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How to Write a Screenplay Outline That Hooks Hollywood in 10 Steps [Template]

If you have a great idea for a movie, the first and most important step is to create a strong screenplay outline. This outline acts as the skeleton that supports the entire body of your script.

Without a solid foundation in the outline stage, even the best concepts can fall apart in execution. An outline allows you to map out the narrative arc, characters, scenes, and major plot points that give your story form and purpose.

In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the key elements that go into crafting a compelling screenplay outline that sells your vision to studios and audiences.

Understand the Elements of a Strong Outline

At its core, an effective outline needs to lay the groundwork for a cohesive, engaging story. It essentially takes your raw creative idea and transforms it into a narrative structure that works. Here are some of the essential elements to consider:


A good outline encapsulates the core theme of your story in a sentence or two. What is the central message or point of view that drives your narrative? Defining this upfront gives focus to your plot and characters.


Your protagonist is the hero or central character that the story follows. The outline should describe their background, motivations, flaws, and arc in brief. How do they grow and change over the course of the story?

Objective and Stakes

What concrete goal does your protagonist pursue? This could be to win a competition, take down an enemy, win true love, etc. And what are the stakes if they fail? The objective and stakes keep the story gripping.

Supporting Characters

The outline should indicate any other major characters, their role in the story, and their relationship to the protagonist. Common archetypes include the antagonist, mentor, sidekick, and love interest.

Plot Points

Hit the major plot points that structure your narrative. This usually includes an inciting incident that catalyzes the action, act breaks, conflicts faced, crises peaked, climactic resolution, and denouement.


Where does your story take place? The setting can be integral to the narrative and influence character motivations, so note time period, locations, and relevant context.

With these key pieces defined, you have the necessary ingredients for a compelling story. Expanding on each piece in the subsequent steps will provide enough detail to write the screenplay while allowing room for discovery.

Craft Your Story and Character Summaries

The next layer of an effective outline is writing a tight story summary and descriptions of major characters. Take your raw idea and give it narrative shape and defined roles.

Keep your story summary or synopsis under 250 words. It should capture the protagonist’s arc in brief:

  • Opening scene/context
  • Inciting incident
  • Objective/stakes
  • Major conflicts
  • Climactic resolution
  • Closing scene

You don’t need dialogue or heavy scene details here. Just communicate the narrative spine.

For each major character, write a description of 25-50 words highlighting their:

  • Role in the story
  • Background
  • Personality traits
  • Motivations and goals
  • Challenges/Weaknesses

This exercise outlines your characters beyond mere archetypes and gives them purpose within your overall story.

Map Out the Three-Act Structure

The three acts in a screenplay provide the narrative structure and pacing that makes your story work. Each act has specific plot points and turning points that build tension and arc.

Let’s break down what each act accomplishes:

Act I – Set-Up

This establishes character, stakes, and the problem/challenge at hand. It culminates in a first turning point where the protagonist commits to their goal. Key elements:

  • Opening scene – Introduce protagonists and their status quo.
  • Inciting incident – Disrupts the status quo and initiates the journey.
  • First turning point – The protagonist commits to the goal, and stakes are raised.

Act II – Confrontation

Obstacles arise, tension builds, and subplots play out. Peaks in a major crisis for the protagonist. Ends with a second turning point and a new direction forward. May include:

  • New threats/challenges for the protagonist
  • B-storyline with secondary characters
  • Midpoint where stakes escalate
  • Major setback or crisis creating doubt
  • The climax of the act where the protagonist finds hope again

Act III – Resolution

Final conflict and climax where the protagonist must confront external and internal challenges to achieve the objective. Wraps up stakes and themes. Can include:

  • The buildup of tension toward the final conflict
  • Climax where the protagonist faces literal or symbolic death
  • Resolution revealing how the protagonist has changed
  • Closing scenes showing new world order

There are variations, like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” structure, but the classic three-act form works for a reason. Use it as a template that you can customize for your specific story.

Scene by Scene Breakdown

With your acts sketched out, it’s time to break them down into even more granular parts: sequences and scenes.

Sequences are a series of thematically related scenes within an act. For example, “The new job sequence” or “The falling in love sequence.” Sequences help structure long acts into smaller narrative blocks.

Scenes are where the action happens on a micro-level. Break major sequences into individual scenes showing logical progression. Scenes emphasize action, conflict and rising stakes. Give each scene a short descriptive title.

A scene outline template can include:

  • Scene heading – INT/EXT, location, day or night
  • Short scene summary – 2-3 sentences
  • The goal of protagonist in the scene
  • Main conflict/obstacle/challenge
  • The outcome of the scene – How it sets up the next scenes

Ideally scenes are 1-3 pages long in screenplay form. Outline 30-50 scenes that carry your overall story from opening to resolution. Be sure to outline critical scenes in detail.

Refine and Polish Your Outline

With acts, sequences, and scenes mapped out, step back and look at your outline holistically during the refinement stage. Fill in any gaps and polish the flow:

  • Does each scene logically lead into the next?
  • Are stakes escalating properly within acts?
  • Is character progression believable?
  • Does dialogue need to accomplish something?
  • Is the theme clear but not heavy-handed?
  • Are there holes in the plot or timeline?

Smooth out any areas that seem disjointed or flawed. Also, ensure your outline sets up the ending properly.

Check that all scenes tie back to the protagonist’s arc and journey. Cut any that distract or don’t build enough tension. You can always add layers back during the scriptwriting process.

Remember, the outline is the skeleton. Simple but strong. Writing the actual script will add meat to the bones.

power, pacing, and entertainment potential. But a disappointing script can sink even the best concepts. Investing ample time into the initial blueprint will give your script the foundations needed to soar.

The outlining process allows for creativity within the structure. Use it to tell your story in a compelling way that resonates with audiences. A good outline is a screenwriter’s best friend on the journey from concept to finished script.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 basic elements of a screenplay?

The 5 basic elements of a screenplay are:

  1. Story and Plot
  2. Character
  3. Dialogue
  4. Setting
  5. Tone and Theme

How long should a screenplay outline be?

A screenplay outline is typically 5-10 pages long. It should briefly summarize the story, characters, major plot points, and scene locations without going into heavy detail.

What is a step outline for a screenplay?

A step outline breaks the major story beats and plot points of a screenplay into sequential steps – usually 50-70 steps. Each step can be a sentence or short paragraph.

What is the difference between a screenplay treatment and an outline?

A treatment summarizes the story, characters, tone, and style in prose form, usually 5-10 pages. An outline is more structural, focused on the acts, sequences, scenes, and plot points in bullet points rather than prose.

What is proper outline format?

Proper outline format uses indented hierarchies and numbering for organization. The main heads are Roman numerals. Sub-heads are capital letters. Details are Arabic numerals.

What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?

The #1 rule is to keep the story moving forward. Every scene and line of dialogue should advance the plot or reveal character. Avoid tangents.

What is the 3 line rule in screenwriting?

The 3-line rule states that each paragraph of action lines should be 3 lines or less. This keeps the descriptions brief and focused.

Is 80 page screenplay too short?

An 80-page screenplay is at the shorter end but still within an acceptable range. Screenplays generally range from 90-120 pages. Comedies tend toward shorter. Dramas tend toward longer.

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