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Writers' Room 101: Writing The Outline

TV writer Eric Haywood walks you through the process of writing an outline for a one-hour television drama.

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Once the episode you’ll be writing has been pitched, beat out, broken, and blended, there’s just one last major step before you’re ready to officially begin the script: writing the outline.

And that means congratulations are in order, because you’re in the home stretch. The finish line is finally in sight...almost.

The outline is simply a document that contains an all of your blended beats, arranged in order, with each scene described in a detailed paragraph. For one-hour dramas, a completed outline will be somewhere around ten pages long.

Finish Line

The purpose of the outline is twofold: first and foremost, it’s an extremely helpful tool not only for you as the writer, as it will become your lifeline once you begin writing the script. And secondly, it gives the powers-that-be (showrunner, studio, and network) a fuller picture of what kind of shape your story’s in. This is critical because it’s their last chance to weigh in on any and every aspect of the story before you crack open your screenwriting software and commence the first draft.

Hmm. Maybe “last chance” isn’t the best choice of words. To be clear, the folks paying your salary can (and often will) weigh in with changes at any point in the entire process, for any number of reasons, even if you’ve already started (or finished!) writing the script. So don’t think you’ve been granted immunity from any further notes once you’re given the go-ahead to start the outline. Nope. It doesn’t work that way (remember what I said about not getting married?).

Long story short, the outline helps everyone get on the same page with respect to what your script will look like before you even write it. This includes the rest of the writing staff, who may or may not be up to speed on any last-minute changes to your episode that happened after you’ve been excused from the room for a few days to create the outline. If you’re off cranking out your outline, working form home or alone in your office, the other writers need to know if a certain character or storyline has been added, dropped, or substantially altered based on direct sidebar conversations you may have had with the showrunner.

Having said all that, maybe you’re one of those writers who happens to hate writing outlines. Maybe, in the countless spec scripts you’re undoubtedly churning out in your spare time, you prefer to “let the characters guide the story” or just “go with the flow” and just write scenes as they occur to you. Or maybe you just feel like outlining a script scene-by-scene sucks all the spontaneity out of your creative process, and the very idea makes you feel boxed in and constrained as a writer.

Yeah. Cool story, bro. But it’s not gonna get you very far in television. You’ll have to adapt to this new way of working.

For all the reasons I listed above, outlining is pretty much mandatory. There are simply too many people involved and too many moving parts for everyone to cross their fingers and hope that you come back with a workable script that fits the direction the showrunner and/or network wants to take the show. My advice is to try and get all of your best ideas out there during the pitching and story breaking stages, because the outline itself is really just an expanded version of the beats you and the writing staff pitched in the room.

So here’s what you’ll do: let’s say, hypothetically, that your episode contains 50 scenes (or “beats”) spread across five acts. Once your story is blended, you’ll know each scene in chronological order, you’ll know where the act breaks are, and you’ll also know the slug line for each scene (e.g., “INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY” or “EXT. LOADING DOCKS – NIGHT”). If your show’s writers’ assistant hasn’t already done so (the good ones will, but you should be prepared to do this yourself if need be), you’ll take all of that information and use it to create a beat sheet – a document that lists all of these beats and slug lines for each of your five acts. Each scene might be described in a sentence or two, and what you’ll end up with is a skeletal form of what will soon be your outline and, eventually, your script itself.

Speaking of which, here’s another tip that I find extremely helpful: writing your beat sheet in a Microsoft Word document is fine, but what’s far, far better is to create it using whatever screenwriting software your show already uses. You’re going to be writing the script using that software anyway, so why not go ahead and give yourself a head start? This way, you won’t have to waste time recreating the beat sheet later on.

Okay. So now you’ve got a beat sheet that’s maybe three or four pages long. Your showrunner may or may not ask to see it. If not, no worries – it’s not a wasted step. Because you’re going to take that same beat sheet and flesh out each scene from a sentence to a full paragraph, detailing what’s happening in the scene and maybe even including key snippets of dialogue.

By the time the outline is finished, you should have a document that’s closer to ten pages long. That’s what you’ll turn in. And if you’re especially studious, you’ll finish your outline a day or two ahead of the deadline you’ve been given. This allows you a little breathing room so you can politely ask one of the senior writers on your staff to take a look at it and give you feedback before you submit it to the showrunner. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get some helpful notes that’ll make your outline shine even brighter in the showrunner’s eyes.

And that’s it! You’re done! Again, you might get asked to tweak your outline before you begin the script, but if the tweaks are small enough, sometimes the showrunner will just tell you to incorporate them directly into the script as you write it.

In general, outlines can be a great way to help you get the right “feel” for your story and characters prior to beginning the script. I’ve found that this is especially true if it’s the first outline you’ve written for a particular show. Besides, for many writers, outlining is considered the last “hard” step in the process, because once it’s finished, so much has been thoroughly mapped out that the actual writing of the script is practically a foregone conclusion.

Final note: the one thing you shouldn’t do is view the outline stage as your opportunity to “fix�� or “improve” the story. DO NOT take it upon yourself to start adding entire scenes because you’ve discovered that the script needs them, or deleting scenes because they suddenly feel redundant or superfluous to you. That’s not your call – not if the showrunner, network, and everyone else above you has already signed off on everything as-is. I once did this very early in my career, and let’s just say it’s a mistake I learned never to make again.

If you hit a snag, your first duty is to make every effort to make the already-approved scenes work. And if you’ve tried and found that you just can’t do it, reach out for your show’s head writer (usually a co-executive producer, the “number two” in command who runs the writers’ room in the showrunner’s absence). Explain the problem you’re having, and they’ll either help you find a solution or, if it’s important enough, refer you to the showrunner for guidance and some kind of final ruling. What you don’t want to do is simply hand in a finished outline that you’ve substantially altered without getting the approval of anyone in a position of authority. Showing initiative is great, but you don’t want it to backfire on you.

Make sense? I hope so. Because once your outline is approved, it’s time to take all this information and write the script!

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