen in them. Keeping with Shonda Rhimes, let’s look at how the Grey’s Anatomy outline might have looked:
INT. MEREDITH’S LIVING ROOM – SUNRISE
Meredith Grey (32, smart, awkward, irreverent, hard-working, and… well, naked) kicks out her cute one-night stand (Derek, late 30s).
INT. HOSPITAL SURGICAL SUITE – DAY
The Chief greets the new interns and describes how challenging the program will be. Meredith’s voiceover ends with “Like I said, I’m screwed.”
Model Similar Projects
One of the best things you can do when you are an emerging writer is read other screenplays — but more than that, break them down to become fluent in their formatting. If you’re writing a medical drama, read the Grey’s Anatomy script and keep a spreadsheet that lists the sluglines, scene descriptions, and page numbers. You might know that in Act One, you want to establish that Meredith’s job is hard and reveal that her one-night stand happens to be her new attending physician and her boss — but those two ideas are just enough detail for a beat sheet. In the pilot, there will be fifteen scenes that establish all of that over ten pages, as well as introducing the B- and C-stories.
In reading other screenplays and charting them out, you’ll begin to familiarize yourself with pacing, how the A-story and B-story bounce back and forth between one another with mini cliffhangers before dropping some kind of big act break moment.
These kinds of details will appear in your outline when you start writing out the sluglines and get very clear about the beats in each scene and how they develop a rhythm that creates an exciting act.
Read More: The Two Most Important Elements in a TV Show
An outline is an amazing tool for you as a writer, but even if you’re not in the habit of utilizing them for yourself, know that they are a professional tool protected by the Writers Guild of America. The “Plot Outline – Narrative Synopsis of Story (ARTICLE 13.B.7.g)” has guild minimums based on how long the screenplay will be in minutes.
It’s a step that most studios will want to see before hiring a writer to write the screenplay. It’s much easier to give feedback on an outline than a screenplay and it can save a lot of work down the road to iron out the details before the actual screenwriting.
Since adopting a beat sheet → outline → first draft structure to my writing, my existential writing crises have been minimized. I strongly recommend them!
Good luck and happy writing!
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and U.S. Air Force veteran in Los Angeles with appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. She was also a 2023 DGE TV Writing Program Finalist, and her screenplays have placed in various contests. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!