Welcome to the fourth installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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Last month we learned the two minute movie and now we have a four-page treatment of our story. The next step is the outline, or the step outline. A step outline is simply a skeletal version of the story, your two minute move played out scene by scene.
Robert McKee in his wonderful book Story, defines a scene as a story event, an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space. He goes on to talk about value changes within scenes, but that’s a topic for another time.
Before I write an outline, I like to know what I will need for this particular book. So I get out my calculator. We talked a bit about this method in the article about three-act structure. If I’m shooting for a three-hundred page book, and I like to write ten page scenes (just an example), I will need thirty scenes. Fifteen scenes will be split between Act I and Act III and fifteen will fill Act II. I’m ready to outline thirty scenes.
With these numbers in mind, I know approximately where my plot points will fall so I jot them down in the appropriate slots. We could call that plot slot jotting. But I digress.
Then, I just fill in all the numbered scenes.
Being able to scrutinize the skeleton this way, on a sheet or two of paper, makes it easy to see if you really do have enough plot to fill the book. At this stage, it’s easy and painless to make changes as well, long before you’ve spent hours, days, weeks writing, only to find out that you should have turned left back at the first light.
Once this step outline is finished, you can focus all your energy on filling in the body of the story, the character emotions, setting details, dialogue, etc. You’ll know where you’re going and won’t have to worry about whether the motel will be full-up or not when you get there. (I love road-trip spontaneity, but also love knowing I have reservations.)
So what does a step outline look like? I’m glad you asked. Hang with me a moment and I’ll show you some steps. First, let’s look at the two minute movie outline of Romeo and Juliet.
Melancholy Romeo Montague meets innocent Juliet Capulet at a Capulet party. They fall in love.
Because the two families hate each other, the Friar agrees to marry the kids secretly - and so they marry.
Soon thereafter, a street fight ends with Juliet’s kinsman dying by Romeo’s hand. Romeo flees Verona after consummating his marriage to Juliet.
Juliet’s family announces her forthcoming marriage to Paris. Juliet fakes her death.
Romeo misses the message and thinks that she’s really dead so he kills himself. Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead and kills herself. End of story.
So, here’s what the first few scenes would look like in the step outline:
1. Two Capulet servants tussle with two Montague servants. Prince arrives, breaks up the fight. Romeo is melancholy because he loves Rosaline, conversation with his cousin.
2. Paris talks to Juliet’s father re: marriage. Romeo and Benvolio learn of the Capulet party and plan to go.
3. Juliet and Mom discuss marriage to Paris, Juliet is obedient.
4. The boys on the way to the party.
5. Romeo first sees Juliet. Tybalt realizes that there are Montagues present. Patriarch steps in and averts violence. First touch. First kiss.
You can see that it was quite a jump between the highlights of the two minute movie and the “final” step outline. It’s very possible that there will be versions in between. It all depends on how much detail you have cooked up in your head before the plot slot jotting begins.
Every author works differently and some absolutely can’t plot beforehand. Most screenwriting books insist that you do so, though. And while I absolutely HATE to be told that I HAVE to do something, I have come to see the value of outlining before I write.
Whatever you decide, just write. See, though I’m not good at taking orders, I’m pretty good at giving them :) I hope these ongoing tips from the screenwriting world have sparked ideas and given you more tools with which to work.
Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)
Cheers, Jax (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.