Cards outlining technology with ultra_outliner

Introduction

In this post I explain how to use ultra_outliner - a story outlining software.

The post is addressed to

This post is focused on optimizing of story development process and on increasing of its quality with help of some automation based on outlining. I am considering cards outlining, where one card is connected with one scene in most cases.

However, outlining is not popular in screenwriting, because the most part of storytellers affirms, that screenwriting is an art, and it comes from the heart. I was not an exception, but I’ve already passed this step. So, if you have already comprehended necessity of outlining - jump to the Preparation section.

The material might be interested for any storytellers like screenwriters, novelists and all other writers. Thus, if you are a screenwriter or a writer, and if you feel necessity for increasing of structure of the creative process - this post is addressed to you.

P.S. I am apologizing in advance for possible language mistakes, because English is not my native language.

front screen

Backstory

Screenwriting is my old hobby. Usually I've written for my hobby cinema project, but some were created without aim to shoot - just because liked writing them.

Earlier I thought, that for successfully screenwriting it is enough to watch a lot of movies (and I really watched a lot!). But the moment has come - and quantity refused to transform into quality. It was the time to stop writing and start reading.

I've learned a lot of books connected with Hollywood cinema school, and the following conclusions were made:

So, a story development technology could be distinguished from what I’ve learned, and every technology can be automated in some way.

It is necessary to point out, that I will not advocate this technology and give any writing advices - because I am not enough qualified to teach someone. I just want to show how to automate technology I use for myself. For interested more in the technology - I would recommend to read at least McKee, Story.

Outlining software

When I armed myself with theory, and started to write my first exercise-screenplay (a horror about aliens), I've faced an unpredictable problem. There is a lot of software for screenwriting, but there are just a few for outlining. The Final Draft has its own cards-subsystem, but it is rather a nice toy, than a useful tool.

Moreover, the most screenwriting software tried to embed outlining functions, and as a payment for universality (classical cybernetics problem) was a completely unusable addition with cards.

But some outliners still exist, despite they are not comfortable or they use windows-95 technology level. I tried WriteItNow, Scrivener, articy:draft, Save The Cat! and others, but none of them satisfied me.

But if there is not appropriate software, it should be done by myself.

Inception of ultra_outliner

When I was fed up with paper cards, I've decided to automated the outlining process. I've written for myself a little software which allowed me to create virtual cards and move them across the virtual table. Further, new functions and abilities were added as soon as I need them. So, parallel to the screenplay I was writing the software.

When my screenplay was finished, I've submitted a software to a few forums and found my first users who also added some ideas to the ultra_outliner.

But after I started a beta-testing, I've seen, that new users just do not understand how to use it. Moreover, they've found some unexpected applications for the software, like quest map designing. This is generally my fault, because I did not have energy for writing complete documentation.

I've added a sample into distribution, but it was still not clear, how to create it yourself. Thus, here it will be finally described, how I use ultra_outliner for story development.

Preparations

Defining tasks

During this post I will take some simple story, and I will outline it with ultra_outliner. Moreover, I do not know the story in advance, I will use ultra_outliner to reflect all the incoming thoughts.

My favorite genre is horror; thus it will be some short horror story for 5-10 minutes (about 7-12 scenes or cards).

My idea is following (let it be mad or absurd - it does not matter, only technology matters) - a protagonist Drunkard got drunk and goes into the woods, where he faces some horrors. Which exactly - does not matter. Why he goes - does not matter. Who is protagonist - matters. We should intrigue an audience. Let’s try to write a logline:

Ivan got drunk and argued with his friend, that he will cross the forest by a road, which frightens locals. But after starting his path he left all his bravery.

It is not a bestseller, but there are: * a protagonist, who can have some touching backstory and qualities; * a potential for protagonist motivation (to proof that there are no ghosts, to proof his bravery, to come out alive); * intrigue (what the hell is in this forest?); * a source of antagonism (some mystic woods evil).

For a 5-10 minutes it is more than enough. There is also time only for one story twist (and I guess - in the 3rd act).

To write a classical horror screenplay it is possible to use standard model proposed in Horrors, but it is too boring and predictable. Moreover, it assumes 90-minutes, thus this model will not be used. As a consequence, we won't get a classical horror, but we will be able to understand better ultra_outliner abilities.

Some theory background

Before defining virtual card presentation, we should acknowledge which information we need to operate in the process. For this purposes I will present two theory insertions.

Good story structure must contain a few ordered key moments (not strictly ordered in some cases). The simplest model is used in Trottier, Bible, thus I will use it. According to Trottier, Bible, a story must contain following seven points:

And another theory insertion about horrors. There are five basic horror tropes Horrors:

Moreover, the first act should contain only first two tropes.

Template configuration

Before starting outlining, we must define a template for virtual paper cards. We should decide, what card must contain and show. Here what we need:

To create this template, we should open template editor with card preview and setup all the necessary fields:

Card template

Due to type (as a first select-field), the card will be colored into different background color. Flags are rendered in the first line. If the card is connected to special story point - it will be drawn in the bottom line.

This template is in the version 0.9.1b among standard templates named "Horror".

Now it's time to start outlining process.

Outlining

First thoughts draft

I always start screenwriting from drafting of potential scenes I'm already seeing in my head. They could be disconnected, unordered, contradictory but it is not important now. Now it's necessary to keep them without warning of loosing in the future. To do this, we should open Cards Combiner and create some cards - one for each potential scene. On this stage I fill only brief and detailed description.

Thoughts Draft

Now I approximately feel emotion and environment of the story, it is time to draft central plot line.

Draft of central plot line

We will use Plotter for this purposes. First, lets reuse all the created cards with simple import. It is possible to drag cards one by one from Cards Table, but importing is faster.

Cards Import

The central plot line will describe the journey of Drunkard, physical and psychological. And let’s think about the ending card - which will return him to real life.

Central Plot

Now there are following questions:

Of course we can continue to play with imagination, but we already come to the moment when it is possible to distinguish story value and to direct our imagination and creative energy in the right direction.

Distinguishing story value

We already started from the alcohol - lets use it as a main story value. Rather not the alcohol itself, but attitude to the alcohol consumption. Detailed description of value mechanism usage can be found in McKee, Story.

So, lets draw story value map (without ultra_outliner - just on the sheet of paper).

Value Map

Now our aim is to cover this map with the story and to tell the audience main idea (still no clue, what will be this idea).

Drunkard is in the booze in the beginning of the story, so he carries negative value charge. So, let's his friend carry "drink on the holyday" and he accuses Drunkard because he drinks too much - we also get a fine conflict.

Conflict with Friend

But why is Drunkard in a booze? Let his wife to abandon him, because she was tired of his drinking. She absolutely does not like alcohol, so she carries positive state of value. And in the beginning of the story Drunkard met his friend to tell how bad he feels, and started to drink more because of his wife. Friend tells him, that alcohol is the reason of all of his problems. Now we have additional character and a backstory.

The antagonist is left with double negation of value - "permanent drunk". And, if Drunkard will be charged with positive state and will defeat the antagonist - this will mean a victory of soberness over drinking. As told in McKee, Story, such a victory will form the main idea of the story - drinking is bad. In other words, protagonist carries one charge of value, antagonist - another, and the winner's value charge wins the story.

Now, it's time for drafting characters.

Defining characters

Let's open Characters Mapper and create Drunkard, Friend, Wife and Monster.

Characters

Now let's define their basic traits which we want to reveal and create absent cards. The semantic of connection is read like "this trait is revealed in given scene with help of this character".

Basic traits

It seems, that characters are not revealed enough. Basing on McKee, Story, there are two important moments about characters for getting them captivating: they should have a flaw, and have pairs of contradictory traits (such a pair is called dimension). It is usually addressed to protagonist, because the more complex character is, the more expectations audience has. So, audience will feel faked, in case the complex character will not have enough screen time. Thus, lets make such a pair for Drunkard and Monster (antagonist should be also captivating of course).

Now, we are facing the most important question - who is the antagonist. We are all fed up with ghosts, animals and daemons, so let's think about something original. Let it be a rotten wood (I'll call him Deadwood), that can walk and talk, and he is a bit higher than a human. It has branches on his face, like Devi Jones tentacles in the Pirates of the Caribbean. A good artist will draw good and fearful Deadwood to allow get Terror effect when audience will finally face him with instant appearance.

He must carry "permanent drinking" value charge. So, let him be consuming alcohol instead of water, here we also gain a potential for backstory. Then our character map looks in the following way.

Character revealing

A few interesting cards are also added, now for our short screenplay characters are revealed enough. Now we can go next and develop plot lines. Maybe some other traits will appear during next steps - we will add them later.

Plots development

Some details are added into main plot - a few cards we should overwrite more specifically, after we know characters’ traits. Next, let us add love plot with happy ending. And Deadwood cooking plot which explains Deadwood motivation.

Plots

Let's review these plots independently and check, that we like them.

Isolated main plot

I like them, so let's move to the story points.

Story points

Referring to Trottier, Bible, let's fill Event field in cards and add them to central line in Combiner window.

Story Points

For better view, the 7 story points are colored into 7 rainbow colors. Not all the 7 points are covered - so let's create new cards. We do not have Realization (where the character realizes his changes). So, let him get up with unfinished bottle of Vodka, look to it with disgust and throw it out. Now the audience realizes, that he really quit drinking.

Main sequence

Now we order other cards between these story points with the sequence of narration. If we don't want to include some card in final outline - we'll just keep it out of main line somewhere on the sheet.

Intensity balancing

Initially we created type field - Action / Dialogue, now it's time to use it. Dialogues should alternate with actions. Why we did not do it earlier - card type could change during the process, and till now type would not affect anything.

Setting types

The card sequence is seriously misbalanced, we should recombine cards or create some new cards. We also should group cards into logical sequences, grouped by common value or function (more detailed in McKee, Story, Field, Screenplay).

We also keep in mind (as said in Trottier, Bible, Field, Screenplay), that scenes exist for two purposes: to move story forward, or to reveal character. In other way - we should not have such a card in final outline.

I think, we can distinguish 4 following sequences:

Sequences

Now it's time to balance actions and dialogues. We need to create some new scenes.

Let Drunkard to engage the fight in the beginning, to speak with the vodka bottle while he is walking the road, and when he is lost - let him try to use GPS phone to find a way home.

Balancing

Then let it be a card, where Deadwood prepares alcohol machine, hinting the audience, that Drunkard and Wife will replace ejected corpses.

Balancing

And finally, card with love reunion in the end.

Balancing

Now it is enough balanced. Now let's break it into acts and recombine some cards between groups.

Act breaks

Now let's read all the line from left to right a few times with some minor corrections in the process. If you don't plan to forget a story for a long time, you can simply make all the editing in Combiner and don't use Plotter and Character mapper anymore.

Horroring the story

As you can remember, we started with horror. Now our task is to make it really horror. So, let's work with horror flags. Briefly, we must ensure that the first act contains Unease and Dread, Terror is maximum delayed, and second and third acts also contain Disgust and Horror. First, lets mark existing cards.

Horror flags

Flags are good for this purpose, because they are visible in any scale. We have too little flags - it is definitely not a horror. Does not matter, now we'll fix this, so let's make some changes.

Let Drunkard in a card with a fight (before the fight) would call a Wife, but she does not pick up a phone. That makes him nervous and explains why he is so aggressive. She usually just denies the call - so it is strange. When they are near the road, Friend tells that this road is cursed, and a lot of people disappeared here.

When Drunkard is talking to the bottle, let him pass the same strange tree twice - then the audience will understand, that his route is looped. When he ties shoelaces, he hears some horror sound - lets convert Unease into Dread to feel the danger.

Adding horrors to the first act

Now first act is OK, let's move to the second. It's much worse. We add a card with Horror - Drunkard finds in the woods Big Alcohol Machine and there are piles of bones and empty bottles. When he drops the cellphone into the puddle - there are human entrails in water - this is the place, where Deadwood stores all the waste products after ripping humans.

Adding horrors to the second act

Now it's enough of horrors. Balance is not perfect, but we can make another iteration and fix it. The second act is not big enough, but these are classical mistakes which are out of this post bounds. So, let's move to final.

What is next

Now it is time to read the central line cards and to ensure that you like the story. Usually at this point - pleasure is the last feeling I sense, so I give my friends to read the result.

To give somebody the outline for reading, we simply need to export detailed description into the text file. The exporter will add line breaks itself.

Export to text

That's what we have after exporting:

``` Wife was fed up with Drunkard drinking and she abandoned him. She said, that's it's enough for her. This caused a new wave of Drunkard drinking. Drunk Drunkard with Friend are walking through the street. Drunkard calls Wife, but she does not pick up a phone. That makes him nervous. She usually just denies the call - so it is strange. Drunkard is close to engage in a fight with somebody aggressive, but Friend stops him. Friend accuses Drunkard that he drinks too much. But he tells, that he can stop any time. But he drinks obviously too much. Friend tells that alcohol will kill him finally. When they are near the road, Friend tells that this road is cursed, and a lot of people disappeared here. Drunkard got drunk with his friend and they are passing the forest. They have to make a long way to get home. Drunkard got brave and he wants to cross the wood with the dangerous road. This road is never used, because everybody is afraid of something mystical. The friend tryies to stop him, but Drunkard want to show everybody how brave he is. Drunkard is going through the woods and speaks with the bottle of Vodka (actually he is speaking with himself). He tells that nobody understands him, only bottle does. He also drinks during the walk. He passes the same strange tree twice. Drunkard walks in the forest and he is brave. His shoelace gets untied and he reaches a stump, stands vodka bottle, crouches and ties shoelace. Suddenly he hears strange horror sound and stands up looking for source. Drunkard changed his mind about passing the forest with this road. He tries to get back, but the forest returns him to the road. He also sees some figures and shadows, which make hi nervous.

Drunkard takes a cell phone and tries to call police, but he can not tell where he is. Then he opens GPS navigation. He is drunk, and his hands are shaking. He drops cellphone into the puddle. He picks it up, but it is already flooded and does not work. His hands are in something sticky, he looks at puddles - there are human entrails and flies are buzzing. He is puking. Drunkard finds in the woods some strange technogenic machine. There are piles of bones, empty bottles and empty cages near it. It is not clear, what is this, but it is clear, that this machine took a lot of lifes. Drunkard walks through the forest and hears woman's help scream. He goes toward the voice and comes to monster den. Drunkard tries to release Wife. He unties the rope, but in the moment Deadwoods comes from the back. He ties Drunkard near Wife, now they are all going to die. Deadwood does not speak, like an animal. Deadwood configures big alcohol machine. He ejects used corpses, configures some buttons and levers. He washes some details. He does it without any speaking. Deadwood tells, that all his life he was seeking for some special drink, that would make him happy. And after a while - he finally found it - it is tincture on the human bodies. Thus, he kidnaps travelers and make drink out of them. Wife accuses Drunkard, that he drinks all his life. He always tried to drink over his problems instead of solving them. Now he realizes - drinking is the lone think he can do well. Then he calls Deadwood for a duel on Drinking.

Drunkard and the Monster sit in front of a stump. A bottle of vodka and filled glasses stand on the stump. They drink in queue - the first who falls - loses the fight. Deadwood was born in a rubbish dump near pile of used alcohol bottles. So, all the remains of the drinks were dripping to him, so he was filled with alcohol. It caused mutations and now he consumes alcohol instead of water. But on the other hand - he can not taste alcohol - it tastes like water for him. Once he was even close to a suicide. But after experiments he found a drink, that he can taste - his magic drink out of people. Drunkard admits, that he is unable to win. He stops fighting and gets a cigarette to taste it for the last time in his life. He breathes it in, and Deadwood takes a cigarette to taste it also. But as soon, as a coal falls down - Deadwood start burning. It finally dies. Drunkard unties Wife and tells, that he understood his mistakes about alcohol. She forgives him and they are kissing. Drunkard get up after a drunk dream with unfinished bottle of Vodka in his hand. There were no Deadwood and no road journey - it was in the dream. He throws out the bottle - he really quit drinking in real life. ```

Did you get from your friends’ positive feedbacks? There is also a little theoretical insertion - do not try to take in account critics of more that 2 people - 3 people will never have the same critics Trottier, Bible. Then it is time to screenwriting, and here we finish working with ultra_outlnier.

Conclusion

I used ultra_outliner v0.9.1b, which can be downloaded for free in the official site in the Download section. The given sample is in every distribution in the samples/ folder.

References

  1. McKee, Story. Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. ReganBooks. 1997. 480P.
  2. Field, Screenplay. Syd Field. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Delta. 2005. 320P.
  3. Horrors. Marc Blake,, Sara Bailey. Writing the Horror Movie. Bloomsbury Academic. 2013. 272P.
  4. Trottier, Bible. David Trottier. The Screenwriter's Bible, 6th Edition: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. Silman-James Press. 2014. 430P.