We’ve all been there. You start off with an idea that you know has legs. There are captivating characters, fun twists, and maybe an original set piece (no one has driven a Lamborghini onto a helicopter yet!) or deep emotional moment or two. But something’s not working. You’ve hit a wall. Maybe you’ve even gotten notes from trusted readers and either you disagree with them or you can’t figure out how to integrate them successfully. Those idea legs have gotten shaky and tired. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that script has to sit out the next round of contests.
Last week, I worked with a client on a TV pilot she’s creating. It’s a procedural with a fun twist. The problem was the procedure itself was too flat and too easy. As viewers, we’ve become really sophisticated in solving TV crime, and woe to the writer who doesn’t stay a step or two ahead of our inner Sherlock.
For a start, I asked, have you seen Elementary? She hadn’t so she watched a few episodes. Do a breakdown, I suggested. She’d gotten the basic idea, she said. No, I countered. Watching films and TV that really work on a script level is fun and enjoyable, sure. But solid entertainment is also a free education just sitting there at our fingertips. We can take advantage of that education with a more active watching approach, a story breakdown. That will take a long time, she sighed. Yes, yes it will. But creating an amazing script takes time. Why not invest a little in your ongoing education?
I’m not suggesting you write a synopsis for each scene: Joan walks into the kitchen and discovers Sherlock dumping honey down the drain. Then they visit the crime scene. I’m suggesting you reverse engineer the script as though you were writing the outline. So an entry for an individual scene might look like:
B story. Joan wants to get to the sink but she can’t because Sherlock is dumping honey down the drain. She confronts him on food waste and Sherlock reveals he’s fallen out with his father who won’t be visiting again. They get a call from Det. Bell with new case info and leave.
This was a scene about their personal relationships, thus it’s part of a B or C story, not the A story, which in a procedural is always the crime. The writer’s goal in the scene was for Sherlock to communicate to Joan that he’d fallen out with his father. The honey was something they had for his father’s tea. Thus Sherlock’s action in dumping the honey made that internal goal external and active—it made it visual. Imagine how boring that scene would be if Joan simply walked in, said “why are you sad?” and Sherlock flatly stated “my dad and I fought” and Joan said “Oh. Hey, Bell has a new clue.” It transmits the same basic information – hits the points on the synopsis version – but we’re not interested.
The scene started with the character goals in opposition—something that’s key to a scene with energy and engagement. That Joan’s goal was blocked pushed her to take different action which naturally led her to confront Sherlock—a character-motivated action—you want those! The way the scene was executed shows the petulance of Sherlock’s character, and also reveals the subtext that he does care about his dad and he’s too proud to admit he’s hurting over their falling out. (Writing spec dialog for a character like Sherlock is a great writing exercise because he never talks about anything he truly feels, it’s all subtext.)
Finally in the overall structure, the scene launches us into the next scene on the A story line: a new clue in the investigation.
This breakdown training was enormously helpful to my client. Seeing when Elementary plots reveal new clues, and how those clues and complications change the trajectory of the characters, helped her restructure her own work. It helped her see how much more substance and how many more turns her pilot’s investigation may need. It also gave her some great examples of subtle character development.
Breaking down a show or film can help reveal the overall shape of the story and it throws the execution choices the writer made into high relief so that we can learn and improve our own writing. We can see character goals and outcomes, A versus B versus C storylines, story structure and plot twists.
You can probably guess I recommend doing your own script outline this way too. For each scene I answer: what story line does the scene serve? What are the character(s) goals and how are they in opposition? What’s the obstacle to the protagonist’s goal? What’s the complication or reveal? What’s the outcome? Or more simply put, for each scene I write out: “Character 1 (protagonist driving your action) wants X (goal) but Y (complication or obstacle), so…(outcome).”
Answering these questions about someone else’s script in a breakdown can help you gain facility in answering them for your own script. Being able to clearly articulate character goals, obstacles, and outcomes will strengthen your story structure and lead to more promising scripts. It’s the best way to ferret out those scenes that aren’t doing enough to move your story forward.
For a while, doing breakdowns may make your favorite viewing less fun but I promise such suffering for your art is worth it. It will gain you the ability to craft stronger structures and scenes. And get those story legs back up and running. It will also help you articulate why such a little scene is about so much more than just dumping honey down the drain.