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Story Planning & How To Step Outline A Screenplay

By Dan Bronzite

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What Is A Step-Outline?

Okay, so you've got this great idea. You think, if only someone would make a movie out of it! Then it hits you.. Hey, why don't I write it myself?! Well, why not? Go for it! But before you jump into the deep end you need to lay the foundations for your screenplay.

Plan Your Story!

Many novice screenwriters make the mistake of leaping head first into a full screenplay without taking the crucial first step of outlining their story - otherwise known in the biz as "step-outlining".

A step outline is essentially a step by step breakdown of your story. By planning your story structure in advance you will save yourself a whole lot of time in the "rewriting" stage of your project because no matter how good you are at screenwriting, all writers have to learn to love rewriting!

Movie Outline offers a simple way for Screenwriters to outline their story while simultaneously referencing successful movies of all genres.

The 12 movie breakdowns (outlines and analyses) included are:

  • Die Hard
  • True Romance
  • There's Something About Mary
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Scream
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Ghost
  • Pretty Woman
  • Seven
  • The Terminator
  • Spider-Man

.. and there are more now available!

Step Or Scene?

Movie Outline uses "Steps" instead of "Scenes" which may confuse some screenwriters who are used to using scenes in relation to film timing and screenplay layout, but the difference is actually quite simple to understand.

A "Step" in Movie Outline really means an "Event" in the progression of your story, and this means that each step can consist of more than one "Scene". A Montage sequence is one good example or:

Joe leaves his apartment, gets in his car, drives to the bank.

Although in a screenplay this totals three scenes, in a step-outline it is only one step since the nature of creating a step-outline dictates that you focus on the main story event and do not get into too much detail. Unless something big happens to Joe while he is getting into his car, the scene can be described within the overall event. What then happens when Joe enters the bank is another step.. and so on.

Another example could be a car chase. In a screenplay, each location that the cars involved in the chase pass through is technically a scene, but since we're dealing with the same story event, the entire chase and collection of scenes is referred to as a step.

Or supposed your screenplay has your Hero bravely dashing into a burning building to save a child while other fire-fighters frantically do their best to put out the blaze. Technically, each room your Hero searches in constitutes a scene, and every time we cut back to the other fire-fighters, they are separate scenes too, but when planning your story, it is much easier to think of this as one single event and as such, a single step.

Outlining vs. Rewriting

The thing is, I never used to outline my movies before I wrote them. I just sat down with a pad and a pen and jumped right into it. To be fair, it was a liberating experience. A "stream of consciousness" as they call it in literary circles. What pops into your mind, suddenly appears on the paper. The flow takes you away with it.. but beware, before you know it you are ten pages into your feature script and you have no idea of where you are going or indeed, where you came from.

Like I said, I never used to think this was a problem, until I was faced with the dreaded experience of having to rewrite absolutely everything I wrote another one hundred and fifty times. And this wasn't for development execs or producers. It was for myself. I was and still am my own worst and best critic. I know when something I have written works and when it doesn't.

Being a director too, I have always thought visually and approached each screenwriting project as if I was going to put it on the big screen myself without anybody's help. This may be unrealistic, but it enabled me to view my work from a different perspective. An objective one. I learnt the basics of pace and cutting out of a scene early and into one as late as possible. I now look at all of my stories as pictures. I see them as paintings rather than words. And I see the entire scene-to-scene progression of my screenplays as maneuverable blueprints rather than an adhesive concoction of prose and dialogue stuck together and to the page.

Confused? I'll try to explain further.

When you write a film script either straight onto a pad or punch it directly into your computer, the worst thing you can do is imagine that these words are chiselled in stone. That the scenes in the order you have created them are rigid and will remain where you put them for all eternity. You have to see the script as a reflection of your original idea that can now be moulded and shaped into the story it was always meant to be.

The problem is, when you don't plan out your screenplay first, this is much harder to do. That's why I started outlining scripts before writing them. Well, that's actually a lie. I started outlining them because producers and development execs wanted to see the ideas for my pitches and I couldn't just hand them a bunch of scribbled notes. These outlines then developed into longer treatments and before I knew it I was already in the habit of "step-outlining" first and writing screenplays second. It was a bizarre, subconscious transition, but I'm extremely glad that it happened.

Since planning out my screen stories step by step (or from major event to major event) I have been able to focus my cinematic ideas and nail down the real central structure of my screenplays and their principle character arcs before committing myself to the script itself.

It does take a little commitment, especially if you are eager to start writing dialogue and getting to know the characters populating your new world up close and personal, but if you try to curb your enthusiasm for just a few days and hammer out the central event driven plot beforehand you will most certainly save yourself a whole load of time and screenwriting headaches in the end.

About Dan Bronzite

Dan is a produced screenwriter, CEO of Nuvotech and creator of Movie Outline 3 screenwriting software. He has written numerous specs and commissioned feature scripts including screenplay adaptations of Andrea Badenoch's Driven and Irvine Welsh's gritty and darkly comic novel Filth. Dan is a contributor to Script Magazine and has also directed two award-winning short films Finders, Keepers... (1995) and Absolution (2001) which have played the international festival circuit. His most notable feature to date is Long Time Dead, a supernatural horror for Working Title Films starring Lukas Haas, Marsha Thomason, Lara Belmont, Alec Newman and Joe Absolom. His spec horror Do or Die was recently sold to Qwerty Films and he is in the process of developing his directorial feature debut and various US and UK projects.

Screenwriting Article by Dan Bronzite

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