From idea to rewrite in seven (not so) easy steps!!!

People love breaking life’s challenges into “X Number of Easy Steps.”  Life loves to make these people look like fools.  Anything worth doing is more complicated than it looks, anything that promises easy competence is setting you up for failure.

Beginner's Guides - the promise vs the reality.
Beginner’s Guides – the promise vs the reality.

That being said, I’m sure this easy seven step guide will be totally different!  So let’s dive in.

How to take your screenplay from outline to rewrite in 7 easy steps!

Step 1 – Idea

Ideas come from the brain (duh).  The brain is always flipping through memories like a million monkeys on typewriters.  Every experience, memory, dream and idea you have floats around in there.  Every so often two ideas come together, something sparks, and a new idea is born.  Carry a recording device to capture these ideas when they happen, the trick isn’t having ideas, it’s knowing which ideas to write down and having a place to put them when you do.

Step 2 – Premise test

Does your story fit into this form? If it doesn’t, you may have a problem.

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

2014-06-25 18.02.42


Step 3 – The one page synopsis/three act handle.

Are there other ways to write a script beyond the three act structure?  Of course.  Does writing the script along the lines of the only pattern you can count on an executive to recognize actually hurt?  No.  Remember, screenwriting is less about reinventing the formulas, and more about using the formulas to tell a unique and beautiful story that means something to you while still playing in the wheelhouse of the familiar.

Step 4 – 40 Beats
The next step between the handle and the outline is a list of 40 beats. A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat.  “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your beat could plausibly take up 1/40th of a script (three pages). If it can’t, it’s not a beat.

2013-09-05 11.18.01

* This is the hardest step.  Everyone fails here and says fuck it, I’ll figure it out in the writing post.  Don’t do that.  By being disciplined here, you’ll save yourself time and pain down the road.  If you have any questions, email me at mattjlazarus at gmail dot com.  I’ll help you, promise.

Step 5 – Outline.

Your 40 beats are 40 containers into which story is poured.  They’re currently empty vessels with seven word labels on them, here’s where you want to write down everything you have.  It’s all got to fit into one of these 40 ideas.

If you start coming up with scene after scene that isn’t in your 40 beats, create new beats, but go back and reevaluate your structure.  If you’re finding tons of content that you didn’t see at the high level view, that’s fine, but it suggests that you’re not writing the story you initially though you were, and you should go back and re-logline and re-do the handle.  Try to make each beat at least 200 words with minimal dialogue and lots of ideas for cool images and moments.  This will yield you an 8,000 word outline.

If you’re having trouble here, you don’t have enough movie moments to flesh out your idea.  Try tweaking the means of the script.

Step 6 – Draft

If you’ve done the above steps right (you probably haven’t, I don’t, most writers can’t work this robotically), writing the draft will be a breeze.  You’re not really thinking, you’re just rendering ideas you’ve already had in screenplay form.  It should feel pretty easy.  If you get stuck, you’re probably feeling problems with scene craft, which is a completely different subject to work on.   But still, you’re only writing 20-25,000 words.  You already know what order they go in, and you’ve written one third of the words you need in the heavy lifting stage of the outline.

Step 7 – Rewrite

Once you finish, let your draft sit for a few weeks, so you get perspective.  Then go through and reread it, making notes on every page.  Then you’re going to want to break your script down into a handle again, and make a list of all your beats, and then re-outline before you write the next draft.  And so on and so forth until you sell the damn thing or your brain breaks from nihilistic despair.

It’s just that easy!

Except it’s not.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.  But by using a firm and rigorous set of steps to develop your craft, you save yourself a lot of pain and heartache in the long run.

The path from logline to outline to draft is not a straight line.

The treatment is a necessary step in the process, but very few people can solve a story on the beat outline level.  To combat that problem, think of the process as a continuum, and if you’re stuck on one phase of the continuum, the best way to do it is jump to a different perspective (see video game example, bel0w).


People often want to check these items off, one at a time.  This leads to incomplete outlines.

If you’re stuck in an outline jump back to a treatment.

If you want to see if a beat works, you can write it as a screenplay draft, but don’t be seduced into thinking it’s time to skip the outline.

Changing perspectives allows you to solve problems in different ways with different tools.


Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: