Screenplay outlines are a tool to get your idea onto the page. Are you lost in your screenplay? Get a story map and learn how to outline a script!
We all know writing a screenplay is incredibly hard. While it gets easier as you go, every story is a new battle. When I sit down to write, I chase treatments, beat sheets, and outlines before I open my screenwriting software to tackle the story. Lucky for us, I'm going to walk you through how to outline a screenplay so you understand why it's such an important step in the development process.
One thing that's always helped me is thinking about the writing process like a search for buried treasure. Mostly because I love a good treasure hunt movie.
Anyway, I worked hard and came up with a screenplay outline template called "The Story Map" that I try to fill out before I write every spec screenplay.
Without further ado, let's dive into the story map!
So, What’s A Screenplay Outline?
A screenplay outline helps you organize your thoughts and the beats of the story. It's a way to also entice yourself and the reader of the outline. When I think about screenplays, I think about all the beats you hit to take your audience from the opening scene to the closing credits. Sure, some people swear by Blake Snyder, but I prefer to think of the screenplay more as a map than as individual building blocks.
It takes the pressure of page goals and formulaic outlines. Just tell me a great story!
And use these beat ideas to brainstorm. There are twists, turns, but no matter what you’re trying to get to that ending payoff.
I created the Story Map as a screenplay outlining tool. Think of it as a fun exercise that can help get your story out of your brain and onto the page.
Free Screenplay Outline Template: The Story Map
Here’s the way I see our Screenplay Outline:
Unraveling The Map - Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
The Launch Point - Where are we, and who are we with?
The First Leg - What’s a normal day look like in this world?
Change Course - What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
The Foot of the Mountain - Okay, we’re going on this journey together.
Climbing The Side - It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go.
Through The Cave - Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
The Fall - The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
The Hidden Clue - What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
Race To the Finish - They’re up and running no matter what.
The Treasure Chest - Did they get what they came for?
Where We Go From Here - Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
I created this story map to help myself when I’m outlining new script ideas (maybe some from the Public Domain), and I think it applies to lots of different genres and sizes of movies.
So let's go over some Story Map examples and see how it works and why it's a useful screenplay outlining tool.
If you want to follow the Story Map with the movie Rocky, check this post out!
Screenplay Outline Examples Using the Story Map
My goal here is to pick 14 different movies and show you how each of these points lines up to what happens within them. Ideally, you could pick any title and trace the Story Map throughout each of them. I wanted to use our Screenplay Outline technique because I thought it would inspire you.
So let's jump right in!
Unraveling The Map
Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
Your opening scene matters, so when you start an outline, pick something that grabs the viewer and thrusts them into the world. One of my favorite all time is the one from Unbreakable.
It gives us no one, but TWO origin stories. We learn about Mr. Glass, and then we start to learn about his opponent, David Dunn, after his train crashes. These set up the entire movie and its theme.
We're on the edge of our seat right away.
The Launch Point
Where are we, and who are we with?
When you're writing the first act of any movie you want to start meeting the characters, my favorite movie that does this is The Goonies. It's so incredible to see the kids get together and to learn their personalities right before we set off on an adventure with the whole team.
The First Leg
What’s a normal day look like in this world?
Before anything can happen, we have to see what the homeostasis is within this universe. The best character actions are reactions to the world. So let's learn about the world.
Even if it's a fantasy world like The Shire in Lord of the Rings, we need to know what "normal looks like."
That way, when the characters break out, we can gauge and understand their reactions.
What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
It's time to get your characters out the door and on their journey.
One of the best examples of this is when Luke Skywalker heads out with Ben Kenobi after Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru's death. His life has changed, and now he's going to join the rebels and learn about the force to combat injustice.
The Foot of the Mountain
Okay, we’re going on this journey together.
Before we jump into Act II, we have to reset the world.
This is when we start to have some fun in the world. Why are people here to see your movie?
In Titanic, it's when the romance begins.
Climbing The Side
It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go.
The fun of the second act is watching your characters try and fail over and over. These are the parts in Manchester By The Sea where the guys are trying to get to know one another while also confronting the irreconcilable grief that has taken over their lives.
Through The Cave
Do you have a B-story? Set that story off on its own now too.
Ah, the dreaded B-story. What else is going on in your movie? Who else should we meet along the way? In movies like Game Night, it's when we are following the other characters playing the game.
In this case, it's figuring out which celebrity the woman in this couple dated.
It's a runner with a great payoff.
Reassess the Problem
You’re in the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
Midpoints are tricky parts of the story. You need to completely rearrange what's going on for the characters, and have them learn to confront their problem in a new way.
In a movie like Spy, Melissa McCarthy has been going undercover and looking frumpy. Now she aligns herself with the villain, with a new badass cover story to help her achieve her goal.
Try and Fail
Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
As you cruise through act two, it gets rougher and rougher on your characters. You want to frustrate them, make them feel vulnerable, and take them to the brink.
In When Harry Met Sally, it's when they're finally together... and things begin to go wrong. We know it's leading up to something terrible, and all we want them to do is be happy.
The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
This is the low point in the movie. It's when everything seems like it's over and there's nothing left to root for. "All is lost", in Blake Snyder's words.
I can't think of anything more crushing than when Wilson disappears in Castaway.
This is the lowest part of the main character. He's now alone, probably going to die, and his only friend drifts away completely.
The Hidden Clue
What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
The only way to bring your characters back from the brink is to let them discover that deeper thing they had inside them. Maybe it's the thing that tells them they can make it through the wire. Maybe it's the thing that proves their wild theory.
One of my favorite "wild theory" movies is Zodiac, and I love the break in the case seen here. After decades of failures, these guys have an idea. They have a suspect even if it's a long shot.
And it took going through hell to get there.
Race To the Finish
They’re up and running no matter what.
After your character digs deep, finds something they never knew they had, it's time to hit the gas.
You have the audience right where you want them. It's time to deliver.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming we know Peter has to thwart the Vulture. But he also has the prom. Peter has to race outside to stop what's going to happen.
The Treasure Chest
Did they get what they came for?
Look, at the end of the script, you need to decide if the character gets what they set out for - so this is the time to lay it down. I love the fake reveal in The Usual Suspects, where our police captain thinks he's interrogated and broken a man.
Just to find out Keyser Soze has thwarted him again.
Where We Go From Here
Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
This is the point where we finally wrap things up. What do you want from your final scene?
There was some controversy with the ending of Get Out, as one of the endings Jordan Peele filmed was inside a prison, after the main character was framed for the murders of the insane family who tried to steal his body.
But I love the original ending and how everything ties up, with some fear of what is to come.
When should I use a screenplay outline?
After reading this, I hope you use our story map any time you get a movie idea. I share these outlines with fellow writers and even my manager to get notes. They help me determine the viability of an idea and help me polish it so that when I finally open my screenwriting software, I'm ready to attack the story.
If you have questions or comments about the script outline or story map, leave them in the comments!
I can't wait to read what you write.
What's next? Check out our Beat sheet!
Stuck and can't write your way out? A beat sheet can help you pick moments that keep your narrative thrust moving forward. So why aren't you using one?
Your screenplay is built up of individual story beats that create emotional reactions in the reader and viewer. These beats are based on classic screenplay structure. The beats help guide the character arcs, story structure, and even your elevator pitch. So where do the beats come from? A lot of people find the Save the Cat Beat sheet a little overrated and it seems like every writing website has their own beat sheet template.
So click the link and learn you use ours. It's an incredible compliment to the Story Map!