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.
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:
- To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: