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 favourite 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 recognise 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 is 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 recognise 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 realised 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.
When thinking about step outlines, consider also Mackendrick’s comments on the subject of “reader’s reports,” a summary of a script written for potential producers.
It’s not easy to write a good reader’s report. It is in no way a creative literary form, though journalistic skills are useful. Above all it requires that the writer not impose his or her own feelings and opinions when describing the subject. Nothing of the quality of the work can really be transmitted. When well written, the report gives as economically as possible an indication of the central action, the simplified bones of the plot, and a hint of opportunities for character. Nothing else. The evaluation of the reader is sometimes invited, then placed at the end of the report. If I am to be candid, I should admit that in the days when I had to read scores of these documents as a director under contract to a studio, this was the part to which I paid least attention.
Here are seventeen step outlines, as written by Mackendrick for his film students at the California Institute of the Arts. Most do not include “a list of the story’s principal (and important subsidiary) characters alongside a couple of lines describing their age and relationships to each other” and most are nowhere near fifty pages in length. But all make clear Mackendrick’s skill at summarising a story and letting the reader know what’s important, what elements need to be brought to the fore, which characters and activities can be effectively ignored, which plants, that appear early in a script – those offering a future payoff – need to be emphasised. Even so, if, as is likely, you find Mackendrick’s re-tellings of these stories different from how you would do it yourself, go write your own versions. Note that not every detail of what follows here is entirely accurate (some pieces of these narratives, for example, are in the wrong order). Mackendrick may well have written some portions of these step outlines from memory.
Stagecoach (1939), from the screenplay by Dudley Nichols, as based on the short story by
Ernest Haycox, is here (and here is a two-page Mackendrick handout about the differences between the short story and the film)
The following four step outlines, as written by Mackendrick, are based not on films but plays.
A step outline of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777), which contains an excellent example of dramatic irony – the so-called “Screen Scene” (here for William Archer on Sheridan) – is here
Here is Mackendrick’s step outline (the original is a handwritten first draft) of an unproduced film adaptation from 1980 by John Kay and Henry Trettin of Jack Higgins’ 1971 novel The Last Place God Made (he didn’t think much of the script, and wasn’t too complementary of the novel either).
Here are a further 25 step outlines, some shorter than others, as written for this website. You are again encouraged to write your own versions if – as is to be expected – you consider these to be lacking.
Here are two step outlines based on Mackendrick’s unproduced scripts.
Another called Viva Miss Browne, set in Mexico in 1914, is here
And finally, as taken from the film’s post-production script, issued by Ealing Studios.
The value of creating a step outline – a succinct distillation of the all-important story beats into a few paragraphs – cannot be overstated. (Mackendrick would sometimes select students for his writing classes based on their ability to produce a quality step outline of a film of their choice.) After writing one, you should be able to explain precisely how by the close of every numbered sequence the plot has been moved forward and how each character has developed. What has changed for them? What decisions have they made? What are their new needs and wants? How have they responded to choices made by other characters? What decisions are they likely to make in the near future and how are other characters likely to respond? What traits have been revealed that might create or impact upon later action? What previous obstacles have characters succeeded in overcoming? What new obstacles have been placed in their path? What function does each and every sequence of the story serve? In short, from the audience’s point of view, why does this scene exist?
The writing of a step outline will hopefully also bring with it the important realisation that in a well-crafted narrative, every element of the story is connected. When looking closely at the mechanics of plot, and when creating a skeletal outline, it is immediately noticeable how the smallest of details can sometimes be of tremendous importance, and how often characters, objects, lines of dialogue and themes can appear and (subtly) re-appear. The circularity of a story might become obvious – how things often end where they began. 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 the audience? How will things happening now connect to previous and future incidents? What fuses are planted in minute 12 that explode in minute 112? What characters, elements, ideas and incidents that appear early on can later be reincorporated – much to the audience’s delight? (Long-form TV programmes lay clues that can remain hidden for years.) Narrative filmmakers in full control of their craft might casually offer up something to the audience that reappears an hour later, at which point we come to realise just how important it is to the story. When writing a step outline, you might not notice the fuses that are being planted by the author until they explode, which means going back and adding in various details to earlier sequences.
Specific actions, lines of dialogue, visual gags and even entire scenes may well end up not being included in your outline. Such things might make for interesting cinema, but they aren’t always structurally important enough to be noted. It isn’t always easy to know immediately which pieces of the puzzle should be put in a step outline. How much detail do you really need? In other words, some films are more difficult to summarise than others, and you will likely find that for various reasons some films don’t lend themselves to the step outline form. Moreover, in deciding what should be included in your step outline and what unnecessary details should be left out, you will likely find yourself emphasising certain things over others, and by so doing, to a certain extent, reveal your biases and interests. In other words, your sense of a story’s “theme” is, to a certain extent, made clear through your own particular telling of it. If this is the case when writing a step outline based on someone else’s story, consider how pertinent it is when you create your own treatments and screenplays. As Mackendrick writes in his book, “Character and situation is the best place to start digging into. Examine them and you’ll find that you yourself bring the theme, which you can almost afford to ignore because every theme is your own point of view, your attitude to life and sex and religion. So the theme will out because it cannot stop. It’s your biases and temperament at work.”
The precision – and, very often, simplicity – of good storytelling quickly reveals itself as you create a step outline. This is, in fact, an exercise in minimalism (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away”). The final result is something that could be read publicly to an audience. “The art of the raconteur,” as Mackendrick called it, is a vital skill, not unlike the ability to make a pitch to a producer. This is one reason why all step outlines should be kept as spare 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.” Explains Mamet: “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.”
Keep your step outlines to the point. It should probably take no more than fifteen minutes to read one out loud. By now it should be clear that you don’t have to describe every single action. Nuances, chunks of excellent dialogue, perhaps even secondary characters will inevitably drop away (though, as suggested, everyone will have their own ideas about what should be included and what must be discarded). The idea here is to create on paper an interaction between readable, forward-moving storytelling and bare bone structure. Nothing more than telling a compelling story and keeping the audience involved is required. 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.
A step outline, as Mackendrick tells us, is a way of analysing a completed film and coming to a better understanding of its structure. It shouldn’t take longer to write than three times the length of the film under investigation. The analogous process as applied to stories that you create yourself is a treatment, which in some ways is the polar opposite of a step outline and requires different skills. A full treatment (maybe sixty pages for a two-hour film) might take several months to write. It’s all about conceiving anew, from scratch, instead of pulling apart an existing story to explore how it was constructed. However useful that might be, it should be considered the first stage of writing your own story. Don’t get bogged down in analysis paralysis. Move on and apply the tenets of step outlines to a fresh idea.
An on-screen story lasting two hours can be stripped down to the bare basics into a summary of a few pages. But it should be obvious that what counts just as much as the story is the filmmaker’s craft – camerawork, editing, acting, music, etc. Hence Mackendrick’s On Film-Making is divided into two separate but interconnected sections: dramatic construction and film grammar.
© Mackendrick Family Trust