More Step Outline Progress

October 13, 2009

Things are progressing slowly these days, as you may have noticed.  Competing priorities!  But at least there is progress.

And it was a really enjoyable part of the step outline process — the last sequence of the first act. This is a dramaturgically critical point in the story; it’s that all important Plot Point 1 — that surprising, major event in which the hero’s life is radically changed.

In the case of this story, this will be where the story really takes off — where Joe finally does that thing that we have been wanting him to do all along during the first act: to take off the gloves with both the criminal element and the senior government officials who have been squelching his attempts to achieve justice by traditional means.

In short, this is where things start to get really ugly. 🙂


Now, It Really Is Chaos

September 18, 2009

Strange day… I made much progress on the step outline.

Yep, that’s the strange part.

Since I am moving out  in less than two weeks (the end of my lease), the work of preparing for that move has recently crowded its way into my story development time. While I make it a daily habit to always achieve some measure of progress on the screenplay, they have been token advances for the last several days.

But today was different…

Somehow, in the midst of all my packing, apartment hunting, and handling a couple of freelance client needs, I managed to squeeze in a good three hours of screenwriting, in fact making great advances on the step outline.

When I’m working on the outline, I’m normally referring frequently to the story conceptualization board on the wall with its carefully arranged note cards, laid out chronologically along the story timeline, grouped step by step.


But, like I said, today was different

In this earlier post, I spoke against the possible perception that all these notes on the board were chaos. But today, the board really is chaos, as you can see:


If you look closely, you can still barely make out the chronological note card arrangement half-buried amidst all the other junk.

What the… what happened?!

I blame it on the move preparation. To make sure I get my full security deposit back, I’m cleaning off anything I have on the walls (with the conceptualization board being the only remaining exception) so I can patch up holes with speckling paste and touch up with paint if necessary.

So, I’ve temporarily made this board the waiting room for anything that I had on the walls around my office but didn’t want to pack away yet. 

So, yeah, it’s chaos, just as it appears to be.

“But only temporarily,” he insisted defensively.

Visualizing a better story

August 25, 2009

I’ve marked here four examples that show how the process of visually clustering story elements to the step outline has helped me identify problems and opportunities so far in this story — before their oversight drags me down when I begin writing the screenplay.


The numbers in the picture above correspond with the numbered list items below.

  1. On the “Orlando LaSalle Pursues” card, notice that I’ve used two arrows to temporarily assign that card to two concurrent steps. After eyeballing the clusters, I realized that I need the story beats on that one card to be represented in both steps, allowing me to reveal successively more about the character Orlando as the story progresses through these two steps.
  2. If you look closely, you can see that the “Businesses collapse” card, which comes from the Economy/Infrastructure story thread, is incomplete. When I mapped out that story thread in early August, I knew that it was important to show urban decay early in the first act, but wasn’t yet sure precisely where or how. So I made the card but left the details blank. However, with the story now developed into a step outline, and now that this visual clustering allows me to easily see what else is happening in that step, several ideas poured forth as I pondered the map, giving me the answer, which I’ll now go back to the step sheet and write up.
  3. You’ll notice that I have handwritten a story thread card called “Press Status.” What happened is, as I begin to assign story beats to each step, I could see that I hadn’t fully anticipated the opportunities this step presented for helping to establish the status quo relationship of the press to the police, which is very important for the audience to understand early on and throughout the story, so they can be at least subconsciously aware of the antagonistic turbulence of that interrelationship as its tension ebbs and flows. So, to not interrupt my progress, I just jotted on a blank card the missing info as a reminder to add to this step outline later.
  4. This notation identifies where I’ve handwritten notes on two of the cards reminding me to represent this story element within other numbered steps in the outline. As I stepped back from the board, I could see that the story threads from which these two cards came were inadequately represented elsewhere on the storyline. I then analyzed and identified appropriate steps along the outline I could use to more gradually develop these two story elements and keep them fresh in the audience’s mind.

These are just four examples of story gaps and opportunities I discovered as a result of the graphical representation that this physical assembly process presented me. I might have found them in other ways, but they easily popped into view with this visual map.

Deal me in!

August 24, 2009

With Act I’s step outline on the corkboard, it was time to play cards — to shuffle around and, ultimately, assign each card from each story thread to a step in the outline, which I’ve done here:clustering

As you can see, I have clustered the story thread cards below each step card, identifying which step in the act it belongs to. The main difference you’ll see from how I organized the corkboard earlier is that, during story deconstruction (see example here), when the primary goal was to identify story threads and plot out their primary beats, the cards were positioned horizontally, linking them visually to form the threads. Now that each story element is already matched to a thread (color-coded for easy identification), we can mix up the positioning on the board, aligning them to a step rather than to their story thread siblings. That’s what you see in the picture above.

How this visual clustering helps

Once I’ve rearranged all the individual elements of each story thread, assigning them to a “parent” step in the outline, several questions become easily answered that, viewed just in a document full of words, would be much harder to identify, such as:

  • How important is this step to the story? A massive cluster of story elements certainly applies that many critical parts of the story need to be revealed in this one brief passage, which may indicate not only great importance, but identify unique challenges in how this scene will need to be written with great economy.
  • Are the story threads adequately represented and well-paced in their revelation? If a great passage of space shows up on the board for a particular story thread, that may indicate a flaw in how the thread is revealed.
  • Do any of the steps need to be updated? When shuffling the story thread cards around on the board to figure out which step in the outline should adopt it, this step may need to be rewritten to reflect a newly-assigned story thread element.
  • Are there any orphaned story thread elements? If a card doesn’t belong in any cluster, that tells me that either there is a gap in the step outline or that the story beat represented by this orphaned card maybe isn’t as important to the story as I thought it would be.

I’ll show in my next entry how the visual clustering has help me with Liberty in the Fires this week.

Step Outline Moves to Corkboard

August 23, 2009

As I described in yesterday’s entry, my first task today was to mount onto my corkboard the first act steps, each on its own card, as you see here:Stepping-Out-the-Steps-on-Corkboard

I’ve represented the timeline of the story’s first act horizontally, from left to right, just as it was in the story thread deconstruction phase. The reason I pushed the step cards to the top of the board is to make room for the story thread cards, which I will place below each step card later on.

I know it’s hard to tell in a small picture, so, in case you were wondering…

What is on each step card?

Each card has essentially three parts.

  • The card number and title, describing in a short phrase either where the step occurs (“Return to the Bat Cave”) or an overarching description of what happens (“Dynamic Duo Searches for Clues”). The card number indicates in what order that step occurs along the story timeline.
  • The step analysis — that gray-shaded area below the step title — is a dramaturgical analysis of the step, describing why this step is important and why it should happen at this point in the story.
  • The step description — the main area with no shading — is for the primary story elements or “beats” that collectively walk us through what happens in this step. It’s a highlight — just the key beats in the step — lacking the details that you will eventually see in a story’s final screenplay form.

Can you show an example?

Sure, why not? I won’t be giving away too much if I show you something from early in the first act. The card below represents Act I’s second step in the step outline. It should help clarify the value of the analysis shown in the gray-shaded area and explain by example what I mean by story beats:


If it’s too hard to read at this size, you can download that step as a PDF file here.

Finished the Step Outline for Act I

August 22, 2009

The step outline for the first act of the screenplay is done. And, I gotta tell ya, it feels good!

It’s at about this point in the screenplay’s development that…

One of two situations will emerge:

Either previously hidden story problems begin to reveal themselves, sending the writer back to the screenplay summary to make repairs, or the story begins to flow out easily, with all those little bits and pieces of the deconstruction and analysis phase finding their respective homes within each step of the developing narrative, weaving harmoniously and showing the story’s potential.

Happily, it’s the latter that’s taken place over the last couple of days, as I’ve watched the narrative flow taking shape. What’s particularly nice about this is that it makes the screenplay process all the more enjoyable, which can sometimes get laborious or frustrating if the story isn’t coming together smoothly.

But it is. And so the pace of the story development seems to accelerate a bit more every day, spurring me on.

Before I can get too exuberant however…

I need to press on, completing the step outline for the second and third act. Only then can I be confident that the story will be sufficiently compelling and structurally sound.

So, while it’s tempting to dive right into writing the screenplay, I will hold back for now and finish stepping out the acts.

First thing tomorrow, I will:

  • Print out the step outline onto large index cards
  • Begin rearranging the story thread index cards on the corkboard, aligning each story element to one of the step outline cards, looking for oversights and opportunities to better complete the Act 1 steps
  • Make any necessary tweaks to the first act’s step outline

Then, if the day is not yet done, I will launch right into the step outline for the second act.

Good times.

Trust me.  🙂

Four Steps Forward, One Step Back

August 21, 2009

It was a creatively envigorating day, with much forward progress in spite of the need to go back and edit one of the story threads. Let’s call it four steps forward and one step back then.

The steps forward:

I got much further in the story’s step outline development today, which I found to be more uplifting than a quad-shot Venti mocha. It’s at this stage that the story begins to materialize and show its potential.

I finally got around to naming several of the primary characters that, up till now, had only been identified in some generic fashion on the index cards, such as “The Judas Type Character” or “The Supportive Press Guy” or “The Acerbic Talk Show Host.” Once I started working on the step sheet in earnest, those generic descriptions of the characters became laborious and distracting. Having real names for the characters freed up the creative process in my brain, since that naming task was like an annoying fly buzzing around my face. Consider it swatted.

The steps back:

At this early juncture in the step outline development, I find it necessary to occasionally move back and forth between writing out the details of the step outline and going back to adjust the details of the story threads.

It doesn’t bother me when that happens; I feel this is a natural result of the interweaving process. The very act of defining where, how, and whether to weave each story thread into the fabric of a particular stage of the step outline reveals both gaps and opportunities in the story threads I may have overlooked earlier. It’s not painful to go back and tinker with the story thread because I haven’t yet wasted any significant effort in writing out actual scenes that would now need to be deleted or severely altered. That’s one of the big advantages of planning out the structure carefully before writing the screenplay; once I go back and adjust the affected story thread, the resulting adjustments to the step outline requires just minutes, not hours.

Here’s an example…

As I worked yesterday and today on the step outline for the first act, I quickly realized that my first draft of The Press story thread was insufficiently developed — too high-level to plot out or represent along the story timeline. Also, in the process of stepping out the first act, a couple of pursuit-worthy ideas came to mind on how to use the press to more effectively form a pervasive undercurrent of antagonism that I had not originally considered when developing The Press story thread.

So today I revisited that thread, deleting a couple of elements and adding several more, including a whole new character: a “John the Baptist” type of political talk show host whose presence, though minimal, will serve the story well in three key ways:

  • Adding a counterpoint to the general position of the press
  • Supporting the spiritual symbolism already present in the story
  • Creating a strong point of historical identification for the Trinidad & Tobago viewers, who may find that this story character’s controversial rhetoric reminds them of their former radio commentator Morgan Job, whose hard-hitting broadcasts inspired about as many as they angered.

So… while I had to go back and adjust one of the story threads, the positive effect of that effort propelled the story development forward by leaps and bounds (hereby defined as five steps).