How a Script Outline Comes Together


Staff member
The parameters of this project are that each season will consist of 13 Episodes, and each episode will be one hour long (no commercial breaks). Very occasionally, the Hosts may decide on a different format (a 2 hour Season Finale in Season 2, for example). We post the rough draft outline on the messageboard after a script discussion, might help to explain where that comes from! do we map out one hour of a television show?

Each episode is broken down into 4 Acts. So, roughly 15 minutes for each Act. The Acts are further broken down into Scenes. One Scene is meant to be roughly 4 pages of a script, and should have some cohesiveness to it. In addition, we have a Teaser (1-2 minutes) and a Tag (1-2 minutes) at the beginning and end of each episode. This is the basic template we are 'filling in' as we plan the episode.

Generally speaking, it's better to come up with a little too much than too little to plan out an episode. [It would be easier for a director to trim down a scene by cutting out a few lines than to invent a whole new scene on the spot.] We want to make sure we are telling an interesting story and not simply relating the content as a documentary. But at the same time, if there are too many story threads, it would be difficult to resolve them all in a single episode and it gets disorganized.

So, to begin with, we list out all of the storylines that need to be covered in an episode. These aren't necessarily fully developed, and might simply be important events that we know need to take place. The purpose of doing this at the beginning is to make sure we don't forget about something important that needs to be fit in later, but also to begin to see how the various story elements will fit together.

Once all of the storylines have been listed, we then try to determine how important the various storylines are. One of them will be our main storyline for the episode. This is the storyline with the protagonist. Only one protagonist is possible per episode, and the climatic finale must be viewed through their eyes. So, a protagonist can't die before the end of the episode or be absent from the main scene we want the episode to hinge on. Sometimes, the protagonist will be clear based on the content of the episode. Other times, we will have to discuss for awhile before settling on a protagonist. In Season 3, Fëanor was driving a lot of the action, but we did not necessarily want to see events from his viewpoint. In Season 2, we were shifting from a Valar-centric story to an elf-centric story, so deciding which episodes would have a Vala as a protagonist was important. Generally speaking, the main climatic scene has already been described by the Hosts prior to the Script discussion session.

Up to two additional storylines will be subplots that will also occupy a significant amount of time in the episode. Each of these main storylines will have one scene in each Act. There will be other, more minor storylines. These will make do with 1-2 scenes each. If only one scene (perhaps for a recurring season long arc, but not doing much in that particular episode), it will occur at the mid-point of the episode or in the Tag at the end. If two scenes, these will be placed in Act 1 and Act 4.

We choose the number of scenes necessary to tell a particular storyline. It is possible that there might be more than 2 story 'elements' that we want to incorporate; that is fine, we simply have to find a way to combine those elements into a single scene. The Frame and the Angband storylines are typically reduced to 2 scenes each per episode, but there are exceptions. In both the pilot and one unusual episode in Season 3, the Frame story was the main story of the episode, and the Silmarillion events were subplots.

In Act 1, we are setting up our storylines for the episode. So, this is where we introduce the conflict and let the audience see the starting conditions. In Act 2, we move the storylines along further, as the characters take actions to address whatever problems have been raised. Act 3 is the traditional 'darkest moment' where it looks as though the protagonist is not going to be able to salvage the situation, forcing things to progress to Act 4, where the story reaches its climax. Things are then resolved (or as resolved as they are going to be in an ongoing story) and the episode wraps up. That's very generic, of course, but the general idea is that there should be some flow to the story where the audience anticipates increasing tension. I know it might seem cliche when you know the characters can't resolve something yet because it's only the halfway point, but we should have some surprises in there. Fëanor's death is an Act 1 event, for example, because the episode is about how the brothers dealt with the loss of their father. If tempted to stray away from the template, it's best to think of an example of a show where this was handled well.

This general overview is to help people understand what they are looking at when they see 'Act 3' in the middle of the outline, and I figured might help people understand why the events that are placed there are 'Act 3' events rather than Act 2 or Act 4 events and what that means.

As for where the scenes come from...some of them are written by Tolkien in the Silmarillion. Not always, though! There are entire episodes where the focus is on an event that Tolkien said happened, but that he never described in any detail. S2Ep2 when the three representatives of the Elves went to Valinor, for example, or S3Ep4 when the Sindar met the Dwarves and established diplomatic relations with them. Almost all of Season 1 ;). In these cases, we mostly had to craft scenes from scratch. But in most cases, the climatic event of each episode is a scene that Tolkien described. Some scenes are suggested by the Hosts during the SilmFilm sessions. Others are suggested on the messageboards. So, for instance, when we get to the S4 episode where Curufin and Caranthir meet the Dwarves, we will likely use amysrevenge's idea to show how Curufin got Angrist from Telchar. But other scenes, particularly the ones that are crafted to help advance the story along a particular arc, are generally developed during the Script Discussion or even after once everyone can see the outline and make suggestions for how things can play out. Sometimes, we know what needs to happen in a particular scene, but don't have a lot of ideas on how to show that. In those cases 'placeholder' ideas go in the outline. For instance, we knew we wanted Melkor to be involved in some sort of public works project in Valmar in S2Ep8, but we weren't really sure what he'd be working on. So, we planned out the scenes without the details and filled them in later.

So, if anyone was feeling too tentative to make any suggestions of the way scenes could be done differently, hopefully this overview helps to make sense of things so you can be confident about offering critiques and constructive suggestions for improving the script outlines. And if you have any questions, please ask!

When we started doing the Script Discussions, it is safe to say that none of us had a clue how TV writers ply their craft. Luckily, we got some input from someone who did, so Atanvarno got us started on actually following a plan and developing the story structure appropriately. And since then, Nick has learned a lot about what goes into creating a script, and he's pretty good at keeping us focused on having a good structure. But of course we're all amateurs and still learning!
Here is Atanvarno's Script Writing Worksheet, which is similar (but not identical) to the outlines we produce for this project:

0. Skeleton/Story Question –
1. Teaser –
4. First plot point –
6. First pinch point –
8. Mid point –
10. Second pinch point –
12. Second plot point –
14. Climax 1 –
15. Climax 2 –
16. Dénouement –​

Clearly, the idea is to not just come up with a list of scenes, but to have the scenes work together to build towards a climax. If there is only one main plot, then you have to be much more nuanced in how you let that play out over an entire hour long episode. With multiple storylines to juggle, we usually just try to make sure we get the basics in place.
Oh, and something that is tangential to the script building.

Occasionally, as we are discussing an episode, we end up raising questions of a broader nature. What kind of court does this elvish king have? How does trade work in Tirion or Beleriand? What technology have the various groups developed? How does 'magic' influence a particular item/event? Etc.

While that stuff is fascinating to all of us, we don't typically have the time to really delve into that while we're putting together the scenes of an episode. So, it's really helpful if we've already got some idea of how such things will work based on discussion board ideas, or if we later flesh that stuff out here.
I recognize that different writers follow a different process, and some of these might feel very natural and others unnatural depending on how you usually approach a project.
Like so:


The model we're using here falls into 'Neutral Plotter' territory.

My own approach is much less 'write everything in order from beginning to end' and more 'write the interesting bits first and then see how you can put them together to make it work.' So, probably more Chaotic Plantser for me. When I write a story, I need to have an idea of where it's going, but I don't really feel the need to plot it all out in advance (and if there's an outline, it's all in my head....I don't bother writing it down). But...that's because I'm the only one writing it ;). For a collaborative project, you need a more concrete plan. So, naturally, I'm understanding of our need to develop working outlines so that anyone could write their own unique script based on the collaborative groundwork we've done.

I'm also a very uneven writer. I did once write 50,000 words (in 4 different stories) in a 3 week period. But much more typically, I get about 10,000 words (or 6 chapters) into something and lose steam. I usually finish my short stories/one-shots, but have more unfinished works in progress than completed projects when it comes to longer works.
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