I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.
About The Author: Mel Lee-Smith is a freelance writer, editor, and word nerd with a lifelong passion for the craft. She’s been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil and telling stories since she was old enough to talk. That passion led her to pursue a master’s degree in Creative & Critical Writing from the University of Winchester in England.
Mel now lives in Ireland with her husband and their cuddly calico. When she’s not crafting bespoke, branded content for her freelance clients, she’s retelling her family’s larger-than-life stories in her novel, Escape Artist. Connect with her on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent more time daydreaming about the TV or film adaptation of your novel than you care to admit. While some might consider this procrastinating, visualizing your story this way is only natural — our brains process visual information best, after all.
Any writer will attest that translating those visions into immersive prose is one of the many challenges of the craft. Sometimes, while drafting my Southern lit novel, Escape Artist, I find myself wishing I could just enter the story world and take notes. It’s all too easy to lose track of important details when plotting a novel.
Enter the step outline, a streamlined synopsis of a screenplay that breaks down each scene into individual actions. I learned how to create a step outline in my Scriptwriting class while completing my MA in Creative & Critical Writing. I quickly discovered scriptwriting isn’t my strong suit, but the step outline has been an invaluable tool in my writing arsenal ever since.
What is a step outline? How can you adapt it for your novel? What are the best methods for step outlining? Let’s dive in.
What is a step outline?
The step outline is a bare-bones outline of a screenplay, or for our purposes, a novel. Some step outline pros liken it to a full “report” of the narrative, while others insist it’s not the birthplace of the story. (I agree — developing your characters and a rough overview of your narrative should come first.)
Each scene is broken down into “steps”, or individual actions. Here’s an example from Writing for the Screen by Craig Batty:
- Paul finishes his novel.
- Paul heads for home through the snow.
- Paul crashes his car.
- Paul is rescued.
The point of the step outline, according to Batty, is to clarify the purpose of each scene. Condensing each scene into a concise action establishes narrative momentum and allows you to quickly audit your plot.
Tip: When creating your step outline, omit exposition and description. That comes later. Focus on action.
Methods of Step Outlining
I recommend two methods for step outlining: a master list and scene cards (digital and analog both work just fine).
HOW TO MAKE A STEP OUTLINE: THE MASTER LIST
I call it a list, but it’s important to note that the step outline isn’t just a giant list of scenes. Think of it more like a chain of interlocking events. You should be able to see the narrative structure unfold as you read through your outline: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc.
A master list condenses your story into one fluid document, allowing you to view your whole narrative at a glance. Scrivener’s Outline feature and custom metadata fields work really well for this.
My master list is in a Google Doc and formatted with headings so I can navigate it easily. (You’ll even get a sneak peek later in this article!)
HOW TO MAKE A STEP OUTLINE: SCENE CARDS
Whether you choose to use paper index cards, Scrivener’s corkboard, or another medium, scene cards are a staple of the writing process. Physically moving (or dragging and dropping) your scene cards also adds a tactile element to plotting.
A sneak peek of my step outline for Escape Artist
Inspired by true stories and real people, Escape Artist is a fictionalized retelling of the stories my family passed down to me. It’s set in rural South Carolina and spans over 70 years, beginning in 1932.
Full disclosure: I use both a master list and scene cards. I know, I know — sounds a little crazy, but there is a method to my madness. For starters, I work as a freelance writer and editor, so screen-time overload and burnout are real. Working with paper and colorful pens gets my creative juices flowing and prevents eye strain.
But I also wanted the option to access my step outline at any time, since I occasionally write at coffee shops and other places. Obviously, I can’t lug around my bulletin boards and index cards everywhere I go. (Could you imagine the looks I’d get if I went full-on Charlie Day at my local café?)
Anyway, without further ado, here’s a sneak peek of the master list for “White Lightnin’”, the first chapter:
I chose to omit some of the less important scenes that didn’t serve the plot, like Daniel’s sister, Mabel, coming down for breakfast and Ben preaching at Daniel to ease up on drinking.
What this outline doesn’t describe are the “butter-rich scents of vegetable stew, cornbread, and wood-stove fire” warming every corner of the McCullough cabin, or Ben “flicking his newspaper open, giving Daniel a flimsy shield from his agitation.”
It also doesn’t describe the characters or how they’re related. That’s because this step outline is (technically) meant for my eyes only. I know that Ben and Estelle are Daniel’s parents, that Lena is the family dog, and that Jacob and Edna are Daniel’s children by his first wife. The step outline isn’t the place to discuss those details.
I stack scene cards and clip them to a blue chapter card. I then pin them to a bulletin board, split into three columns for part one, part two, and part three. I also have two smaller bulletin boards above my desk where I pin scenes I haven’t started or finished drafting. That makes it easier for me to know what to work on when I sit down to write.
On the back of each scene card is the date. (My WIP covers 70 years, so I gotta keep the timeline straight!) I also number my scene cards in pencil in case I need to move them around later. Finally, I add notes to scene cards to indicate their status: not started, needs finishing, and drafted.
Step outlining as a writing exercise or editing aid
Maybe you’ve already created a detailed outline of your project and aren’t keen to overhaul the whole thing. Or maybe you’ve finished your first draft and are elbow-deep in revisions. No matter where you are in the process, step outlining can provide clarity and accelerate your momentum.
If you feel a scene lacks direction or you’re questioning whether a scene serves the story, try making a mini step outline. Grab a sheet of paper or open your preferred writing program and jot down the steps of the chapter or scene. Consider what absolutely must happen to advance the narrative or build character.
I’ve created my step outline. Now what?
Congrats! You’ve got a solid step outline and you’re itching to dive back into drafting or editing — but you hit a snag. Some of your steps aren’t working. Maybe you realize you can remove some links from the chain without breaking it. Or maybe your chain is broken and you need to add more links somewhere.
That’s okay. That’s what the step outline is for. Its beauty lies in its flexibility. If you find that your steps aren’t serving the story, cut them, rework them — do what you need to do. I’ve reworked a good chunk of my step outline since I began writing Escape Artist in September 2018.
Need more inspiration? The Sticking Place has a helpful list of step outlines from famous films.
One final tip for creating a strong step outline
Use strong verbs. One of the top tips for writing well also applies to outlining.
Compare these two examples from my own step outline:
- Daniel goes to Greenville to prep for the first run, sees Ruth walking down the driveway after church, to Mr. McCullough’s annoyance.
- Daniel drives to Greenville to prep for the first run, ogles Ruth walking down the driveway after church, to Mr. McCullough’s annoyance.
The first example, while technically accurate, lacks essential information. Remember, the step outline deals with actions. Be descriptive but concise.
Using a scriptwriting tool for plotting fiction: final thoughts
The step outline is essentially the bedrock of your plot, a foundation on which to build your best work. Even though it’s primarily used in scriptwriting, the step outline is one of my favorite fiction writing tools. It’s helped me pare down a gigantic narrative to its core. If you choose to experiment with step outlining, I hope you find it as useful as I have.
Once you’ve completed your step outline, you’re free to refine it, rework it, and flesh it out however you like. Consider adding other scriptwriting elements, like visual framing, to turn those idle daydreams into a real page-turner.