The Sticking Place

Step Outlines

In his book On Film-Making, Mackendrick writes:

To help you develop your skills at plotting, the step outline form is well worth studying. A step outline is a working document, often prepared at an interim stage in a screenplay’s development, meant to be read only by people who are already involved with a project. It can function as the rough sketch made when writers and producers are confronting the problems of adapting a novel, a play or property that is not yet organised as screen material. It can also be made at a stage when drastic reconstruction and revisions have to be made to an early draft of a screenplay. What it is not, however, is the form in which the story idea is first put down. In the context of a dramatic construction class we shall make use of the step outline form to analyse completed films. By doing so we will retrace the history of some of our favorite stories and uncover the skeletons under the skin and flesh of these completed works.

So what exactly is a step outline? It is a brief analysis of plot-structure of an already existing feature film, a bare synopsis of the steps of a story, a tool with which to dismantle and expose the dramatic narrative structure and mechanisms at work. It is a list of the basic steps in the progression of a film narrative as one scene (meaning an episode that often has its own internal structure, minor crisis and peripety) moves to the next. It is nothing but plot mechanics, the bones of the narrative stripped of flesh and nerve, and should be as short as possible while still containing everything essential to the structure of the story. Length will vary according to how dense the plot in question is. An outline may be only three or four pages in length, or it may take up to fifty pages if it is important to explain a complex plot.

It is useful to set down the steps in numbered paragraphs. These usually represent scenes, a unit of dramatic action. One is apt to think of a scene as being an event that takes place in a single geographical location, but a more useful way is to consider it as an incident or confrontation that contains within it the action/objective dialectic of narrative progression (the dramatic event) as seen in the larger shape of the story as a whole. A scene is a section of a narrative in which there is one clearly defined purpose and intention, the space occupied by a single predominant episode of dramatic tension, though contained within the scene might be a series of smaller steps or story beats. The idea is that each character is likely to have not only a central objective to his or her behaviour but also minor and incidental activities that are necessary to achieve en route to this main objective.

Analogies with literature are not always accurate, but you might think of the way a writer breaks up a book into chapters, a chapter into paragraphs, paragraphs into sentences, sentences into clauses or phrases, each having individual structure and meaning. Thus a story beat might be a sequence of several lines of dialogue or certain actions prompted by a single identifiable intention. It might even be something as simple as the articulation of discrete feelings and thoughts. When a story is looked at in this fashion, you have to be very clear in your analysis of what actively occurs in every scene (especially if it takes place in more than one location) and your story as a whole. You have to recognize where the story has just come from and how every particular step effects what may, or may not, happen next.

In this respect a step outline is not just a list of scenes – it a chain of events. As you number the scenes, keep in mind that each should read as a progressive move, a step in a cause-and-effect chain. Think, for instance, of beginning each new paragraph with the unwritten phrase, ‘So the consequence of this is…’ This should help you recognize the need for the drive that gives continuous energy and tension to a story. After each paragraph of a step outline the reader should know why he is still sitting here, wondering and waiting for what happens next. Remember: ‘expectation mingled with uncertainty.’ Both factors are necessary. The anticipation is our sense of expectancy about what has just happened and how it is likely to produce a new event we suspect is likely to follow. The uncertainty is our sense that even though we have an idea as to what will happen next, we cannot be sure of precisely how it will turn out. We anticipate but are still ready for surprises. The task of the storyteller is thus often the invention of a structure along the principle of Chinese boxes. A situation is created where our curiosity is whetted by the desire to uncover or disclose a solution, or to unravel a knot of tension, but when the discovery is made or the knot unravelled, it shows only another box, another hiding place.

In order to concentrate on plot structure, I suggest you provide at the start of an outline a list of the story’s principal (and important subsidiary) characters alongside a couple of lines describing their age and relationships to each other. (Don’t bother about physical appearance unless it is significant to the story and the action. Some years ago, a student produced an outline of Bad Day at Black Rock. It is a number of years since I saw this film and was puzzled by the feeling that something was missing. Then I realized that the synopsis did not mention that the central figure is a war veteran who has only one arm. Since this small detail is quite central not only to the character but the plot too, it was a curious omission.) When writing about the principals be sure to emphasise their interrelationships only so far as this defines their motivations and hence actions. This might mean putting down something about their past history, information that provides the character with a purpose and dramatic intention in their present action.

An outline contains no unnecessary descriptions written for atmospheric purposes. It will also generally ignore aesthetic qualities of the work. Hamlet, for example, has a plot that, when read in the step outline form, is not all that interesting compared with the extraordinary depth and resonance of the true genius of the work expressed through its poetic language. The outline is concerned primarily with action, which means there should be no explicit explanation of character or motive, no intrusion of the writer’s opinion. Inevitably, because an outline concentrates on plot, it has no space for exploration of nuances of meaning and provides little comment on the story’s theme or the characterisation developing within that structure. When writing a step outline a good writer can, in the minimum of words, set down the beats of a story that will describe the character-in-action with utmost clarity and that will in turn imply character and theme.

A step outline need not be tedious to read. Though it is a working document, it should be interesting and exciting. The need for economy and simplicity does not mean it should be merely a list of incidents and events full of abbreviations and disconnected phrases. It should have its own narrative drive and momentum. Expert journalists are apt to have this knack, the ability to set down information that has force and clarity in its emphasis on the cause-and-effect momentum. Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. This has the advantage of disciplining you to write in the language of action and reaction rather than static conditions and ongoing, continuous activities that do not involve much tension and that tend to be overly descriptive and explanatory. It has been interesting for me to appreciate that from the very grammar of the sentence structure in which an outline is written, I can sense whether or not the student has got the hang of cinematic narrative progression.

It is a good idea to pick for your first step outline a film you find interesting and dramatically rewarding. At the same time do not forget that some of the films particularly exciting to students are very difficult to vivisect in this way. The step outline, as we have said, strongly emphasises plot. When a film has a very strong and obvious plot structure it can be relatively easy to put into outline form. But plot is in some ways the least interesting aspect in many superb films. Contemporary cinema is apt to depend on values that are much more subtle (even impossible) to communicate in an outline. So I advise you to start with a film that has a single and strong narrative line. Watch the whole film through. On the second viewing make notes on each scene. These initial notes can be very cryptic: a list of the characters, sometimes a key dialogue phrase, no more. Once you have memorised (internalised) the sequence of story events, you are ready to start on the outline proper. The real task at this point is to eliminate everything that is not a step or move in the narrative. The great temptation is to interpret, to write in a way that communicates the qualities of the film. But remember that the purpose of the step outline, as distinct from most other forms in which a film story can be written, is to reduce the plot mechanism to its bare bones, to strip it of all its other values.

Four of Mackendrick’s step outlines, written for his CalArts students:

The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston is here

Epstein, Epstein and Koch’s Casablanca (1942) is here

Bicycle Thieves (1948), as written by Vittorio De Sica et al., is here

The Hustler (1961) by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen is here

More step outlines (as written by Paul Cronin, who occasionally adds to this list, whenever the urge takes hold):

Here for The Last Laugh (1924), written by Carl Mayer

Here for Le jour se lève (1939), written by Jacques Prévert

Here for John Steinbeck’s Viva Zapata! (1952)

Here for Them! (1954), written by Ted Sherdeman (a film referenced by Mackendrick in On Film-Making)

Here for Homicide (1991) by David Mamet

Here for Toy Story (1995), as written by Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton et al.

Here for writer/director Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Here for Spartan (2004) (a film which its writer/director David Mamet has described
as having “no narration”)

Finally, as taken from the film’s post-production script:

Here is one for The Maggie (1954), the only film directed by Mackendrick based on his own original story (screenplay by William Rose)

The value of writing a step outline cannot be overstated. When preparing a document of this kind, the precision – and, very often, simplicity – of good storytelling quickly reveals itself, alongside the realisation that in a well-crafted narrative every element of the story is somehow connected. When obliged to look closely at the mechanics of plot and create a skeletal outline, one immediately notices how and when characters, objects and themes appear and (subtly) re-appear. At all times ask yourself: What is each character doing at any one moment? What specific actions are taking place? How do these actions contribute to the overall information flow offered to the audience? What fuses are laid in minute 12 that pay off (explode) in minute 112? What characters, elements, ideas and incidents that appear early on are later reincorporated? After creating a step outline, you should be able to explain precisely how by the close of every sequence the plot has been moved forward and how each character has developed. What previous obstacles have they succeeded in overcoming? What new obstacles have been placed in their path? What precisely are their needs and wants? What decisions have they made? How have they responded to choices made by other characters? What traits have been revealed that will likely create or impact upon later action? In short: why (from the audience’s point of view) does this scene exist? In answering such questions, in deciding what should go into your step outline and what unnecessary details should be left out, you will likely find yourself emphasizing certain things over others, and by so doing reveal your biases and interests. In other words, your sense of a story’s “theme” is made clear through your own particular telling of it.

The creation of a step outline is an exercise in minimalism. The final result should ideally be read publicly, to an expectant audience (“the art of the raconteur,” as Mackendrick called it, is a vital skill), which is one reason why things should be kept as stripped down as much as possible. A film, writes David Mamet, “may, perhaps, be likened to a boxer. He is going to have to deal with all the bulk his opponent brings into the ring. Common sense should indicate he had better not bring one extra ounce of flab on him – that all the weight he brings into the ring had better be muscle.” Consider this when writing a step outline, and by so doing keep on your side a vital ally, what Mamet calls the audience’s “uncritical, which is to say, engaged, participation.” Explained Mamet in 2016: “The best way that I know to see if your story works: Tell it somebody else. ‘I’ve got this great idea.’ Watch at which point their eyes glaze over.” (Go to this page for more from Mamet.)

Keep any step outline simple and to the point. It should be no more than fifteen minutes when read out loud. Remember that you don’t have to offer up every single scrap of information. Fascinating nuances and chunks of excellent dialogue will inevitably drop away. For our purposes, such things just aren’t important. Perhaps the most useful way of approaching this exercise is: describe everything and explain nothing. The idea here is nothing more than to tell a compelling story and keep the audience involved. Recall Aristotle, who wrote: “the plot should be so constructed that even without seeing the play a man who hears of the sequence of events will shudder with fear and pity at what happens.” Aspire to that and you can’t go wrong.

© The Estate of Alexander Mackendrick