Story Planning & How To Step Outline A Screenplay

What is a Step-Outline Diagram?

You have this brilliant idea. If only someone could make it into a film! You think, "Why don't I do it myself?" Why not? Why not? But you have to start by laying the foundations.

Plan Your Story!

Inexperienced writers often jump straight into a complete screenplay without outlining it first. This step is called in the business "step-outlining".
Step outline is basically a breakdown of your story in a step-by-step manner. You will save a lot of time by planning out your story structure before you start.

Movie Outline allows screenwriters a simple and effective way to plot their story. It also provides references to successful films of all types.

These 12 movie analyses and summaries are divided into:

  • Die Hard
  • True Romance
  • Mary is a Special Woman
  • When Harry met Sally
  • Shout
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Apparition
  • A beautiful female encounters a wealthy man who helps her find her true worth.
  • Seven people
  • A cyborg is sent from the future to kill a woman whose unborn son will grow up to lead a rebellion against the machines.
  • Spider-Man

There are now more options available!

What's the Scene?

Movie Outline calls the steps "Steps", not "Scenes". While this may seem confusing to screenwriters who have been using "Scenes" to refer to film timings and screenplay layouts, it is actually very easy to understand.

Each "Scene" can be more than one step in a Movie Outline. Montage sequences can be used to:

Joe leaves the apartment and drives to the bank.

It may be three scenes for a screenplay but only one for a Step-Outline. This is due to the fact that the step-outline requires you to focus on the most important storyline event, and not get too detailed. The scene is described as long as Joe does not do anything major while getting into his vehicle. What happens next is when Joe enters a bank.

Car chases are another example. In a film, each scene is the location through which the cars chased pass. But because the event is the same in all the scenes, they are called steps.

Imagine that in your screenplay, your Hero is bravely running into a building on fire to rescue a child as other firefighters desperately try to put it out. Technically, the scenes are separated by each room where your Hero is searching, and when we return to them, there are also separate scenes. However, planning your story makes it easier to view this as just one event.

Outlining vs. Rewriting

It's true that I didn't outline my films before writing them. I sat with a notebook and pen and started writing. It was liberating, to be honest. The literary world calls it "streams of consciousness". What appears in your mind is suddenly on paper. The flow of the writing takes you on a journey.. but, beware! Before you know what's happening, you find yourself ten chapters into your script with no idea where it is going.

In the past, I would never have thought this was an issue, but then I found myself having to rewrite my work another 150 or so times. It wasn't just for the producers or development executives. This was just for me. I am still my worst critic. I know what works for me and what doesn't.

As a director, too, I've always approached screenwriting projects as if it were my own project. Although it was unrealistic, I could see my work with a fresh perspective. It was objective. I have learned to pace my stories and cut scenes early in order to make them as long as possible. Now I see all my stories as images. I now see my stories as pictures, not words. I think of the scenes in my screenplays not as words but rather as blueprints that can be moved around, and not just a collection of prose and dialog stuck to a page.

Confused? Please read on.

Imagine that the words you are writing on a piece of paper or typing into your computer are permanently etched in stone. The scenes will stay in their original order for eternity. The script is a reflection and extension of your original story. It can be shaped to fit the story you always wanted.

This is more difficult to achieve if you haven't planned out your script first. To avoid this, I started writing scripts first and then outlining them. It's not true. I began outlining my ideas because I wanted producers and development executives to be able to see them and not just scribbled notes. These outlines became longer treatments. I began to write screenplays only after I finished "step outlining" my ideas. The transition was strange and subconscious, but I am glad it happened.

It has helped me focus on cinematic ideas by planning out screen stories from one major event or event to the next. I've also been able define the core structure of screenplays as well as their main character arcs.

You will save a lot of time by hammering out your central plot and events in advance.


  • tenleylancaster

    Tenley Lancaster is a 34-year-old educational blogger and student. She enjoys writing about topics related to education, including but not limited to student motivation, learning styles, and effective study techniques. Tenley has also written for various websites and magazines, and is currently working on her first book. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, reading, and traveling.