Category: Guest Writers & Artists
Step Outlines!? Hold your tongue!
Being organized while you write isn’t for only the index card obsessed writers alone, it’s for everyone. Write Vault’s Head of Development proves that step outlines are not only necessary when writing your story, they can be fun too.
Step Outlines Can Be Fun
by Devin Watson
There is a fine balance one must strike between planning and writing, especially with screenplays. One can end up stuck in the rut of planning to write but never actually getting there.
A common mistake of hopeful writers is thinking that you have to lay down complex and intricate plans for something prior to writing. There isn’t a lot that’s required, and listed below are some preparation methods that are useful and not entirely time-consuming.
You may find all or some of these techniques will work for you. You may find none of them do. Rex Pickett, writer of Sideways, prefers to concentrate on the script and build it up organically rather than plan at all.
Whatever your inclination, it does help to investigate all of these various preparation methods and see which ones, if any, mesh well with your particular style.
A treatment is somewhere between an actual script and a prose story. It usually has elements of both. It’s like an in-depth sneak preview of a script before it’s written.
Most treatments do not exceed 40 pages in length. Since this is a compressed version of a screenplay, the major events (incidents) are covered then filled in with bits of script to show how it might play out.
The practice of writing treatments is used often in the film industry. Prior to signing off on a screenwriting assignment, a producer may request a treatment to see how the story would play out.
Usually this includes revisions to the treatment with script notes from the producer and anyone else doing story development with the writer. In Hollywood it’s rare to find a script written in a vacuum by a single writer, even if only one gets credit for it.
There is no agreed-upon method for writing a treatment. It typically will start from notes from the screenwriter who assembles it into a story, adding in parts of the script he or she can already see coming together. When finished, it looks like a Frankenstein’s monster of both script and prose story.
For this reason among many others, many spec writers tend to avoid writing treatments and instead will opt for the step outline and index card methods of preparation.
The Step Outline
The step outline is like a roadmap for your entire script. It’s not a blow-by-blow of every scene like you might expect from using index cards. Together, both methods are a great way to go from high-level to low-level details while maintaining a fine structure.
A step in an outline is not a scene. They are the incidents or events that occur in the course of the story that affect the course of it.
Every step in an outline counts as a turn in the story. When it happens, characters act and react to it, which further pushes the story along to the next incident. To help the audience suspend their disbelief, the incidents and actions by the characters should make sense at least at a surface level.
Outlines might not appear to be helpful when writing your first draft. While they can be, their true power comes in when rewriting that fifth draft. By separating all of the major events out from a script it’s easier to come back to it without digging through previous drafts.
Incidents should correspond and group together according to the act breaks of the Three-Act Structure. In a typical script, there are about eight of these incident or plot points.
So what are those points? Let’s take a look at one for a hypothetical script.
PLOT POINT 1: A one-man outpost run by Dylan Harrison in a crater in the southern hemisphere of the Moon collects water from the ice, in addition to observing the universe with a massive telescope.
INCITING INCIDENT: A massive X45 solar flare is detected heading toward the Earth and Moon. A warning signal is sent out as the telescope picks up an object near the edge of the solar system. Harrison relocates to a cave in the floor of the crater as the flare arrives. His suit computer is damaged, leaving it depleted of power and running out of oxygen. The flare wipes out all electronics in the outpost.
PLOT POINT 2: Dylan returns to the outpost to find all it nonfunctional from the flare. A faint transmission comes in on his helmet radio from a Chinese base on the Moon. The lone survivor there, Hong, is looking for others.
PLOT POINT 3: With his air supply low, Dylan takes an emergency buggy from the cave and heads north to the Chinese base. He arrives with only the air in his helmet left. As he climbs off the buggy he stumbles and falls. The airlock opens, someone steps out as Dylan becomes unconscious.
PLOT POINT 4: Dylan wakes up in the Chinese base infirmary. Hong tells Dylan he’s repaired his suit and that they should leave. Another flare is imminent and could erupt at any moment and the base is running on minimal battery power. Dylan remembers an emergency escape shuttle in a shielded area at another American base.
PLOT POINT 5: The two leave the Chinese base. The buggy is caught in a crevasse formed by a moonquake. Dylan is able to climb out but Hong is stuck in the buggy. Dylan helps Hong out as the buggy slips down into the crevasse.
PLOT POINT 6: They arrive at the American base on foot. The base is dead due to a life support malfunction from the flare. Dylan and Hong discover that the shuttle only has enough fuel and capacity to carry one person back to Earth.
PLOT POINT 7: Hong admits the second flare was a ploy. He pulls a gun on Dylan and tries to shoot him. Dylan escapes and draws Hong into an area with liquid oxygen tanks. Dylan blows one of them with a detonator cap, bathing Hong in LOx. His suit and body melt.
PLOT POINT 8: The escape shuttle takes off and lands on Earth. Dylan stands outside the ruins of the spaceport as a transmission comes across his helmet radio. It’s the Voyager record being played back. Back at the one-man outpost on the Moon, the telescope computer flickers on briefly showing the object it detected now in orbit around the Earth.
Let’s dissect this outline. You can see that it’s divided into plot points. I could have called them incidents or events and it would have been the same thing. These mark the major turning points in the story.
Plot Point 1 is our setup. It establishes where we are and the basic rules of the world we’re in.
The inciting incident happens right after that. We could have had this happen before Point 1 or even before the story starts, which would necessitate rewriting some of opening. This was a good place for me based on my choices for the story.
Your choices will affect where the inciting incident happens in your story. Be sure to keep it within the First Act and preferably near the beginning, either right before or right after your first Plot Point. Otherwise you’re not getting to your story, you’re doing setup up until it happens.
Some writers consider the inciting incident to be a Plot Point of its own. I don’t. I consider it a spark event. While it does affect the plot, the event itself merely sets up all of the points that happen later.
Plot Point 2 is where Dylan, our protagonist, has to make a critical decision. The protons from the solar flare have damaged his suit and left him depleted of air. He resolves to go to the Chinese base and meet with this other survivor. Plot Point 2 is where we end the First Act.
Plot Point 3 starts the Second Act. This is where we start to make things worse. The Second Act is about taking a bad situation and making it worse and harder. So he makes it to the base but is about to suffer from hypoxia.
Plot Point 4 ups the stakes even more for our Dylan. He’s alive but he’s traded the frying pan for the fire. The base has air but not enough power and another flare could erupt at any moment. We keep the tension up and the stakes high.
In Plot Point 5, we make things even worse for everybody. This is where we’ve dug the hole almost as deep as we want to go. By taking away their transport to the American moonbase we’ve increased the jeopardy both men are in and nearly killed one of them.
Dylan could have let the buggy fall into the crevasse and kill Hong. After all, he doesn’t really know the guy and this is a life-or-death situation, right? But that’s not in Dylan’s nature as a person. Besides, Hong already saved his life so it could be seen as tit-for-tat if he were a closed-off individual.
Plot Point 6 is where we finishing digging the hole for our hero to crawl out of. Lucky breaks may have happened here and there before this, but they would’ve been minor. The base is functional but nobody is alive because our inciting incident killed them all.
And then we come to the very bottom of the hole. The escape shuttle is there, it works, but it only has enough fuel and space for one passenger. A Gordian knot.
Plot Point 7 is the end of the Second Act. It’s where we resolve everything that’s been thrown out there for everybody. We see Hong’s true nature revealed when he draws a gun on Dylan.
While it’s debatable that Hong never intended to kill Dylan if the shuttle carried two, in this case it’s pretty clear. You don’t have to serve that answer up on a silver platter for everybody either. Let your audience think and talk about it.
The resolution is compressed in the outline, but at least a solution is presented. You may wish to try something else out. I only came to the liquid oxygen death after reading about its effects on human tissue and its extensive use in space. It seemed reasonable to expect there would be some of it on hand in large enough quantities to be dangerous if a person were exposed to it.
It pays to do at least a little research while outlining. You may find an answer to an intractable problem in your plot.
Plot Point 8 is where we wrap everything up. It’s the entire Third Act all in one point. We already had our resolution when Dylan killed Hong at the American base and took off in the shuttle.
The ending conveys more information about this world we’re in. For one, it’s implied by the spaceport ruins that the rest of the Earth had suffered a similar fate. Our increasing dependence on fragile technology gives us a plausible enough reason for the audience to suspend disbelief.
Remember that tidbit in Plot Point 1 where the telescope found something? We close on that detail. It gives the story some closure by coming back around to the beginning. You don’t have to play it out that way, but I thought it was a suitable if a tad ironic ending.
Dylan had in all likelihood from the story’s perspective the only functioning radio left on Earth or the Moon, and is dealing with the demise of his species while aliens are trying to establish contact. Writers can be gods with cruel senses of humor.
Deep detail is not necessary for the step outline. In fact, you want to keep the gritty stuff out and only concentrate on the broad strokes of the story here. Think of this as the framework from which you hang all of your scenes that answer these plot points. You want to give yourself some wiggle room while writing your script.
Note that you don’t have to organize it this way. You can write it out on paper or use organizational apps for your smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer if you want. As long as you do it and you’re comfortable with the result, that’s the key.
I’m paranoid about losing data like this so I use a steno pad before going to the computer. The end result is the same no matter what.
This method is taught in UCLA’s world-renowned screenwriting classes to undergraduate students. For some this method is invaluable, especially those that have problems visualizing their stories.
Grab a pack of 3″x5″ index cards. On one card write the number “1” and then write out what happens in the first scene in a single sentence. Repeat for each successive scene, numbering each one.
You can optionally write the names of all the characters that appear in that scene on the back of the card.
Lay out the cards in a vertical column on the floor or a wall. The floor is better because it’s easier to work on.
Go over each scene carefully. Ask if the scene’s purpose is clear or needs to be readdressed. If it does not or will not fit, take it out of the column and move it off to the side. If a sequence of scenes makes more sense in a different order, reorder them. If you numbered them you should have no problem putting them back into the original order if needed.
Using index cards allows you to work with each scene individually, as a sequence, and as a whole.
Charlie Kaufman Roulette
Here’s a fun game I like to call “Charlie Kaufman Roulette”1. Place your index cards back into a stack and shuffle them like playing cards.
Draw each card off the “deck” and place it back into a vertical column from top to bottom2. Then try and tell that story to someone that has no idea what you’re doing.
1 – With nothing but respect to Mr. Kaufman and his amazing writing abilities. I have wondered if he’s ever done this.
2 – You can also throw them up into the air randomly. I do not take responsibility for damaged or lost cards due to ceiling fans.
Devin Watson, our illustrious Head of Development, is a screenwriter and author currently living in Tennessee. His upcoming project, ASPHALT She-WOLVES, is now in post-production.
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