Bella 5 – The Step Outline

By the end of post 4, I have built up:

  1. An understanding of what the story is about: A journey through grief.
  2. A character who will undertake this journey. A bereaved person will make choices and decisions under pressure of the loss of a loved one that will take them from devastation to a place of renewal.
  3. A storification dynamic that will demonstrate a life lesson. The bereaved person will benefit from the decisions they make and the consequences of these decisions. We in the audience will learn something about life and how it should be led.
  4. The storification only works if the content is delivered using gaps in knowledge. The receiver becomes involved if they have to provide the subtext that goes into the gaps to complete the story in mind.

This post is a long one, but stick with it. Getting a working relationship with your own step outline is one of the most important things you can do as a writer. If you think you already understand the step outline, think again. Things have changed since you learned about it!

The Step Outline

A traditional step outline

The tool of choice for developing the detailed content is called the Step Outline. Its use goes back to the days when writers would use what are called index cards. Small, A5 size cards, each one used to represent a story event. When the creative process threw up an interesting possibility, the writer would note it in summary form on the front of an index card. As they began to get some feel for how they might deliver that event they would expand on it into more detail on the back of the index card.

The fronts of the cards build into a bullet-point summary of what happens to deliver each story event. The backs of the cards build into a summary of how it happens when it is delivered in real time by the character interactions. I feel sure you can see that the back of a card can change as much as your imagination desires, while the front will only change if you decide to alter what happens in the main plot storyline. In the step depicted above, if you decided you want Sarah to kill Bob by poisoning his wine during a romantic meal, fine! No problem! The front of the card does not change, so the flow of the story at the higher levels does not change. The back can change as many times as you like and change can be easily managed because it is only the detail on the back of one card that is affected.

I go into detail on how the step outline works in this traditional fashion in The Story Book, using the actual method Bob Gale explained to me in how he and Robert Zemekis developed Back to the Future. However, I tend to use a slightly different step outline structure to capture the three parts of a story event: Framing, Character and Storification.

The framing is the equivalent of the front of the index card. ‘What happens’. the character actions are still there on the back of the index card ‘how it happens’, but with an additional third element: ‘what the event MEANS‘ to the receiver. It is knowledge gaps that cause the receiver to engage and create meaning in mind. Your idea either has a knowledge gap implicit to it, or you can work it into one later. I can write: ‘SARAH ATTEMPTS TO MURDER BOB’ and that is a plot sentence. However, if I write SARAH SETS A TRAP TO MURDER BOB’ instantly there is a knowledge gap. Sarah knows about the trap, and Bob does not. The audience is either in a privilege position with Sarah, knowing of the trap and full of suspense for whether it will work. Or the audience is in a revelation position with Bob, unknowing of the trap and will be hit with the revelation when the trap is sprung. This gap means we have story power. I will ensure the gap is present and open and from that moment I instantly have grip and intrigue for my audience in this story event. THAT is the key to the power of the story event encapsulated on the card. So, it is a triplet:

  • What happens: the equivalent of the front of the card (i.e., Framing).
  • How it happens: through character actions (i.e., Character Actions in real time in their story world).
  • What it means to a receiver: in other words, how knowledge gaps manifest in these character actions. The receiver fills the knowledge gaps, completes the narrative logic in the story event, and therefore derives what it means to them in their minds (i.e., Storification).

In reality, the storification is a direct function of the character actions, so it can be listed as an ‘extension’ of the back of the card – 2.b, if you will.

  1. FRONT OF CARD: (WHAT happens)

Sarah sets a trap to murder Bob.

2. BACK OF CARD: Character Actions and Storification. 

2.a. CHARACTER ACTIONS Sarah rigs the bath overflow to the mains electricity. She flies to Sweden to establish her alibi. Knowing Sarah is away, Bob brings his mistress home with him.

2.b. KNOWLEDGE GAPS Sarah knows there’s a trap. Bob does not.
Sarah is in Sweden for her alibi. Audience knows. Bob does not; he thinks she’s at a conference.
Questions are raised (every question is a knowledge gap): Will Bob walk into the trap? Will Sarah get away with it? Will Bob’s mistress walk into the trap instead of Bob?
There are clearly many other knowledge gaps in the bigger picture – for example, the conflict between Sarah and Bob – and other opportunities for embedding knowledge gaps and delivering meaning. For example, early in the sequence, Sarah can be setting the trap; wiring the bath, for example, and the audience are puzzled: What is she doing? Wherever you spot a knowledge gap you are finding power in your story.

The presence of clear and powerful knowledge gaps proves that this story event will work. These are the three ‘hats’ you should wear to get a perfect story event. Framing, character and storification, working hard to ensure that you deliver your event through knowledge gaps will bring all three.

The step outline is wonderful because it is flexible. Change is quick and easy. Multiple ‘views’ of your story are available and the whole story can be managed more easily as it grows.