People outline imperfectly. That is a good thing.

This December, I taught an online class about outlining. I broke development into 6 phases.

  1. Express an idea as a simple premise.
  2. Expand logline as a one page precis that delineates act breaks.
  3. Break the one page in a series of 30-50 distinct beats, 7 words per beat.
  4. Flesh out the beats into 100-300 words per, creating an outline/treatment.
  5. Use the outline to write a draft.
  6. Rewrite the script by rereading the draft, breaking it down in the previous steps and repeating the process.

The class stressed doing each step in order, possibly excessively so. Afterwards, one of the students asked me, “Isn’t this a soulless and mechanical way to do it?”

On the spot, I said something along the lines of “This is an exercise that shows you best practices. Not everyone can work this linearly, but every step will come into play at some point in either the writing or the rewriting.”

I didn’t have a great answer at the time, but I’ve been thinking about this. I think the better way to put this is that a script has all of these steps, but not necessarily in that order. Some writers eschew all the development crap and just plunge into a draft, thereby discovering the world of their story. This is perfectly fine, but at some point in the rewrite, they tend to use more analytic lenses to troubleshoot their material.

There might be a savant out there who can write a script in a perfectly efficient manner, but most of us can’t. Breaking a story up into 40 beats that don’t suck might be the hardest part of the process, for most of us, we write a logline, try the beats, give up, write some of the draft, then go back to the beats, etc. I used to see it as inefficient, but now I see it as part of the process. Indeed, the inefficiencies in the process are where the artistic parts of the script are born.

So when you write your script, use all off these tools, all of these views to solve your story. A painter will use different sized brushes, and no painter does a perfect job of using the biggest brush, then a smaller one, then the smallest, he goes from brush to brush. So it is with screenwriting. When you’re stuck on your outline, consider your beats. When you’re stuck on your beats, check your one page. When you’ve had enough, write some script pages and make something happen. All of these views are just different representations of the same abstract idea. So long as you continually curate your views and make sure they all reflect the same reality, you can use any of these steps to further your understanding of your world, solve your story, and achieve your draft.



Published by Matt Lazarus

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

5 thoughts on “People outline imperfectly. That is a good thing.

  1. I like that you said ‘views to solve your story’ because that’s basically what the phases are to me and how I use them (especially as an editor). I view the pages of the script as source material to edit and the beats/outline give me the ability to zoom in and out of the timeline to address issues.

    “The very first draft of the script is the first cut of the movie and the final cut of the movie is the last draft of the script. This is the story that survived.” – Quentin Tarantino interview on Howard Stern (

    I also think it’s important for there to be a process of discovery when writing which is why ‘breaking’ it into 40 beats and outlining before there’s anything to break has always felt so detached to me (and maybe why it’s so hard to write 40 that don’t suck?). I found that sometimes I like to carve out the story’s path while writing, outlining along the way like trail markers. You don’t have to be a savant to write a script efficiently with no prior development phases. Act breaks, conflict, things to move the story forward should be innate to anyone interested in writing in my opinion (storytelling is in our blood). You and the audience should feel when things need to change, etc…

    Another reason to dive in head first and just start writing… You actually start. The script isn’t an end, it’s the beginning to a story that is seen on screen. Dismissing an idea outright because you can’t think of enough beats is nonsense. Write the first act, get into your world, hear your characters speak, get to know them just like the audience will except you’re the writer so you get to choose the story’s path. Now plot out the beats, they actually MEAN something that YOU care to write about, not just “hooker in bar escapes mafia”.

    Then it’s on to the next story… Different approach, process and discovery…

  2. “Dismissing an idea outright because you can’t think of enough beats is nonsense.”

    That’s the one thing I might argue with. If someone pitches me an idea like “a cop must stop a crime or else he’ll die of poisoning in six hours,” I can think of a lot of beats, so I can see it as a concept that lends itself for a feature. If someone pitches me “A man thinks he knows a woman, but she says no,” I can’t think of as many beats, so I’m less likely to see it as a hook for a screenplay. Either idea can work (the second idea is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), but the first one is the low hanging fruit for a screenplay.

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