The Basic Outline

After you’ve come up with what you feel is a workable premise for a story, the very next action you will want to take is often the basic outline. This is a skeletal structure for the working body of the film, and is simpler than a step outline, which contains every scene in the film.

How should you begin?

The barest outline should really contain every major step in the story, which means that you will leave out most of the subplot elements. I subscribe to the idea of a four-part three act structure, as I find it a useful tool with which to build a story. One you’ve laid out the script with this basic structure in order to solidify its strong dramatic direction, then you can “personalize” it and make it a less of a traditional Hollywood style if you wish.

The four parts of a three act structure each have three subacts. Thus, if you were to lay out the structural skeleton, the minimum number of bones would look like the layout below, in which I have also labeled them with their corresponding structural elements as explained in the chapters on three-act structure.

ACT I
Subact 1 includes Initiating Event
Subact 2 ends with Call to Action (the “Page 17″ event)
Subact 3 often begins with a Refusal of the Call, and ends with Commitment to Act.
ACT II Fun & Games
Subact 1
Subact 2
Subact 3
Midpoint Point of No Return
Subact 1 Bad Guys Close In
Subact 2
Subact 3 The Moment of Truth
ACT III
Subact 1 A New Tactic
Subact 2 The Demon is Confronted
Subact 3 Climax
Coda

For your elucidation, I will show you how this structural skeleton works for the film Thelma & Louise.

Thelma and Louise refuse to surrender, and drive off of the edge of the Grand Canyon.​

ACT I
Subact 1 includes Initiating Event
Thelma and Louise decide to take a trip together, although Thelma has not yet informed her bossy husband, Darryl.
Subact 2 ends with Call to Action (the “Page 17″ event)
In the parking lot of a country and western bar, Louise shoots Harlan, Thelma’s would-be rapist.
Subact 3 often begins with a Refusal of the Call, and ends with Commitment to Act
Thelma suggests they go to the Police. Louise refuses, and says that no one will believe their version of the story. The two decide to flee.
ACT II Fun & Games
Subact 1
A cop, Slocum, begins to investigate the murder. Louise decides that she is going to Mexico, but Thelma hasn’t yet agreed to join her. Louise asks her boyfriend, Jimmy, to wire her the money. Thelma argues with Darryl over the phone, but doesn’t tell him what happened.
Subact 2
Thelma meets J.D., but Louise won’t give him a ride. Thelma decides to go to Mexico with Thelma. They meet up with J.D. again, and Thelma begs Louise to take him along. The FBI is now involved in the hunt.
Subact 3
Jimmy shows up at the Western Union money drop with the $6700 Louise requested. J.D. seduces Thelma, during which he tells her about his criminal past robbing gas stations; they make love. They discover that J.D. has stolen the money.
Midpoint Point of No Return
Subact 1 Bad Guys Close In
The FBI sets up at Darryl’s house. A lascivious truck driver makes obscene gestures at T & L. Thelma, inspired by J.D.’s methods, robs a store.
Subact 2
Slocum talks to Jimmy and interrogates J.D. Louise talks to Slocum on the phone, and he tries to assure her that he’s on their side. The lascivious truck driver returns. Thelma realizes that Louise was raped in Texas.
Subact 3 The Moment of Truth
A state trooper pulls the two over, and they lock him in his trunk at gunpoint. Louise talks to Slocum, and he begs her to turn herself in, says they’re now charged with murder, and that he knows what happened to Louise in Texas. The FBI successfully traces the call.
ACT III
Subact 1 A New Tactic
Thelma tells Louise that everything’s changed and she can’t ever go back. The pair lure the lascivious truck driver onto a side road, and blow his rig up with gunfire.
Subact 2 The Demon is Confronted
The cops begin pursuit. T & L temporally lose them. They arrive at the Grand Canyon, and accidentally almost drive off of the edge. Slocum arrives by helicopter, and dozens of police cars appear.
Subact 3 Climax
Thelma and Louise refuse to surrender, and drive off of the edge of the Grand
Canyon.
Coda

Cause and Effect

As you can see, the structure of Thelma & Louise contains an economy of form, and an inexorable movement forward that drives the story to its conclusion. There is no coda, because the story ends as finally as is possible; nothing more need be said.

This structure shows that you have many options in terms of how and where you will need to begin your own outline. Often when you conceive a story, you will have a specific scene or scenes in mind. Sometimes these will relate to the beginning, the outcome, the main character’s conflict, or any number of other elements. One way to do the outline, then, is to fill in the parts you know, and then fill in the spaces between by creating a story progression that justifies the existence of the scenes you have already imagined. This can create difficulties, because if you create the middle before you create the beginning, you can often enter into logical quandaries that demand answers. Sometimes it is easier when constructing certain kinds of stories to begin at the beginning, and create a chain of cause and effect that leads you to the end.

It is important to allow yourself the flexibility to let your story grow and change as you begin to come up with new explanations for character motivations, scenes, and dramatic situations. The trick in outlining your structure is to work at the whole story as if it were a puzzle, and to piece it together according to both its internal needs and your external desires. You might, for example, decide that you want your main character to be a bus driver, but at a critical moment be able to push the right buttons on a sophisticated supercomputer to save the world. Unless you’re writing a comedy, the question of this character’s computer literacy arises because the groundwork for such a possibility has not been properly set. You would then need change the story or the character to reflect the following kinds of possibilities:

  • Justify the bus driver’s skills by hinting that he learned them in the past.
  • Give the bus driver the necessary skills during the course of the story.
  • Make the character a person who already possesses computer skills because of their job or lifestyle.
  • Change the climactic scene so that the computer is easy to operate.
  • Change the climactic scene so that the skills required are those of a determined bus driver.

As you can see, what you must always keep in mind is a very strong sense of cause and effect. In screenwriter’s terminology, this directly relates to the important concepts of setup and payoff. Very simply, a setup is piece of information given earlier in a story that lays the groundwork for (“sets up”) a related piece of information later in the structure (the “payoff”). This excellent device allows you to break up important revelations into smaller pieces and pepper them throughout the story. It also permits drama to build gradually, often creates instant foreshadowing, and fills your narrative with textural detail.

A great example of setup and payoff can be found in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and in fact the film is filled with textbook examples). Todt, the evil Nazi agent, burns his hand on the hot Egyptian amulet in Marian Ravenwood’s bar (setup). Later we learn that the Nazis have begun to dig for the Ark, and Indy reasons that they must somehow have a copy of the amulet (further setup). Immediately following, we see that Todt bears a nasty burn scar upon his hand in the exact image of one side of the amulet (payoff). This is a classic example of how to work important information into the body of your story.

In Thelma & Louise, the setups and payoffs are smaller, but no less important, and often relate more to character detail than to plot. When J.D. tells Thelma of his gentleman-bandit method of robbing stores and gas stations, it functions as a setup that pays off during Thelma’s later robbery of a store, during which she quotes J.D.’s lines. Many of these tiny details will not appear in your outline, but will only become apparent when you begin to write the script.

When you write setups and payoffs, you will see they require a lot of back and forth between parts of the outline, sometimes seeding the payoff before you even know what the setup will be. Especially in the thriller, mystery, and noir genres, setups and payoffs often drive the entire story. Watch The Sting and see if it doesn’t make your head spin as you contemplate the sheer amount of story planning involved to get all of its setups and payoffs to function smoothly.

Screenplays, in contrast to many other kinds of writings, often require meticulous planning to pull off. Their built-in time limit coupled with their need to constantly generate forward motion require that you carefully consider how each detail fits together with every other. Thorough plotting and proper fermentation of your idea in the outline stage is its own reward, as not only will your work be tighter, leaner, and stronger, but when you sit down to write the first draft, it will practically type itself.

Growing the Idea Screenwriting Essentials Character
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