I’ve written stories for over 20 years, but never created outlines prior to writing the actual story. Stories and plots always started with a premise, and then emerged scene-by-scene from my imagination as the story progressed. I simply let the story talk to me as I wrote. Only rarely was there any clear idea about how a story would evolve or end as it was written. This changed out of necessity when I began writing novels. One of the published writers in our local writer’s group introduced me to the concept of outlining a novel using a step sheet.
Since becoming familiar with the technique of structuring a novel in advance using a step sheet, I’ve noticed that other authors do much the same under various monikers. Some writers call them beat sheets, others refer to them as summary sheets. Call it whatever you wish, but for me the creation of a step sheet has become an essential preliminary element for developing a novel.
The basic step sheet is a brief summary of scenes or chapters. I tend to structure the step sheet using chapters, with a short summary paragraph of each scene. I start out with a character profile for each of the main characters.
For example, the four main characters in a short story might have character profiles that looks like this:
First Little Pig – Optimist. Builds houses made of straw. Has hair on his chinny chin chin.
Second Little Pig – Also an optimist. Builds houses made of sticks. Has hair on his chinny chin chin.
Third Little Pig – Survivalist and prepper. Builds a fortress home of brick.
The scenes might play out like this.
Each pig homesteads a plot of land and builds a home. The first pig builds a large home made of straw. Straw, he reasons, will keep him warm in the winter and will keep out any wolves. Plus, it is a very economical method for building a home. The second pig builds a home made from sticks. Sticks, he reasons, will help keep out the wind, as well as withstand assaults from any wolves in the area. After all, sticks are much stronger than straw. The third little pig is a survivalist who builds a formidable home of brick and concrete. It takes him a long time to build the home and the project is very expensive. He stocks the home with survival foods. Bricks, he reasons, will withstand most natural disasters and will survive for many generations.
The first two pigs ridicule the third pig for wasting so much time and money building a home that is much more than he needs. The third pig feels bad that his brothers are ridiculing him, but he still feels that his way is better.
Big Bad Wolf moves into the area, following the scent of young pork.
He calls on the first pig and asks if he can come into his home. The first pig refuses, so Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs and blows down the straw house. He eats the pig, but craves more.
He calls on the second pig and asks if he can come into his home. The second pig refuses to let him in and says, “Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.” The wolf huffs and puffs and blows down the stick home. He eats the second pig as well, but still craves more.
(Climax scene). Big Bad Wolf arrives at the brick fortress of the third pig. He asks if he can come in, but the third pig says, “No, no!” and slams the door. The wolf huffs and puffs, but cannot blow down the house made of brick. He huffs and puffs many more times until he is completely exhausted. The wolf then says, “If I cannot blow your house down, I will climb down your chimney and eat you.” The little pig puts a large pot of water on the fire. When the wolf climbs down the chimney, he is boiled alive in the pot, thus ending his huffing and puffing career.
All the other pigs in the neighborhood gather that evening for a pot of fresh prepper stew and they listen to a presentation given by the third little pig about how to build homes.
This example is done purely in jest, but you should get the idea. Be sure to note conflict and climax scenes. An intriguing story requires both.
The step sheet is a very brief summary that will guide the flow of the story. Each paragraph is a synopsis of a scene or chapter. All of the details are created and filled in as the story progresses. Some authors start out by writing the first and last chapters, then fill in all the chapters in between. That helps to keep a writer from straying too much from the original premise of the story.
If you want to learn more about writing step sheets, there is a good section on using this technique in James N. Frey’s How To Write a Damn Good Novel, which is an excellent resource for learning dramatic storytelling.