Emmy-winning writer Jeffrey Scott gives some insight into when to stop with your outline and start your screenplay.


Standing Couple Embracing (Study for The Kiss), 1907–8, Gustav Klimt.

Graphite, red pencil, heightened with gold. Albertina, Vienna, Batliner Collection

I recently went to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and looked at dozens of pencil drawings by Gustav Klimt. Surprisingly, I made an interesting mental connection with screenplay outlines.

A pencil drawing visualizing what is going to be painted is to an oil what a screenplay is to a film.

But just as a screenplay is a detailed sketch ready for interpretation by the artist/auteur/director, an outline is a penciling in of ideas which will be interpreted by the writer into a screenplay. An outline is not a finished product. As such it doesn’t need to be 100% complete. And if you try to complete it you will set yourself up for a headache, and very likely waste a lot of time.

You can only take an outline so far before you start building a screenplay. This is because an outline will change—sometimes dramatically—when you begin to interpret it into a screenplay.

When the ideas of your outline meet your characters in their reality taking their actions everything will begin to change. Your characters will become much more real as they begin to speak and act. And as they become more real they will begin, just like real people, to create their react off other’s actions and do unexpected find things in their environment that will help them achieve their goals...or avoid things that do not. This is where the real spontaneity of character comes from—not from mechanically plotting the story, theme, plot points and character arcs, or from writing long and detailed descriptions of who your characters are, but from the characters themselves DOING.

The important thing to take away from this is that you can overwrite your outline. When I write a feature outline I certainly want to know that all of the basic plot points are there, the character arcs are there, the theme is played out—but only to a degree. I always reach a point where I think I could develop these beats and arcs and plot points further, but I become anxious to get into the reality of my characters, down to the street level, and bring them to life. So I never really “complete” my outline.

When I feel the calling of the script I begin to write it. Then things start changing. And if I need to go back and play with the outline beats I do it, but with far greater insight.

Klimt’s pencil drawings, though wonderful in themselves, are often mostly sparse lines indicating position and attitudes, while his oils are masterworks of vibrant detail. Like Klimt, you don’t need too much detail in an outline—just enough to fire up your passion and make you yearn to turn the lines into art. 

The Kiss, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907-1908, Gustav Klimt.

Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved