Outlineindex Card Approach

Basically, this approach entails using the synopsis to outline the major scenes in your script. Sounds simple, right? But what does this mean, exactly? Do you have to write headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings, using numbers, Roman numerals, and lower case letters, ad infinitum? No, absolutely not. An outline for a screenplay is simply a list of scenes. Referring to the story line you just developed in your synopsis, you're going to write down a list of all the scenes you imagine are going to make up this story, in their proper order, describing in a sentence or two what happens in it.

What happens in the scene is not every single thing that happens; rather, distill the essence of the scene into its major story beats. So, for example, in E.T., in the sequence where Elliot meets his strange and wonderful new friend, the outline might say:

14. Elliot discovers an alien in his house. They make friends.

15. Elliot hides the alien "E.T." in his closet.

Why did I number these scenes 14 and 15? Although I'm making this up, Elliot's discovery of E.T. is the inciting incident of this film, and most likely occurs somewhere

between pages 10-20. Make sure that you number each scene, in order, and don't worry if you can't fully figure out every single scene in the movie. Outlines should be a flexible tool to help you think about your story, and help you see the logical connections and transitions between scenes. Note that boiling the scene down to its essence makes it easier to figure out what the point of the scene is, and whether or not you've repeated a plot point (or story beat) unnecessarily. Also note that each scene should advance the story, taking our characters on the next phase of their adventure, and not simply serve as a vehicle for the writer to ruminate, philosophize or preach. Character development should also, ideally, take place within the context of the action, and not simply for its own sake.

So, going back to Elliot, notice that the description in the outline is not of all the activity that takes place in the scene ("Elliot, bored and friendless, wanders aimlessly around the house..."). And it certainly isn't a piece of the script. It is simply a more detailed map, to help you "crack the story," before you start writing the script.

An outline usually consist of master scenes, anywhere from 30 to 70 scenes; but again, this won't be a final number. There may be many changes, and the addition of numerous "mini" scenes, along the way. A MASTER SCENE is the largest overview of the location, with its essential elements, rather than all of the cutaways to different things happening in the scene. More on this when we actually start writing the screenplay, below. In the meantime, let's get started on writing your own outline.


Using your synopsis, write an outline of all the scenes you imagine in the movie, in order, by listing them in numerical order, and including a phrase or sentence that describes the essence of what the scene is about. Leave a space between scenes whenever you get stuck - the detail will come to you later.

Index Cards

Once you've got a working outline that you're happy with, you are going to put each scene on an index card, with its number. Although the actual placement of the scene may change, working from the outline's numbering will help you maintain the script's structure, as you originally envisioned it (this too will probably change, later on).

On each card, you will list the SLUG LINE. A slug line is the one line that indicates that we are in a new scene, and that gives instructions for location and lighting. A slug line is also called a SCENE HEADING. An example of a slug line or scene heading would be:


EXT. is short for EXTERIOR (an exterior shot, as opposed to an interior - INT. - shot). Next comes the description of the place itself, followed by the time of day. More on this later, under the section on format.

For right now, let's get back to our index cards, which we've numbered, and where we've entered a slug line at the top of the index card. This done, you can now let your imagination go wild, and write down all the possible detail you can already envision in your scene, including bits of dialogue. You may have very little, you may need to use a couple of cards. There are no rules here. But the more detail you have on the cards, the more you will be able to segue into writing the screenplay.

When you are ready to set aside a good portion of your day, you can get started on your index cards. This can take two hours or ten, so be forewarned.


Using your outline, take a stack of index cards, and number each one for each scene. Write the slug line for the scene across the top of the card, followed by anything you know about the scene - who is in it, what they say, how they look, what actually happens, what the emotional tone of the scene is. If you feel like actually writing the scene, go ahead.

Suddenly you find yourself with a stack of index cards - in fact you may have even added some scenes to the original outline. This is good - the longer you spend inside your screen story, the more real it becomes, and the more fully you can imagine your movie. In fact, it is a good idea here to take a moment (or an hour) and review the order of your scenes, now that you have more detail. Does this order still make sense? Can you fill in some of those missing scenes? Make your changes before you begin writing the script.

Now - voila - you are ready to start writing the screenplay, using the information from the cards as a basis for developing each scene. In fact, the use of index cards is so ubiquitous that many of the popular screenwriting software programs have virtual "index cards," which you can then export into their screenplay format. If you use real index cards, you will have to enter the information from each of them, in order to start writing the script.


After years of using the index card approach, I've recently started working from a treatment instead. What exactly is a treatment? A TREATMENT is essentially a long synopsis, of anywhere from 5-45 pages, which tells the story in greater detail than the synopsis, and may even include some bits of dialogue. Some people think that writing a treatment creates twice as much work - you can churn out a first draft of a screenplay in practically the same time it takes to write a treatment. On the other hand, you can work out story problems in treatment form much more simply than you can in a screenplay, where you tend to get bogged down in particular scenes - treatments give you a better overview of the "shape" of the story. Additionally, many producers will make submission of a treatment part of your overall deal, so that they can get a better sense of story problems along the way.

If your only motivation in writing a treatment is to sell your story idea based on a treatment instead of a whole screenplay, and while many people will tell you that you can sell a movie idea based on a treatment, I'm here to tell you that it just ain't so. Sure, if you're already a known writer, with produced films to your credit, people will read your treatment and take it seriously, maybe even buy it. But it you think you're going to break in, based on a treatment, think again. A treatment is a tool, and can be a great writing sample; but it is still only an idea for a screenplay, and doesn't tell the development executives that you know how to write a screenplay. Ideas are easy; screenplays are not.

That said, a sample treatment is included at the end of this book. This treatment, which I was commissioned to write, is of a fictionalized story, based on a Civil War memoir. It is written in my own idiosyncratic style - there are no rules for what a treatment should look like, and it can be anywhere from five pages to fifty. What it must have, as all screen stories must have, is a beginning, a middle and an end, and a clear indication of act breaks.


Once you've taken a look at the sample treatment, go back to your own synopsis. Take the synopsis further by expanding upon the events, and filling in the detail on all of the scenes leading up to major plot points. Include snippets of dialogue, so we get a better sense of the characters. Don't forget to write this as if you were telling a story, and not telling about the story.

Congratulations! You've now written a treatment for your screenplay. Even if you chose the "synopsis/outline/index cards" approach, I recommend that you try writing a treatment at least once.

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