What Is a Film Outline?

by Nathaniel Williams
It helps to have an outline before you start typing away.

It helps to have an outline before you start typing away.

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Despite the ubiquity of "behind-the-scenes" and "making-of" videos, the process of conceiving, preparing, and producing movies remains a mystery to most of the filmgoing public. Movies are usually written in a manner very different from novels, comic books, and even television shows. One tool screenwriters and producers use in development is a film outline.

The Need for an Outline

A film is about structure, much more than is a novel, which usually is consumed in multiple sittings. A film has just a couple of hours to tell its story, and it must do so with almost ruthless efficiency. Also, a film by its nature must occupy the viewer's attention fully. Books can be put down after a paragraph and picked back up easily, but most viewers like their movies to immerse them. Consequently, pacing and structure are more important than things such as the quality of the dialogue.

The Basics of an Outline

A film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some view this as a formal "three-act structure," while others feel a film can be less rigid in construction. Nevertheless, a well-told story in a film must have a beginning: in which setting, characters, and the foundations of conflict are established. It must have a middle: in which complications ensue, conflicts emerge, and characters attempt to surmount obstacles. And it must have an ending: in which resolutions are reached (or definitively not reached, depending on the genre) and the audience receives some sense of the story logically ending.

Scene by Scene

Once the writer has created characters and understands the basic beginning, middle, and end of the story, he must structure the film by scenes. Most films have remarkably few scenes. They imply and convey much more happening off-screen than they show on-screen. Each scene should be designed in the outline stage before full writing commences. Consider the function of each scene, how it moves the story forward, what it shows the audience and what it does not show, and whether the scenes in context flow well together and do not create confusion.

Writing the Screenplay

Once a solid outline has been created and polished, this outline can be used as the backbone and guide for the screenplay. Knowing the purpose of each scene, and how that scene connects and relates to the scenes around it, is immeasurably helpful in writing the screenplay itself. Writers can often become lost in the seamless flow of a film, and having this outline as a constant resource helps maintain the focus and structure needed to write an effective narrative screenplay.


  • "On Film-Making"; Alexander Mackendrick; 2005
  • "Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting"; Syd Field; 1979

Photo Credits

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