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Steps: Necessary evil or Distraction?

Steps. I have them in my house. Lots of them. But they’re not the steps I’m taking about here. When you sit down to create a new product do you give the necessary time to outlining or do you simply throw yourself head first into the surf and hope for the best?

I’m the first to admit writing an outline bores the life out of me. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen next, I want to write. Glorious free writing! Meeting the characters, finding out the locations, it’s like a Miss Marple Murder Mystery without the little old spinster and sinister English Manor Houses.

I detest plotting. A pox on the house of outlining! May crickets creep into the bedroom of planning and chirrup away all night interrupting its sleep!

My erratic way of writing – and the hundreds of storylines that dribble off to silence – stand as a testament to the importance of this most onerous of tasks. What’s the old saying “if you fail to plan you plan to fail”? Sounds about right.

Early this year I undertook a course at then Sydney Writers Centre, now the Australian Writers Centre on Writing a Screenplay. It was the Stage 1 course and it was taught by one of Australia’s most well respected scriptwriters Tim Gooding. I had minimal expectations of the course. What could you really achieve in only 5 weeks? As it turns out, I achieved a lot more than I bargained for. I achieved the completed draft – 4 of them – of a short film that had been rattling around in my brain for years.

The course was one of those unexpected watershed “Ahhhhh Haaaa” moments for me. I walked out of the final night already enrolled in the Stage 2 course, but unfortunately I got sick – damn you Winter – and ended up dropping out after I missed too many classes to keep up.

But the watershed “Ahhhh Haaaa” moment? There were many, but the one we’re talking about now was this. During the course Tim discussed the importance of plotting and planning. I had expected it. It’s a given in a course like this .

I did a script writing course years ago – not at the Centre, it was in conjunction with a production company – and that was pretty much all they talked about, when they weren’t telling you that regardless of how well you wrote you had absolutely zero chance of ever making it.

When discussing the outline of a script Tim mentioned a technique I’d never heard of before. The Step Outline.

It was like rockets going off. I’m sure there was a celestial choir somewhere and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my spirit guides and angelic guardians wept a cornucopia of tears shouting “Hallelujah” or something equally profound.

As I listened to Tim’s explanation I thought to myself “Now this is an outline I can get myself behind.” It’s a very rough, basic outline but it gives me the freedom to move inside of the story that I found lacking in the outlines I was doing previously.

The step outline allowed me the chance to explore and be entertained by direction changes, while providing me with a safety net. How I’d never heard of this before I’ll never know. The basic concept is “what happens next”. It’s sort of like setting your character to climbing a tree, pushing him – or her – further up into the branches until you reach the moment where the character has to either leap or fall.

I’ve decided to begin a feature length project for 2013. It’s title – so far – is My Future Ex-Husband. It’s to be a romantic comedy, about a 30 something workaholic gay man who has been single for years and whose friends plot and plan to make him re-enter the dating game.

I was jotting things down last night and I remembered the step outline idea. I played a little and ended up a very vague direction that I’ll work on today.

When you’re doing your own Step Outline here are the tips I’d give to keep in mind:

  • What happens to start with?
  • What happens next?
  • What happens next?
  • Very interesting what happens next?
  • Oh you’re going to win an Oscar with this one kiddo, what next?
  • Really he did what with what, fantastic, highly original, what next?
  • Keep going, you’re on a winner, you’re going to be accepting that Golden Globe from Carlotta any day now, Next?
  • Gold, you’re guaranteed a date with Nicole Kidman’s hair dressers cousins best friends brother to the Logies now, what else happened?

Basically you just keep pushing the character ahead to find out what else happened. It’s not going to be firm or established in the beginning stages, but by building a step outline you’re really giving yourself the freedom to just let your mind wander.

As writer’s we tend to be super critical of everything we put to the page. It’s all crap and it’s all garbage and yes we should have concentrated more in school so we could have got a real job like a garbage collector or rodeo clown, but no, now we’re stuck writing and we’re talentless and silly and we’ll die alone.

That’s all awesome, and maybe accurate, but the main question you need to ask is “what happens next.”

I guess the point to this post is you have to a roadmap or you’re never going to get your destination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s minutely detailed, or more fluid and open to interpretation.

I know what it’s like to have an Oscar winning script in your head no one is ever going to read, but do yourself a favour and take some time to do a proper outline of your idea. You’ll never win an Oscar if the script stays in your head. It needs to get on paper. Besides, once you know where you’re going, you can always change direction later. Who’s going to complain about a change in the storyline anyway?

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43 year old Australian writer currently working on the first of a planned three book Epic Fantasy series. When he's not writing policy discussions, or tales of swords, Gods, and magic, he can be found making a mess in the kitchen, and turning perfectly good ingredients into crimes against humanity.

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