Red Letter Day – Step Outline Done & Delivered

February 1, 2010

As of 7 pm today, my baby—the 30-page step outline—is in the hands of producer G. Anthony Joseph.

And I’m a little nervous. It’s been a labor. Of love, yes. But many, many countless hours of labor.

Of course, one hopes that it’s received with giddy delight—with unequivocal approval of every single word.

Just as one hopes that their stock portfolio will triple in value this year and next.

And just about as likely.

But leave me alone tonight while I hope for that.

Basking in it,


Step Outline Basically Complete

January 27, 2010

Pardon my recent silence—my work on the screenplay has been dogged by a number of competing priorities from some of my WriteWorks Agency clients with time sensitive marketing copy and Web site copy needs.

But the good news—the step outline for the screenplay is essentially done.


It’s coming in at 27 pages—a substantial foundation for the screenplay.

One last thing though…

Before passing it on to the producer, I’m going to spend a day or two, going through it with a more objective eye, cleaning it up, spell checking, and filling any overlooked holes or gaps. Otherwise, it is ready for delivery.

Took you long enough

Yes, yes, it was a long time in coming: longer than the step outline for most other stories I’ve worked on.

In fact, many stories, simpler ones, can be written without creating a step outline.

Not this one though. Too complex. This has been structurally one of the most challenging stories I have ever worked on.

The biggest challenge so far?

So far, it has been the continual effort required to keep this inherently complex story from being unnecessarily complex—continually trimming away anything that isn’t essential so as to keep it from becoming an epic.

And how much smarter it is to trim the fat before writing out the full screenplay! I’ve done that before, and it’s just way too painful. By making the story structurally sound from beginning to end and getting agreement from the producer before I invest so much emotion in time into writing out the complete 110 pages or so of a screenplay—while it is still in outline form—will save me from many gray hairs.

Sure, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting is a seemingly inevitable part of any screenplay development. But starting from a structurally sound foundation will at least reduce the number or severity of rewrites.

I hope.

Optimistically yours,

Stepping On to Act III

January 5, 2010

Just completed the step outline for Act II. And the story still feels solid, which means that stepping out the third act will be a piece of cake, at least by comparison. From way back to the initial six-page story synopsis, the vision for how the third act should play out was already solid. The tough stuff was figuring out how to get us there (i.e., stepping out Act I and Act II).

I expect then to complete the step outline by the the end of the week, not only because it’s the shortest act, but because it’s fully formed in my mind already.

Few steps to the finish line

One strong advantage of a solid step outline is that it saves a ton of missteps by giving you a solid and objective understanding of the drama, front to back. This means that, when you get to the heavy lifting of the screenplay’s first draft, it isn’t that heavy at all, because you know what to write; the step outline informs you.

I hear the some writers (Stephen King being one of them) throw themselves into a first draft of their story without first planning out what the story is that they want to tell, and then end up throwing out half of what they wrote in future drafts.  I contend this is because they didn’t map out their route in advance, which may yield some unexpected delights on the side roads, but will put a ton of wear and tear on their schedule. 

I don’t know about you, but I barely have time to write out the story from beginning to end when I know exactly where I’m going. I would find the process too painful and frustratingly inefficient if I was regularly throwing out half of what I wrote, which is likely to happen without a step outline or some other pre-screenplay mapping process.

Also, the way I create the step outline (you can read about the process here and here), it’s very much a substantial iteration toward a finished screenplay—all the scenes either suggested or already designed, minus dialogue. The outline will probably end up at 30 pages in length. And with the finished screenplay likely coming in around 105 pages, I’m virtually a third of the way to a first draft of the screenplay when I’ve wrapped up the step outline. image

So, though no laurels to rest upon yet, I’m nonetheless tickled to have hit this progress marker.

Or, to quote my son: "Woot!"

The final moment of Act II…

This moment, just written, is where Joe awakens to his true calling and accepts his destiny as a leader of the people, not just a leader of the police. It marks the end of Joe’s police role and his resurrection as a statesman—as the one potential candidate most qualified on a moral basis to run for the top office and make a solid effort to reform the country’s government … that’s *if* he can win the election, when he is coming up against a dangerous, determined, and powerful incumbency.  Which is the core plotline of the third act.

Just Delivered Act 1 Step Outline to Producer

October 26, 2009

A light-red letter day.

I’ll call it a red-letter day when I deliver the entire step outline.  But the effort involved in reaching today’s delivery was substantial enough that I’m feeling pretty dang peachy.

Step Outline TOC

I’d go out on the town to celebrate, if I weren’t so sleepy. So instead, I’ll have a glass of wine, rent a movie, and retire early.  Smiling.

Tomorrow, I get back on the horse and ride; the step outline for the second and third acts are calling to me.


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.  🙂