Some say ideas don’t matter in storytelling. In fact, you can’t even copyright an idea—only an expression of that idea. Execution is everything. I could give the same exact concept to ten different writers, and I would get ten totally different scripts. A writer’s unique vision and voice comes to life in how she interprets the characters and takes the story from outline into pages. Sometimes, what parts of the story a writer chooses to show is what sets a good script and a great script apart.
I was working with a client this week who was stumped by why her script wasn’t working. She had so much passion for the story, but I when I read it, I duly found that the script was flat and lacking in narrative momentum. We needed to go back and look at the structure.
I helped her reverse engineer a step outline (a.k.a. a beat sheet), in which she listed the events of each scene. When we examined that, the light bulb went off. The outline read like a compelling story full of big emotional shifts, and yet those moments weren’t in the screenplay. The aftermath and outcomes of the emotional turns were often expressed in montage formats. This writer had placed the important decisions and conflicts off camera, and had chosen to show only the results. That was the key.
As we know, scenes need a Goal-Obstacle-Outcome structure to be engaging and to propel the story forward. Montages (a narrative crutch at the best of times) often don’t have any obstacles. They “tell” rather than “show.” By telling us only the results of her protagonist’s decisions, this writer was missing out on showing us juicy scenes with clear goals and obstacles, where sparks could fly and we’d be emotionally connected and rooting for our protagonist.
A scene where a character must struggle to reach a fraught decision and then face obstacles in acting on that decision will always be more interesting than what happens after. Imagine watching only the last five minutes of any movie, without getting invested in the journey that brought a character to those outcomes. Things might be nice but ultimately, we just wouldn’t care.
By returning to the outline, we had been able to effectively take an X-Ray of her script and diagnose what wasn’t working. This enabled her to get a firm handle on which story points she needed to craft scenes around, in order to get everything she loved about this story onto the page. This writer knew the next draft had to be about cutting her montages and giving us decision points and obstacles instead. Here’s hoping the next draft is as compelling as her outline.
How’s your script working? Are you showing us your decision points and getting the most from character conflict? Maybe reverse engineering an outline could help you X-Ray your story too.