Outlining As You Write

Or: Writing As You Outline - You Decide

I'm working on an outline for a feature, and I thought I'd share my process. The document I've started in Slugline will evolve from notes and ideas, to a rough treatment, to a complete outline, to a scriptment, to a completed screenplay. Throughout this evolution, I'll use various Slugline features to support my workflow.

Start by Beginning

By far the hardest part of writing for me is that whole starting part. This is why Slugline shows you as little as possible when you create a new document. I don't start by creating an outline or a structure—I just start writing.

I only mention this because I want to emphasize that there's no right or wrong way to work in Slugline. This isn't a tutorial. It's just one possible way to work.

I might wind up with a few paragraphs or a few pages, but my goal at this point is simply to vomit my bad ideas into a document. In this case, once I reached the end, I decided it was good enough to share with my writing partner, so I slapped a title on it—but not a full Fountain Title Page, just a quick, centered title at the top of the document. This feels more right to me than a whole title page for a document that's probably only five or six pages.

(Note that Time Shark is not the actual project I'm working on, but if you're interested in optioning it, do call my agent.)

Act Breaks

At some point in the shaping of this treatment thing, I'll start thinking in terms of breaking the story into acts. I'll use Sections for that, like this:

At this point, the Outline Navigator becomes useful, so I choose Show Outline from the Outline menu.


I'll also start adding a note to the first appearance of each character. This is something I do so that the character introductions stand out in the Outline.

Show the Scaffolding

I find that it's useful to call out act breaks in a treatment like this. It helps the reader keep a sense of the pace of the final film. So at this point I'll choose File → Document Settings → Include Outline Elements. Now my act breaks appear in print/PDF output, like this:


But that might be short-lived, because as soon as I'm done thinking of the treatment as the document of record, it's time to start breaking it up into sequences. So I'll tun off Include Outline Elements as I start breaking the Acts into ## Sequences:

Demoting Treatment Text to Synopses

Sometimes the writing in a treatment is detailed enough to move right into a scriptment or screenplay. But often, a paragraph in a treatment is just an overview—a synopsis. In these cases, I'll now add an equals sign = to these elements, turning them into Fountain Synopses.

Screenplay It Up

Now I have a mechanism for gradually refining my document into something more resembling a screenplay. If a paragraph is short and high-level, it becomes a Synopsis (and thereby is no longer included in my Previews or PDF output). What's left are Action elements, which I can now start to dress up with Scene Headings and Dialogue. My original Outline recedes from focus, but never leaves the document. If I ever need a high-level overview of my story, it's there for me in the Outline Navigator.

I'll trade my simple page-one title for a real Fountain Title Page now too. As my document is growing organically, I can easily jump around from Section to Section and work wherever I like. The downside of this freedom is that I need to keep track of where I've left gaps, or underdeveloped scenes. Notes are my friend here:

I use the prefix TODO: in a Note to remind me there's more work to be done.

I'm Doing it Wrong, I Know

There are as many writing strategies as there are writers, so I'm sure you'd do things very differently than I do—in fact, I'll probably do them differently on my next project. What I hope I've done here is impress on you the flexibility of working with integrated outlining in Fountain.

You can start with whatever you like—from a specific line of Dialogue to a master plan in outline form. You can add detail or structure however and whenever you like. You can write loose, and then push that high-level writing into Synopses that guide your future writing. You can use Notes as virtual paperclips sticking out of your growing stack of pages.

And with the flexibility and power of this framework, you can, I'm sure, dream up ways of working that we haven't even thought of yet. We'd love to hear from you about how you use Slugline's integrated outlining in your writing process!