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:

step2-step-outline 

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

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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).


The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction

August 19, 2009

In short, the screenply story deconstruction process I employ looks like this:

  1. Analyze the story summary to define at a granular level key story elements or “beats.”
  2. Group these elements topically into individual story threads.
  3. Represent the elements and threads visually and physically on printed index cards.
  4. Arrange the story threads on a large bulletin board from left to right according to where they fit on the story timeline.
  5. Use this visual mapping to aid in planning how and when and where to reveal each thread and its elements on the movie’s timeline.

Following these steps is the creation of the step outline, although I often overlap Step 5 with the step sheet development, as they tend to feed off each other.

In a later post, I’ll describe these five steps in more than single sentences. For now though, I’m keeping my hand to the plow, burying myself in the step outline process.


Steppin’ out

August 19, 2009

Focused today on creating the step outline. More than half-way through the first act of it. Step sheet explanation forthcoming. But first … sleep. 🙂


Screenwriting: A Garden of Forking Paths

August 12, 2009

Writing a story as potentially complicated as this one is a process fraught with risks–things that can distract the writer from completing the story or from telling it well.

To illustrate the challenge, consider first the 1941 story The Garden of Forking Paths, in which writer Jorge Luis Borges suggests that life is like a garden with intertwining paths, and that we are each on a path, one that may (or may not) cross the path of another person. Those crossings may be brief, such as when you are waiting in a checkout line at a store, or the paths may join up for a longer, more meaningful time, such as the shared path of a mutual family member, friend, or coworker, before eventually separating again because of death, a geographical move, a falling out, a change in common interests, or whatever.

Inevitably, we never cross paths with the vast majority of other people because of the limits of time and space (if we disregard the quantum physics tangent Borges plays with in his story). Much of our lives then are heavily influenced by the relatively few people whose paths cross or align meaningfully with our own paths through this world.

Using this analogy, building a story — a screenplay, in this case — is like creating a garden (the universe, theme, motif, plot, etc. of your story) and creating characters whose paths shall cross into that garden; you’re choosing how long each will tarry, whose paths they will join up with, and how they will influence the others in your “garden” — your story.

For a story with a much simpler plot, the index card deconstruction process I use may be overkill: just an impressive “pencil sharpening” distraction. Example:

A martial arts instructor sets out to destroy the powerful crime
boss responsible the murder of the man’s wife and children.

That’s a simple enough plotline that I might encourage the writer to get started on the script without wasting time in any detailed analysis (other than analyzing whether or not the story is worth telling at all).

But if your story, like this one, has significant character development,  a large universe, necessary subplots, numerous plot twists, or a large cast of characters, a dramaturgical deconstruction process such as I’ve been describing in this blog can help you tend to your dramaturgical “garden,” so to speak.  I’ll pick up on this “gardening” business in a later blog entry.


Construct Something, THEN Deconstruct

August 6, 2009

A few of you who happen to also be writers, or are so inclined, have expressed interest in the story structuring board and the process I’m using with it. If it motivates you to try using index cards like this to break down the story analytically to aid in structuring a story, that’s cool, but let me first say something important about the way I’m using it.

My tabula ain’t rasa

I first use the story structuring board as a deconstruction tool . . . which of course implies (correctly) that I have already constructed something. In other words, the board is not Step One for me in creating a story. 

In this project, for instance, I’ve already created an eight-page summary (not quite a step sheet but more than a regular one-page synopsis) that tells the story from beginning to end.  In that sense, the story is complete, even if only at a very high level; I know how I want it to start, how I want it to end, and who the primary characters are. I have a general idea of how the story needs to play out to reach its conclusion. 

So, where does the board come in?

Once I complete a summarized version of a story, and type it out into something I think I can sell (or that has persuaded someone to hire me to develop the full story from the concept), it’s time to expand that into a full story.  This is when writing gets trickier, and when I gain the most value in using the index cards to analytically develop, deconstruct, and order the story’s dramaturgical elements.

But, first, I suggest that you solidify your story summary before trying this deconstruction process. Without that as your first step, your index cards could turn into a granulation nightmare — a thousand points of light when all you needed to tell your story was a few dozen.