Outlining Your Novel The Screenwriting Way

by Casey Pope



I hated outlining. I cut my teeth writing short stories, and even then, I hated it, the outlining. I mean, they were short stories. I could’ve outlined the thing on a cocktail napkin. And yet…

“Artistic license” is what I want to call it, i.e, I get an idea for a story and my creative juices start oozing out of my pores and I just gotta get the story written and so why do I even need to write an outline when said juices are ready to fuel my fingers to tap-tap away on the keyboard to create the world and the characters to inhabit what I imagine will be a highly entertaining yarn, on top of which I am an “artist” and artists do their thing, whatever that thing may be, intuitively, instinctively, by the seat of their pants, by gut-feeling, et cetera, and not by some organized process that provides for a step-by-step, well-thought-out, structured layout, essentially a blueprint for how to create the end-product of the artistic endeavor. 

Maybe what I should actually call it, is self-indulgent bullsh*t. Okay, so, maybe it’s not all bullsh*t because there’s probably some merit to what’s explained in the run-on-sentence-pseudo-monologue above. But mainly, I was probably (not probably) just not very motivated in outlining a story. After all, drafting the story itself is labor intensive enough, and so why would I add another layer of toil to that intensive labor?

Before we go any further, here’s the standard disclaimer: There isn't necessarily a “right way” in making art/craft, including writing novels. Many talented and successful writers have various approaches and methodologies that’s worked for them. You’ve got to find the thing that works for you specifically, blah blah blah, et cetera. What follows is merely a suggestion for a potentially useful tool/method that you may want to make room for in your own art/craft toolbox. Though I make NO guarantees that this tool/method will work for you, I can say that it is something that’s made my system of navigating through the hairy armpit of the novel-writing process much more manageable.  

So anyway, this is the suggestion: Try screenwriting as an outlining method. Yes, screenwriting. 

If you are someone who is not into, hates, or just doesn't give a rat's ass about outlining, then please feel free to ignore the aforementioned suggestion and proceed with using your time more wisely, like say, reading one of the very entertaining novels featured on this here website. If you are someone who, at a minimum, does some rudimentary form of outlining, then perhaps the following information may be helpful in expanding your outlining universe. If you love outlining in general and/or enjoy getting neck-deep into detailed outlining, then this article may be in your wheelhouse, up your alley, your bailiwick, et cetera.

Let’s pause here for Disclaimer Number Two: Though I have experience in writing screenplays, I am NOT, repeat, NOT a professional screenwriter. The purpose of this article is NOT to teach you to master the art of screenwriting but merely to make you aware of the possibility of using the medium to outline your novel and to provide you with a starting point in utilizing screenwriting as a tool for said purpose. Okey dokey?

Some, or most of you, may be saying, “But, Casey, you’re admittedly ‘not very motivated’ in your pre-manuscript methodology, yet you want to add another step to the writing process?” 

Yes, yes I do. But, the catch is, there are economies of scale involved in the process (I may be using the term “economies of scale” improperly but it sounds good and kinda sorta makes the salient point that I will address shortly).

Firstly, the origin story. 

Before my debut novel, A Love Life Like Karmic Disaster, became a novel, it was a screenplay. Back in the day, it was an aspiration of mine, to make my mark as a screenwriter. But draft after draft, the suckiness and my inability to make it unsuck, drove me to shelve the story.

Fast-forward a few years and now I’m in a critique group where most of the members are writing novels and my thinking was: Okay, why not, I’ll give novel-writing a shot. I unshelved the sucky screenplay and used it as an outline for a novel. 

The novel-version worked out a lot better than the screenplay-version and I wish I could articulate what it was about the novel-writing that pushed the story to a satisfactory end where the screenwriting did not. But having the screenplay as a basis for creating the novel was for sure an immense boon. It was basically a "cheat sheet" for the novel-writing “exam” and the prose slid out of me and onto the page like hangover vomit into the toilet bowl but not as unpleasant. 

Of course, I had to do some extrapolating and expand on the screenplay in order to transform it into a 91,000-word novel. But the bones of the story were already there, which made it a lot easier to slap the meat on them bones for a fully realized structure of a novel.

Fast-forward again, this time to the writing of Novel Number Two, The Boy Who Couldn’t Fly. Because of the critical acclaim I received for Novel Number One (at least within the critique group, though not all of the group members may remember it that way), I naively believed that I was a fully realized writer of Awesome Fiction and that I could easily repeat the writing of Awesome Fiction without dealing with the extra work of creating a detailed outline a la the screenplay. 

"But, Casey! You just said that writing a detailed outline in screenplay form was super helpful! Why would you ignore your own advice?!" 

Good question. 

Answer: Maybe because I was an arrogant fool?

To bottom-line it for you, I learned my lesson in a slow and painful manner, i.e., relying on a very general and less-than-fleshed-out outline meant going off the rails, story-structure wise, both in terms of plot mechanics and thematic through-line, which in turn made the story meander and become bloated. The lack of direction/detailed outline, at least for me, was basically carte blanche to be undisciplined and go running amok.

I seriously considered shelving Novel Number Two. But at that point, I was already about 80,000 words into the manuscript, and so, no, I wasn’t going to flush that many words down the toilette. I decided to power through.

"But, Casey! Isn’t that what a lot of writers do anyway? To 'power through' the first draft and then cure the ills during the revision process?"

Okay, yeah, sure. And that’s exactly what I did with Novel Number Two. But it took me about four months to cure the ills. That’s ONE-THIRD of a whole year. I’ve got other stuff to do and so revising a manuscript for that length of time was unacceptable for me. (Note: I was ultimately very happy with the final product, but still. Four months?!) (Another Note: For some of you, four months for revisions may be perfectly acceptable and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has their own pace. The specifics of my timeline are used here as examples only and NOT meant to be a one-size-fits-all template.)

When it came time to commence work on Novel Number Three, you know what I did? I laid out the general concepts and characters and themes in a very basic outline and then went to work on the detailed outline and wrote a screenplay. And then I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in three and a half months. Granted, it was only about 53,000 words (208 pages, trade paperback) but it was a historically fast draft for me, and overall, including the general outline and the detailed outline/screenplay, the process was the most efficient and effective method I ever used.

Again, the length of time for finishing the draft of my manuscript is only a point of reference. For some of you, 3.5 months to write 53k words may seem ridiculously fast. For others, you may have written a novel in the time it took you to finish reading this article. The takeaway should be as to the potential efficiency applied to whatever timeline you’re comfortable with. 

I think the moral of the story is pretty clear here. At least for me. The process worked and I was hooked.

"But, Casey! Even if on the outside chance that I decide to explore this method of yours, I know nothing about screenwriting. And based on the screenplays I have seen, the format looks nothing like novelistic prose. How do I learn the ins and outs of the format and style of screenwriting?"

Well, if you have indeed read a screenplay, you’re already ahead of the game. Even if you haven’t, there are screenplays online that you can read for your edification and entertainment purposes. Though the format-specificity of a screenplay can seem intimidating and/or daunting for the uninitiated (including yours truly back in the day), once you break it down, it basically comes down to scene heading, description/action (aka direction), dialogue, and a lot of white space. 

The following is from my screenplay/outline for Novel Number Three, World War Girl Soldier. It’s part of the opening scene of the first chapter:

outline excerpt.jpg


Here’s the thing: If you’re only interested in writing a screenplay for the purpose of creating a detailed outline for your novel, then it really doesn’t matter as much if you don’t follow the rules of format and style of screenwriting perfectly. Right? But if you’re like me and want to be anal about it (and be prepared to act when your secret hope of getting that momentous call from that Spielberg dude asking you to write the next Transformers movie presents itself), then go ahead and study screenwriting more in-depth and apply the tenets thereof. 

A book that I’ve used as a reference guide for script format/style is The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. Also helpful has been listening to a podcast called Scriptnotes where veteran screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss screenwriting, the film industry, and storytelling.

"But, Casey! Don't I also need specialized screenwriting software to write my script/outline?"

Not necessarily, especially if you're only writing the script for outlining your novel. If Microsoft Word is your go-to software for writing, there is a screenplay template available, at least in the version that I have. To access the template: File --> New From Template --> type in "screenplay" in the search bar. I've only test-driven Word's template briefly but it seems to do the job, though I would probably tweak the formatting somewhat more to my liking. The software that I use for my writing is Scrivener. I've been using Scrivener pretty much exclusively for over ten years so, yeah, I like it. And it has a handy-dandy scriptwriting format, which includes screenplays in addition to other types of scripts (Format --> Scriptwriting --> Script Mode).

 As for screenwriting software, I've only used one brand and it's been a while since I've written with it so I won't comment on it given that I'm not familiar with the current version. If you absolutely must have a dedicated screenwriting software and/or are interested in the profession and want to get a leg up on industry/studio standards, there are a number of options out there where screenwriting software is concerned. So I say to you: Go forth and do some diligent research!

An interesting exercise, if you really want to follow the standards of screenwriting, is to try to limit your screenplay to about 120 pages or so. Why? Because one page equals approximately one minute of film-time, thus 120 pages = two hours, which seems to be the standard/average running-time of movies. Also, it's good practice for efficiency's sake. After all, the document is only supposed to be an outline, albeit a very detailed one.

"But, Casey! I know it's supposed to be a DETAILED outline, but 120 pages?!"

First of all, a page of a script has a whole lot more white space than a page of a manuscript slathered with prose. And so writing 120 pages of a screenplay is not as scary as it sounds. Also, the 120-page limit is not a quota, nor does it have to be an actual limit. Your outline/screenplay can be less or more, more or less (more on this later). I use the "limit" as a guideline within the context of the screenwriting format to determine whether or not I have enough story. 

For example, when writing the script for Novel Number Three, I was able to assess early on that I didn't have enough material to fill the pages of even the lower end of a reasonably-acceptable length screenplay. My story was too thin. I had to go back to the proverbial drawing board to see where I could fatten up the story. It was better that I found out during the outlining process rather than halfway through the drafting of the manuscript. It's easier to adjust,  dismantle, and rearrange things with a screenplay than a manuscript.

Another key rule to stick to is: Show don’t tell. I’m sure you’ve heard this quote-unquote rule as one of the commandments of story-writing. And this makes sense, particularly where screenwriting is concerned because the story is ultimately conveyed in a filmic manner as opposed to textually, and so the screenplay needs to be written in a way that the words are easily converted into a visual and audible form. Take another look at the screenwriting sample above. There isn’t anything on those pages that can’t be presented on the screen.

The importance of sticking to the regimented form, including the page-count and show-don’t-tell, is to be disciplined in expressing the story in an efficient manner for the sake of creating a streamlined “outline” and to have a document that easily conveys the structure and the main beats of the story. Like an actual screenplay, the outline for the novel is the blueprint for the final product. It’s a bird’s eye view of the story, seeing the forest for the trees kinda thing.

Save inserting the accoutrements and interiority and heavy-duty prose for the manuscript. I know it’s a tough ask for an author to withhold words but, again, the purpose of this document is to be a blueprint. The process can help to keep your focus on the basic elements of the story instead of also being mired in figuring out how to present it in prose form. For those of you who have experienced the pain of revising a bloated manuscript down to a more manageable word count, you know that it’s a butt-load easier to add rather than delete, especially when the draft of your story has been completed and any tweaks to it could potentially upend the painstakingly crafted structure. And so embracing minimalism by way of the screenplay and using it as a jumping-off point for your novel could be a benefit in the long run as well.

I want to back up for a moment to discuss sticking to the screenplay page-count of 120 pages. I diligently adhered to the page count limit for World War Girl Soldier (the screenplay came in at a svelte 110 pages), which turned out to be my shortest novel to date. 

Subsequently, I wondered whether sticking to the page count affected the word count for the novel, or regardless of whether I was under the stricture of a screenplay page count or not, this novel would’ve been about the same word count. Was I influenced by the screenplay page count limit? Would it have been better to NOT have a screenplay page limit and allow me to let loose in the full glory of whatever came to mind and write it into the story/outline regardless of whether the screenplay turned out to be 500 pages?

"Of course you would think that, Casey! Because a novel is a whole different animal than a feature film, and so the screenplay page count is purposeful for a movie, whereas such a page count for outlining a novel seems...arbitrary. What if you were outlining a novel with a potential word count of 150k? Would it even be possible to do your so-called detailed outline in only 120 pages of a script?!"

All good points. 

My honest assessment? World War Girl Soldier probably would’ve been longer if I hadn’t been constricted by the screenplay page count. But…Does that mean it would’ve been a better-written story? Or did the discipline of sticking to the page count create the most efficient story I could write? I'm not sure. But…I’m satisfied with the novel that ultimately resulted. 

So what I’m trying to say is that I’m still figuring out this method. 

But, so far, so good. The method has definitely improved my novel-writing process by a factor of a lot. And by the way, though my assumption here is that those of you who employ this method will be applying it to the drafting of novels, it’s just as useful for outlining short stories, too, and, in addition to movies, it's applicable to graphic novels/comics and plays. Also, if you’re going to be in the entertainment/media biz, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have the skill set of screenwriting. Just in case that Spielberg guy calls.