This tutorial covers Story Outline, which is used for Feature Film Open Screenplays. To learn about the comparable step for Feature Film Ensemble or Television Open Screenplays, please refer to the Storylines tutorial.
You might be thinking to yourself, “My idea is awesome! That means I can start writing my script, right?”
We’re glad you’re so excited, but not quite yet!
When we come up with fun screenplay ideas it’s very tempting to want to jump right in and start writing the script. But actually this can be troublesome and is basically a rookie mistake in screenwriting. Many terrible screenplays have been written because they were not planned out first. Story structure is particularly important to screenplays as a medium, therefore a plan regarding the major elements of story is an essential step in the creation of any well-executed screenplay.
Writing a story in outline form is a crucial tool that has helped many successful writers create unforgettable stories. The Story Outline Phase in Open Screenplay covers this vital step and helps make it easier to write the material that comes after.
The primary purpose of the Story Outline is to allow you to envision the story as a whole by breaking down the story into “chunks” or Sections. This makes storytelling more manageable because by doing this we are able to focus on increments of narrative and see how each part works with the others.
It’s a broad sketch of the overall story that enables us to see the larger picture instead of getting bogged down with detailed descriptions of each scene or event. So in the Story Outline Phase don’t write specifics yet - that process comes in later phases. Instead, think on a larger scale of story, which means more overarching plot elements rather than details.
Before proceeding, it’s important to define the core of story structure so that we’re all on the same page regarding how we approach story.
All storytelling derives from basic story structure, which has been part of human culture for as long as we’ve been able to use language to communicate with each other. The form has come to be known as Three Act Structure, which represents the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Act 1 is the setup, Act 2 is the adventure, and Act 3 is the resolution.
The Adventure (Act 2) is the main source of entertainment that we’re delivering to the audience. It’s what they’re showing up for, the reason they’re willing to watch our movie / television show / webseries in the first place. Over time, Act 2 has evolved into the longest amount of narrative, taking up the middle half of the entire story. Basically, the audience wants to spend more time in the Adventure, so one of our jobs as the writer(s) is to give them want they want by making Act 2 the longest act.
As storytelling evolved, savvy writers figured out to delineate Act 2 into two parts, Act 2A and Act 2B, to to help write this longer amount of material and also to keep the Adventure fresh in terms of narrative conflict. So this 3 Act story structure ends up divided into 4 quarters and looks like this:
Act 1: Beginning / Setup
Act 2A: Middle A / Adventure Start
Act 2B: Middle B / Adventure Complicates
Act 3: End / Resolution
No matter the length of your story time-wise, this story structure is relevant. This means it applies to a 2 hour feature or a 15 second narrative commercial – and to any story that has a beginning, middle, and end.
You may find this hard to believe at first, but the overwhelming majority of stories that you encounter on a daily basis follow this universal structure. Therefore, chances are that your favorite movies, television shows (and episodes), and webseries of all time use basic story structure to great effect. If you make a quick list of your favorites, you will see that all (or nearly all) of them have a beginning, middle, and end. And not only screenplays; stories from other mediums also mostly adhere to basic story structure. You’ll find it everywhere - in prose, plays, songs, poems, letters... and the list goes on.
To help facilitate the construction of each of these parts of story, for feature films we can further break down each quarter into 3 smaller parts. So the 4 larger quarters of story now become 12 Sections. And each Section fulfills a distinct purpose in storytelling.
Basically, a Section is a collection of scenes that make up a part of the story, usually having a combined effect on the larger plot. It’s not a single scene idea (even if that scene is an important one), but a larger increment of story. Chase sequences, planning of heists, dating montages, or the first rocky step of a personal relationship are all examples of good bases for Sections of story.
A Section is written as a concise statement of three to six lines that sums up what happens in each major part of the screenplay.
We understand that defining where one part of a story ends and another begins can sometimes be a subjective task. For the purposes of working with other users in Open Screenplay, we’ve divided the story into 12 parts, and each of those chunks of screen time will be referred to as a Section.
Going by the rule of thumb that 1 page in a script equals 1 minute of screen time, for a feature film script of 100 pages a Section would represent close to 8 pages of material (8 and 1/3rd to be precise). Since feature films can vary in length (with the commonly acceptable range being 95-115 pages), it’s safe to say that a Section will cover around 8-10 pages of material.
The following is an explanation of each Section of the Story Outline – its purpose, how it can differ from other Sections, and what kind of material can be expected in each:
Section 1: Introduce Protagonist
Section 1 establishes the Protagonist, indicates their Character Flaw, sets the world of the story, and establishes the tone and entertainment approach of the screenplay.
Section 2: Introduce Other Elements
Section 2 continues to show the Protagonist’s world and the Protagonist’s way of behaving while also setting up other characters and plot points that will be relevant to the adventure.
Section 3: Launching Event
Section 3 finishes the setup and then concludes Act 1 with an event that sets the Protagonist on the adventure.
Section 4: Start Adventure
Section 4 has the Protagonist begin the adventure and (usually) take the first steps in the pursuit of a goal. This section often includes the start of a new relationship between the Influencing Character and the Protagonist. This is the section that starts delivering the idea or entertainment approach that the audience is expecting to see based on the title, logline, and genre.
Section 5: Expand Adventure
Section 5 has the Protagonist become further involved in the adventure and escalates the type of entertainment started in Section 4.
Section 6: Story Turn
Section 6 is the middle of the story and includes an event that impacts the adventure in a significant way that usually makes the pursuit of the goal more difficult for the Protagonist. The Story Turn is often initiated by the Opponent (but not always).
Section 7: New Phase Starts
In Section 7 the Protagonist starts dealing with the effects of the Story Turn by pursuing a different course of action and/or taking a different approach to the pursuit of the goal. Here the Opponent escalates the obstacles they present to the Protagonist.
Section 8: Progress Section
In Section 8 the Protagonist is making headway on their adventure and/or goal, and is (usually) having a high point in the relationship with the Influencing Character. The Character Flaw appears overcome. The Opponent continues to escalate the obstacles against the Protagonist.
Section 9: Things Fall Apart
In Section 9 the Protagonist faces such difficult obstacles, stakes, and pressures, that they (usually) ”mess up” in some way and create conflict or make the pursuit of the goal much more difficult. The end of this section also (usually) culminates in some sort of separation between the Protagonist and Influencing Character.
Section 10: Lowest Point
In Section 10 the Protagonist goes through their lowest point of the story emotionally and also seems to have lost the goal. The Character Flaw returns in Section 10 - the Protagonist reverts to the behavior they exhibited in the beginning of the story. This section is commonly known as the “all is lost” part of the story.
Section 11: Regrouping
Section 11 is where the Protagonist regroups and takes all steps necessary to prepare for the final step or “battle”. This section often includes a reuniting with or apology to the Influencing Character.
Section 12: Battle / Climax and then Resolution
Section 12 (usually) has the Protagonist battle the Opponent and either achieve or not achieve the goal, and also indicates how the Character Flaw has changed (if at all). After the battle or climax there is one more scene that wraps up the story, usually showing the how the relationship with the Influencing Character turns out.
Note that these definitions are meant to be helpful guides, but there are no such things as “absolute rules” in screenwriting. Each story is different and will require its own appropriate series of plot events.
As described above, in the Story Outline Phase we want to encapsulate the important plot of each part of the story while keeping the statement as brief as possible. Remember, a Section is written as a concise statement of three to six lines that sums up what happens in each major part of the screenplay.
Here is an example from the final Section of Napoleon Dynamite:
Napoleon Dynamite helps Pedro win student president with an improvised dance routine at the assembly. Grandma returns, and Uncle Rico goes back to living in his van. Napoleon makes up with Deb and they become friends again.
First Napoleon leaves his house and takes the bus to school, then at school there’s an assembly and Summer gives her speech Napoleon and Pedro are surprised when someone tells them “Pedro needs a skit after his speech” and they are freaked out. Then Summer gives her speech and it’s great but Pedro gives his speech but he’s not great, but then Napoleon does an improvised dance and everyone loves it. Then….
(We’ll stop there, but you get the idea.)
Note that the first statement sums up what happens at the end of the movie, but doesn’t go into extreme detail like the second one does. Try to keep your Story Outline sections to the necessary plot that contributes to the bigger story structure.
This process might seem foreign to you at first, but the Story Outline is a very helpful step in developing your story. You’ll get used to it as you collaborate in the Open Screenplay process.
So try to remember it’s meant to help everyone get on the same page and make it easier to work on your awesome screenplays. Have fun with this useful step of the process!