Before the First Draft Part 5: Outlines, Beatsheets and Index Cards


Writing a screenplay is hard work… but it can be easy as well. When I first started out writing scripts, I had a really hard time finding my story and the right way to go about getting it done. I only had a few screenwriting books – not that they didn’t help, but over time, I realized a lot of the information was not quite complete and getting the writing process moving was a struggle. With today’s technology, we have more resources available to us: the internet, software and blogs which give us more answers to counter the challenges we all face as writers navigating the ever-expanding world of storytelling: writing stories that we are passionate about, that are fresh, original and pleasing to a world that constantly demands entertainment. Good stories never get old. With that in mind, I am an aspiring screenwriter who will never hit the end of the learning curve. Hopefully you can relate and learn from my writing adventures (the good and the bad). Here’s a summary of this journey so far:

Part One: Loglines

Part Two: Brainstorming & Research

Part Three: Biographies

Part Four: The Treatment

And now onto part 5: The Outline. My basic definition for it is this: a list/summary of all the scenes in your movie that make up its plot. The point of the outline is to map out your story so you know where you are heading with each scene.  For those using ‘Final Draft’, there is a template which gives you an idea. I am sure there is a formal approach somewhere that people use, but considering the outline is for my eyes only, here’s what I do:

I write out a short, brief summary of every beat/ scene and what it’s about. Whatever comes to mind. Starting with each Act, the scenes/beats that takes place from plotpoint to plotpoint (see post from last week re: plotpoints). For some people, it can be cumbersome to do this. For me, it’s freedom because I basically put whatever I want – every relevant thought that comes to mind, without judging the merits of the content and worrying about script format, the good and the bad, etc. I also sometimes use the outline to experiment with scenarios, as well as jot down ideas regarding dialogue, action, etc. Usually writing the outline takes me about five to six weeks.

If you think this takes too long and prefer a simpler approach, the other way I like to do it is index cards… or combine both. That’s my wall above for a story I am currently working on.

Each set of index card colors represents a different plotpoint.  Each individual index card has a couple of words of information regarding the specific scene that can be arranged or rearranged.  When I was first starting out learning how to write a script, all I had was Syd Field’s “Screenwriting Workbook” – my introduction to screenwriting, so I never knew anything about outlines or beat-sheets. All Syd suggested (from my recollection) was to do a treatment and then head straight into index cards and putting all my scenes on them.

However, planning-wise, I found it just wasn’t enough, because once I started writing my first draft, I would still find some blanks and I would try to figure out these blanks while writing the first draft by typing within the Final Draft Document (Writer’s block, anyone? This is how it happens!). A big mistake in the first draft stage because the result is: you are trying to figure out what happens next while writing the script and then end up worrying about other things: the look, the writing, the formatting – literally opening a whole new can of worms. Which goes back to the question:

What is the great priority in a first draft?

There are ingredients and steps to every stage in the writing process. You can’t bake a cake without flour. Similarly, writing a first draft without a base is a bad idea – however, messing around with editing, formatting details while actually writing the script without knowing your story in its full entirety from beginning to end, is a BIG disaster waiting to happen. I would know – my first script went incomplete for years because of the following factors:

• Not enough preplanning and writing-on-the-fly (assuming I am going to be inspired as I write)

• Too much editing, fixing, worrying about the details.

Ok, so this might sound confusing to some – I just said you don’t want to be worrying about details while writing the first draft and yet I am saying the outline is all about the details. My point is: the outline is not your actual script – its a set of notes to navigate your way through writing your script.  All your thoughts, all your hard work in the prep stages has led to this moment…so you have a complete script. The first draft is just the beginning of that journey – but it’s the most crucial step you will take to write your screenplay.

Next week: Writing the First Draft.


The Art of Time Management!

So I just wanted to post up something real quick on time management . Anyhow, I have been purged with all sorts of appointments this particular week:

• Looking for new roofers to replace our leaky twenty-year-old roof.

• The dentist because after months of laziness, I look like this:

Not to mention my dear baby dog has a pre-neuter surgery appointment (Sad, but true – my baby – almost six months already – can’t believe it!) What were we talking about? Oh, yes – time management. So here’s the thing – my ability to wrangle time is like Indiana running after the giant ball thing in Raiders… and I think we can all relate. Whether you are a student, whether you are a parent, whether you are a working-at-another-job-and-doing-this-on-the-side dude, this is something that requires continuous work. Something I still struggle with, especially after the weekend when sometimes all I want to do is read comics and watch you-tube videos. Ok, and if you are not like me at all (watching you-tube videos) and also have the additional responsibilities of child-rearing and other stuff, the question is: how do you manage time – aka time to write?

A few years back, this was me: your friendly neighbourhood ‘sporadic writer’ who likes to write but only when the ‘mood’ sets, busy with a newborn, did it only when I felt like it, maybe once a week, twice a week. And why even that? Because I had one idea – just one that I thought would be fantastic if it ever became a movie. In other words, this writer was passionate about the material, but otherwise unsure and not quite committed.

The present. I have managed to develop a few things: better commitment to my writing, better time management but most of all – a vision of what my professional future should ideally be… something I had to search my inner being and discover for myself. Once I did, these are the words I stuck on my desk: ‘GET IT DONE’. That’s honestly all the things  it took me because I realized – my dream is not going to come to me. I have to push all the boundaries and do my best to PURSUE IT.

And commitment is a really tough thing because ‘writing’ in itself is immensely competitive, immensely challenging and immensely time-consuming.For me, it was the one idea I had that motivated me. The one idea has thankfully now turned into a truckload of ideas, some of which will hopefully launch into something better one day.

Anyhow, without further ado (I know – I think every post I write has this phrase now), here are some tricks I am currently using to manage my ‘writing’ time:

1) Think big. When I say ‘think big’ – if you love your story, believe in it… and commit to getting it done by a certain time, no matter what.

2) Set goals. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.

3) While this is what I currently do full-time along with being a parent, for individuals with additional jobs to pay bills, I suggest goals realistic for yourself. There’s the great 1, 2, 7, 14 over at go-into-the-story.

4) Write EVERY DAY like you don’t have another one. I had a huge moment a few years back when I realized my biggest regret would be that I never even properly attempted to turn my one great idea into a film for the world to see. Commit to this and I promise – you will see results.

5) Don’t have to spend all your time working if you can’t – take breaks, but schedule them in consciously so you can return to the task at hand. I like to give myself a breakfast hour, sometimes a couple after dropping my kids to browse the news, as well as some time to exercise, walk the dog and organize myself before I start my day fully relaxed but also rearing to go. After which I do my writing in half-hour increments and set my goals accordingly on a white board. I know other writers who use a timer or stopwatch. If distractions trouble you, go to this post I wrote a while back. I thrive on the freedom app.

6) Start ‘heavy’ and then ease up. For me, initially when I was just learning the ropes, I worked harder and spent more time, now I still work hard but because I can predict the time frame of each stage, spend less time overall. The more writing you do, the better you become. More details in the next point.

6) Prioritize WRITING in your daily life. If you work all day in another job to pay the bills (which most of us do), try waking up earlier to write or sleeping later. When I was just beginning to establish my writing process and there just didn’t seem to be enough time in the day , I would get up really early – like four in the morning, the quietest time in my otherwise very noisy home. Eventually lack of sleep does catch up to you though –  so I reserve this sort of thing now only for emergencies and if I am really behind. For me, I found waking up early and working easier than staying up late, because at the end of the day, my mind would be too tired and mushed-up to be productive.

7) Look at this opportunity to write as more than an opportunity: it’s your job, your stories, your babies that will never see the light of day unless you give them life, until you take that next step and nurture them.  It is only after I mentally trained my brain to accept this fact, I was able to move forward and discipline myself to roll out my first script. I can’t remember the specific screenwriter – but there’s a famous one who used to be a lawyer by day, and would come home by night and spend an hour each day dashing through his screenplays, which ultimately landed him his first gig. In fact, there are many famous screenwriters  who manage to discipline and commit themselves to do this. I believe we all can if we really want to.

8) Speaking of breaks, I would like to add – I absolutely do succumb to the temptation of a good TV show now and then or lunch with a friend. Without getting too robotic, I try to stick to certain times of the day or week for doing these things, depending on the specific stage of work, but usually on my end, these are fairly scarce since once I start getting into the writing itself, I can’t stop. Honestly, everyone needs breaks and it’s not a bad thing at all if you don’t fall too far behind with your day’s work. But here’s the thing with me: I allot and schedule time for everything, so I can make all the odds and ends of my day work.

9) One final point regarding setting goals. Starting out, I used to be quite over-ambitious with these, but being over-ambitious can also lead to disappointment when you fall behind and don’t achieve them. There are several everyday reasons and possibilities this can happen, and when it does, it can be a bit disheartening initially. For this reason, I do give myself permission to alter my schedule and sometimes even go as far as scheduling in some ‘catch-up’ time each day. Ultimately, more than a race, it’s a creative process. Some people thrive in a high-pressure environment while others prefer something more relaxed. I am sort-of inbetween, depending on the story I am working on.

Yes, folks, time management in general is a tricky art, but it can be done. Any more tips or thoughts on this, post in comments. Look forward to hearing from you!

UPDATE: Posted the wrong links before. I have corrected them now.  



So to cap off a busy week, I just finished an outline for a new project that I am really excited about. With all the research involved (not complaining, but I literally had to read at least thirty-five very fat books, courtesy of Amazon in the last month) it took me about six weeks and rounded to about 47 pages. Yes – some outlines can be nice, sweet and short(I am assuming ‘most’) – and others LONG (ahem).Take my current project, a historical period with touches of ‘An Education’ and ‘Mulan’ as an example . More on why I do it this way next week..but let’s say I have the groundwork going for a first draft, and I can’t wait to take the plunge! A busy month which includes revisions for the two other scripts I am working on. Honestly, being a total overthinker, I can only conclude at the moment I find the first draft much easier than the roller-coaster revisions..

Here’s another nice thing that popped up this week from a reader, AP Roberts:

Even if I have no idea about the exact origin of these awards, it’s always nice to know that people out there take the time and care enough to come read and my thoughts on writing as well as  share their two cents with me.  Also like that it gives other bloggers a chance to connect, not to mention, give them some well-deserved recognition as well, so thanks AP for taking the time to do this. Your award nomination makes my week, and besides – who can resist the logo?

The Rules:

1) Thank the Super Sweet Blogger who nominated you.

2) Answer 5 Super Sweet Questions

3) Include the Super Sweet Blogger Award image in your post/page

4) Nominate a Baker’s Dozen (13) other blogs

  1. Cookies or Cake?  Cake. Makes me want to get off my ass and bake.
  2. Chocolate or Vanilla? Chocolate.
  3. Favourite Sweet Treat? Peanut butter drumsticks. Or… anything that involves chocolate and hazelnuts. Sweet and nutty.
  4. When do you crave sweet things the most? All – the – time.
  5. Sweet Nick Name? The Novice Screenwriter. Quite boring, nothing exciting.

The Baker’s Dozen

Here are my favorite blogs – hard to find new ones since I am a ‘lazy loyal’, but these are the ones I am currently ingesting:

• Maximum Z – My good friend and fellow writer. I nominated him before and I will nominate him again.

• Sprinting to fade out – lovely blog after my own heart.

• Traveling Screenwriter – tips, tricks and great snaps.

• My Blank Page – you all know this one.

• Seventeen 20 – Poetry and inspirational quotes!

• aspiringwriter22 – like the rest of us aspiring writers!

• TheByronicMan – love this guy. Check his intro.

• A writer’s notepad – love reading about other writers and their progress

• hudsonwrites – some great tips and advice here! And he WRITES COMIC BOOKS! Love it!

• The Librarian who doesn’t say SHHH – WHAT? Such a person exists?

• warrior writers – great novel writing tips

• Confessions of a Nerf Herder – reviews, news about my favorite thing besides my kids – movies!

Congrats nominees. Headed to the zoo again with my kids before winter’s spell.  Will return next week with the great time management post I didn’t write this week as well as a bit about outlines, books, writing quibbles and something more. Have a good weekend!

Before the First Draft Part 4: The Treatment

Here is a quick recap of the last few weeks:

Series Intro: What you should know before you write

Part 1- Loglines

Part 2 – Brainstorming and Research

Research 101: a little more info

Part 3 – Biographies

So onto Part 4. I am assuming many people reading this already have some rough idea of what a screenplay treatment is. If you don’t, a treatment is essentially your entire script in story-form or prose – in the simplest terms. The page length varies from a single page, four pages to more. This will more than likely not be the final treatment you have at the end if you were to move into selling and then pitching, but it’s certainly something I use to start in order to get some coherent overall idea of my story. The easiest way to start working on this is dividing your idea into three parts – the beginning (act 1), the middle (act 2), and the end (act 3). These are what one would consider the legs of your script – aptly the paradigm as Syd Field puts it, functioning the same way as the legs of a table.

Even though I am not one of those individuals who considers Syd Field’s books the gospel truth about screenwriting (case-in-point – his structural approach with plot points are a bit spare in my opinion. See more info, below), I do find his four-page treatment guideline-approach from ‘The Screenwriter’s Workbook‘ useful to start, in some ways.

half page – opening of story

half page – narrative synopsis of what happens in act 1

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 1

1 page – four obstacles character confronts in act 2 – four paragraphs

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 2

half page – narrative synopsis of act 3

half page – ending of story.

That being said, the way I approach writing that first treatment is what I have learnt from my mentor and several other books and resources.

• First, I start by writing three paragraphs, one for each act, focusing on the essence and avoiding details.

• Then in a separate doc, I continue by dividing each act into three parts: beginning-middle-end. At the end of each act, something major usually happens to propel the protagonist and plot into a new dimension.  At the end of Act three, there might also be an additional sequence after the main conflicts have been resolved – this is the Denouement

ACT 1 (1 – 30)             ACT 2 (30 – 90)          ACT 3 (90 – 110)

Beginning:                 Beginning:                 Beginning:

Middle:                       Middle:                      Middle:

End:                            End:                            End:


In terms of content,  the easiest part of the treatment is usually the very beginning, simply because I have already envisioned some kind of jaw-dropping sequence – something major which sets the story in motion. The middle is a little more intimidating – because there’s so many more pages and content there to fill – but again it’s about zoning in on the character’s growth and the conflicts in the story (something that should hopefully happen in the biographies-brainstorming stage). Once I have done this, I usually adapt some of the Syd field approach into my own and let myself go as far as I want. As long as I am gaining ground on my story, I don’t worry about with the length (case in point: a recent treatment ran to thirty-four pages).

So, to summarize, I am not suggesting a specific formula here. However, to avoid forthcoming headaches, I do believe knowing the structure of your story in the early stages is important – and this just happens to be my way of doing it. By the end of my treatment, I have usually nailed a majority of that down. Anyone else with thoughts on this, feel free to give your two cents in comments below. Next chapter: the outline (index cards, beat sheets and all that jazz…)

Will be back early next week!

Would love to say I know when I can and cannot post in advance but since I don’t (and here’s the usual kids, busy writing schedule, not-always-perfect time-management excuse) hoping to be back Monday with more posts including part four of the ‘Before your first Draft‘ series,  and maybe another piece on – what else? ‘The Art of Time Management’ and something more as it comes to mind. Till then, enjoy your weekend (it’s chilly in Toronto) and see you all Monday!