The scene-by-scene outline, or step outline, is a major part of the television development process. Every script moves from an initial, less detailed outline to a scene-by-scene before reaching script stage. This allows the writer and the script editor to examine the structure of the episode before adding the additional complication of dialogue, and to ensure that the number of scenes is workable for the shooting schedule.
As an example, here’s a snippet from the scene by scene outline for Wolfblood season one, episode five:
EXT. FIELDS – NIGHT – 22:08
Wolf-Maddy and wolf-Rhydian bound away into the night, playfully enjoying every second of the full moon…
INT. CORRIDOR/ THE K’S ROOM – HOTEL – NIGHT – 22:45
Shannon goes to bed. She peeks in the open door of the K’s room – they’re flapping round and chattering – and Maddy’s bed is still empty. This is deeply suspicious…
EXT. TOM’S ROOM – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:00 DAY TWO
Tom has fallen asleep propped up against the bedroom window, looking for Maddy. And there she is, sneaking back to the hotel – but luckily he doesn’t wake up until she’s gone…
INT. HALLWAY – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:05
Tom tiptoes downstairs – to find Rhydian explaining himself to Mr. Jeffries. “I must have been concussed after all, sir – I don’t remember anything after leaving the quiz, and then half an hour ago I woke up in a field!”
Jeffries is suspicious, but he settles for threatening a trip to hospital the moment they leave the island. Rhydian says he’ll make sure the Vaughans take him for a check-up… Unable to prove Rhydian’s done anything wrong, Jeffries stalks away.
Tom asks Rhydian a few questions of his own, playing matey with him – “You can tell me” – But Rhydian’s defensive. He particularly denies that Maddy was outside with him last night. Suspicious, Tom watches him pad upstairs to shower, bare feet leaving muddy footprints.
As you would expect, it’s a basic summary of each scene in order, without dialogue as such. These are fairly short scenes – dialogue-heavy or complex physical scenes like chases or fights would require more detail – but you get the idea.
They’re normally a feature of TV writing, but I’m increasingly convinced of the advantages of a scene-by-scene outline for all kinds of writing, including movies. And here’s why.
It forces you to be specific. It’s fatally easy in an outline to write, say, “Freda searches the house for the stolen money”, and then get to script stage and be unsure how to tackle that. In the scene-by-scene outline, you have to decide which rooms she searches in which order, what she finds and doesn’t find, and how she reacts to it all. No more fudging details.
It encourages you to be visual. When you know you’re not writing any dialogue yet, your creative mind compensates by supplying visual ways to tell the same story. I find I have a far stronger idea of what a scene’s going to look like and feel like if I write a scene-by-scene outline first.
It speeds up the process. The agonising thing about writing a brief outline is that it’s not a ‘real’ story. It’s a sort of extended TV Guide blurb, and it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as writing real scenes. The agonising thing about jumping straight to script stage, though, is that it’s so slow that it’s easy to lose the energy and the dramatic thread of your story. The scene-by-scene outline falls halfway between the two. It’s close enough to a script to feel satisfying and fun to write, but without dialogue or the full detail of description, you can get it down on the page much faster, allowing you to keep up the momentum at this difficult stage.
It forces you to define how the story advances in each scene. Yes, that scene in the Hagia Sophia is going to look wonderful – but what actually happens in it? What is the scene for? What changes during it? If you don’t know what to write in the scene-by-scene outline for this scene, chances are you don’t need the scene.
It gives you a real sense of the shape of your story, without the distractions of beautiful dialogue. The scene-by-scene outline is all about plot, and this is your last chance to get the plot sorted before you layer all that lovely dialogue and get over-attached to the current version of things…
So if you have trouble moving from the ‘good idea’ stage to the ‘first draft’ stage, scene-by-scene outlines might just be the tool for you!