Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)

Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…


Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015

I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?

The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.

It’s the classic rule: SHOW don’t TELL. SHOW don't TELL

Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.

Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?

Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:

  1. To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.
  2. To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.
  3. To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.
  4. To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.
  5. To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.

Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!

More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games

How to Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

Outlining – Method 3 cont.: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

18 thoughts on “Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)”

  1. Does anyone haev a sample of an active step outline?

    Its nice to talk about what it should look like, but a sample really would solidify what has been said.

      1. Thanks. I am not specifically asking for a sample of your own work. A sample of a film, or novel thats already published would be fine.

        I am just having a hard time figuring out what would be a legitimate active step and what is cheating (describing dialog rather than action).

        There are some great dramatic films out there that are dialog heavy. Ordinary People for example, is not all that action heavy. There are scenes of action in it, but with the sound off the active step outline for that film would be rather sketchy.

        I am trying to come up with some samples for existing films and no luck.

        There are outlines on the www, but almost every one is cheating, by your standards.

        1. A step outline is different than a regular outline (i.e. one that a writer would give to producers/directors/showrunners/broadcasters for notes). Those regular outlines aren’t cheating, they are just for a different purpose (getting feedback from non-writers). Whereas a step outline is a tool for writers to use themselves (and not show anyone else). So I’m not surprised you can’t find one online. I don’t even think my professor gave us an example; he just explained it.

          Now there are films which are dialogue heavy, and yes they would be tough to do a step outline for. Think of those types of movies like this… without the dialogue, you wouldn’t know the details of the story, but with the sound off you could still gather the mood of the characters and the general drama just by watching their actions (including body language). For that kind of story, a step outline is helpful to make sure you convey the mood visually and not just through what is said.

          1. Yup. I think I do understand what you are saying.

            I was expecting to find one online as a sample. There are tons of resources out there for writers. These include index card samples, treatment samples, flow charts, etc. I am just surprised that every outline I could find was not meeting your criteria (or your professors).

            I think it would be a great challenging exercise for students to be invited to write an action step outline for some dramatic films like Ordinary People, Kramer vs Kramer, or the like. I find family dramas in particular pose a challenge to this technique you suggest here.

            I usually suggest to people to try their processes on existing novels or films to start with. As those are great practice before you try to use your processes on something that does not exist yet.

            Its a great training exercise. I just found with this kind of outline there is a mountain of a challenge to overcome.

            Particularly if you try to use that to outline a shakespeare play.. which comes with no stage directions at all. All those are is dialog. You would basically be writing the film from scratch. With just some dialog to guide you along

  2. Great advice! I was at a small writers conference about 2 weeks ago, and one of the presenters tried to explain using beats to outline stories – I think you’ve explained it better!
    All good reasons, but reason #2 stands out – sometimes looking at the story differently can shed light on what is missing.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Great idea! I’ll do just that when I edit my book. 🙂 Just one question, though: What makes up a single action beat? Just one action or one series belonging to the same intent/purpose?

    1. It’s hard to give an answer without specifics, but I’ll try… An action beat is generally one action, but it can be a series of actions if they are all essentially the same thing. The easiest example is a fight scene. Each punch and kick and dodge are all actions that are part of a big “fight” action beat. So if your series of actions can be described using one word, like “fight” or “chase” or “hide” or “flee”, then yes, that would be a single action beat. I hope that helps!

  4. This may be an Archive Revive, but it’s right on time for me. I spent the weekend with my board and beat sheets, tweaking the plot (yet again!) after being unable to write the ending, looking for the wrong turn so I could fix it. I semi-woke-up in the middle of the night, with a fast-forward of the novel’s scenes silently playing out in my head–very much like the “show don’t tell” outline you describe. I think I’m pretty good with the plot now, but I’m going to write up an Active Beats Outline as a way to check it out before I go back to the manuscript. Thanks for the tip!

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