Screenwriting 101: How To Write The Step Outline

Se7en (image: New Line Cinema)

Recently discussed in a Screenwriting 101 article, here is how to write a step outline

By Del Harvey (doddleNEWS)

What Is A Step Outline?

You may be reading this and asking, what is a step outline? Will it make my work into a paint-by-numbers movie? What will happen to my creativity?

Well, if you do it right, your creativity should flow, and your film should have a much stronger foundation. Two of many things script readers and producers look for.

A script step outline is not meant to stifle your talents. Instead, think of it as a tool to enhance your agility, so that you can build upon the core concept and bring all those great characters and scenes to glorious life.

Think of it this way: Say you’ve just won $10,000 in the lottery, and you want to take a vacation. You don’t know where you want to go, so you pack a bag, stuff the cash in your pocket, and walk out the door. You go to all these new and unusual places, which on the face of it is pretty cool. But eventually you run out of money, you have no idea where you are or how to get back home. You are literally nowhere.

If you don’t plan out your story with a step outline, if you don’t create a map for your journey, then you have no idea where the story will go or how it will end.

The creative genius in you says, “Hogwash! I’m smarter than that! I just KNOW I’ll figure it out when I get there!”

And to you I say, “Have a nice trip!” Although I may wish you well, deep inside I know, sadly, that you are not taking your writing seriously.

So, How Do I Make A Step Outline?

What you are going to do is sit down and put all the ideas you have for your story on paper by creating a step-by-step breakdown of your story.

Let me say that another way in hope of simplifying the process:

You are going to map out what happens in your story visually, step-by-step, one scene at a time.

Your goal is to create steps instead of scenes. Don’t let this confuse you. You are telling a story at this point and laying the foundation. Worry about the correlation of scenes to film timing and script layout later.

For now, think of the “steps” you are writing as “events” in a timeline of your characters’ histories. Which means that each step can consist of more than one scene in your eventual screenplay.

By creating a step outline, you will create a much stronger story structure than you would have by simply sitting down to write a 90-page script and seeing where it takes you. And most importantly, you will save a whole lot of time in the rewriting stage of your project because no matter how good you are at screenwriting, good writing is rewriting.

There are a few different writing software options, if you wish to go that route. But it really isn’t necessary; you can use any word processing or screenwriting software to make a step outline.

What Does It Look Like?

It looks like a series of paragraphs, each separated by a single white space. You should put a scene header at the top of each paragraph, but you don’t absolutely have to. I bet that once you begin your outline, you will soon find yourself doing this simply because it helps you to organize your thought,s and remember what has happened earlier in the story.

What you write into those paragraphs is important. Think of them as synopses of the action which occurs in a larger scene, or in several smaller, connected scenes. Do not include dialogue; be economical in your writing, and try to get the general idea down as quickly as possible and move on. You may not be able to do this with some of the larger scenes, but you don’t want to waste time nitpicking every little detail. There’s plenty of time for that later. For the first pass, just get the ideas down.

Now, count your pages. Assuming you have set your document format with 1-inch margins all around, and you are using a 12-point type (preferably Courier), and you have numbered your pages, then you are doing it right. So, count your pages. If your total is somewhere between 12 and 15 pages, then you have a step outline which will most closely translate into a 90-page script.

What Now?

Now you read the step outline. And revise it. Maybe move a few steps around, or break them out. But in the end, what you have done is created the very core story that is the first step in structuring your final script. Quite seriously, now the real work begins. You can now begin to “flesh out” each step by adding detailed scenes and dialogue. When you do, you will be surprised how quickly you can reach 90 pages.

The famous scars scene from The Dark Knight

If you don’t believe it works, then sit down with a published script and break it down. There are many popular and award-winning films, whose structure will become obvious through outlining: Die Hard, True Romance, There’s Something About Mary, When Harry Met Sally, The Dark Knight, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Se7en, and many more.

Why Do I Need To Outline My Script?

Because the human mind thrives on structure, whether we like to think so or not.

While “stream of consciousness” writing can certainly be liberating, it can also take a very long time for the writer to understand their characters, and the world those characters live in and their true motivations.

Because we give ourselves far too much time to languish in the creative thought process, and not enough time committing those characters to the stakes and barriers they must encounter in order to make a film stronger. It is a very great experience for a writer to simply sit down and let their creative juices flow from their fingertips to the keyboard; but it is very time consuming and can lead to distraction.

When you must rewrite in order to improve a script – and there is no other way to improve a script – then you need to be able to work quickly and efficiently. That is the great power in using a tool like a step outline. And the time spent rewriting is greatly diminished.

Your goal as a screenwriter is to sell a script. When you send a script out to a producer, production company, literary agent, or someone else with the power to greenlight it, you want to send out the best work possible. And when you get feedback, you want to be able to rewrite that script and get it back to them as quickly as possible, in much better shape than when you received their notes.

The step outline helps you do these things. Once you can start thinking in terms of steps, then you are truly thinking in terms of plot and plot points. And those are the real tools of the storyteller.

Hope this tutorial on writing a step outline helps. Would love to hear your feedback.

In the next article, we get back to writing your script, 10 pages at a time.

Check out our library of Screenwriting 101 articles here.

Del Harvey is an independent filmmaker, screenwriter and teacher living in Chicago.

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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