It has come to my attention that I completely left you guys hanging on the Structure conversation.Doh!
I started it here , with helping you find ways to determine whether your idea is an hour or half-hour, or one of those inbetween cable dramedies.
So, assuming you know which genre you’re writing in now, which type of stories you want to tell, the the types of characters you want to tell it with, you need to take on the daunting task of breaking story.
Here’s a checklist on how to make sure you have the tools ready to break story.
1. You have a main character that has enough going on to contain the A story for your pilot, and kick off the season and series arc.
2. The basic theme of your pilot is the basic theme of your series. Do you know what you’re saying with your show? What the eternal struggle will be? (ie, in the Sopranos pilot, and in the series, Tony Soprano always had the struggle between his family life and his “family” life, which was reflected in his therapy sessions. The show was always about his dance between these two worlds.)
3. You want an A story, a B story, a C story, and possibly a very brief D runner story (which means it’s not really a full story, but two or three instances we’ll see a running joke, a character finally make a small change, etc.)
-Half-hours will have an A, B, and C-runner, maybe a D runner if you’re in the Modern Family realm of lots of characters
4. You have generated enough scenes for each storyline.
Generated what? Yes, this is my biggest piece of advice that might differ from some of the books you’ve read.
I recommend breaking each story on its own. Work your way through the whole A story, scene by scene. Make sure it has a beginning, middle and end. There is a climax in the episode. There are stakes. There is a moment where we really get under the skin of your MC and are rooting for them. For an hour long that could be around 8-12 scenes.
Do the same for the B story.
- This is where you find out if your side story, or ancillary characters are interesting enough. Can they sustain their own arc. In a pilot your MC might be involved with this story. Let’s stay you’ve snagged John Stamos as your lead, viewers will want to see him as much as possible, before you can leave them alone with your supporting characters.
The Mentalist is a good example here where it felt like Simon Baker was in every scene at the start of the show, but as we got to know the other actors, we could spend more time alone with them and their own stories.
- Also, consider that your B story gives you something to cut away to from your A story. So if your A story is of your cop solving crimes out in the streets, chances are you don’t want to make your B story also about another cop solving crimes in the streets. Go to someone’s house. A school, a hospital. The Good Wife does this well. What are our worlds? The law firm? Her home? Maybe her husbands office? These give us other things to look at, other worlds to explore, all of which deepens our investment in your main character because we get a broader view of them.
I know there are many shows where this isn’t possible. Grey’s Anatomy keeps us in the hospital, but they do go to different departments. So while someone is undergoing a radical brain procedure (that can only be done in 90 seconds!), someone else is having a baby born with six toes, and C story, someone is teaching a kid to ride a bike and realizing they’re gonna be a great doctor after all. (yes, weak examples, but you get where I’m going.)
Then the C story.
- Same thing. New face, new worlds, keep it interesting, yet still in the realm of your series. Often you see a show, let’s say In Plain Sight, that will have an minor inner-office squabble, passive aggressive argument over a cupcake, someone stole my stapler, kind of thing. I’m not totally a fan of these, but if you can keep them fun, give yourself something to cut to to maybe lighten the tone if you’re dealing with heavy subjects, then fine. Just don’t make this tonally that different from the rest of your script.
And then, this might not fit into any of the categories above….(and this applies more for dramas than comedies), a scene to play into your series arc. In Alcatraz they have the scene at the end of most episodes of moving the photo of the captured criminal to the opposite wall. Or Revenge, she makes an X with that evil red pen!!!! on someone’s face from the company photo. (Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh!).
You can put all these scenes on note cards, you can write them in a word doc, final draft, your call. But, keep the story lines separate.
Only when you have sufficiently beated out each storyline, do you merge them into the episode.
My favorite thing, and this is just me, is to write each scene in a short phrase onto a small post-it. I use the ones that are the long rectangles for putting into books or documents, as opposed to the desktop reminder square size. I pick a color for each storyline.
Then I draw a big six act structure, this is generally Cold Open/Teaser, and then Act I – Act V.
Then I can place my color-coded sticky pieces down on my grid.
Start with A, place them all down. See which scenes might make good act outs. Not all of your act outs, but most will come from the A storyline, so if you dont’ have interesting enough act out moments, something is missing from your story.
Then place down all the B.
You know you are going to have to cut to something from your A storyline, you know time is going to have to move forward, people have to change clothes, get back home from the office, sleep, etc. So you use your B and C scenes to help you finesse moving your A story forward.
From there you just have to adjust and play around to keep those post-its working for you. The color coding helps to see visually if you’re weighting the whole B story in the third act, or if you let the C story drop from act 2, 3, 4. You kind of bounce between the three, while still keeping us mostly invested in the A story, until the end.
I often take a picture with my iPhone when it’s done to save this post-it masterpiece. Never know when a gust of wind could blow your outline away.Plus, you could even make major changes, but have an old “draft” of your outline still available to check in with.
From there, I throw the whole thing into an outline in Final Draft, and then start writing.
Sometimes I need to write the shitty first draft to find the holes in the story, the scenes that led to nothing, the characters that were coming up flat. But, that requires writing the draft. I’ve seen many writers not even write the first draft because something wasn’t working in the outline for them. I get that. But if can’t solve it in outline, if you’ve tried a few different ways, but you have a solid enough base to go on, sometimes you have to dive in to see how cold the water really is.
I generally budget a week for breaking, and a week for knocking out the shitty first draft. This is working from home full time. And, this is also after a few weeks, months, years, of an idea brewing, a character forming, so I am coming to the table with something that has a shape, but I need to keep refining it as that shape turns into a series.
Best thing I heard about a pilot I wrote recently. “I could see this as a show somewhere.” That’s the goal folks. Well, the goal is to sell the show, make a ton of money, win Emmys, drink whiskey with Matt Weiner, make a guest appearance on True Blood, but…on the page, if done correctly, you haven’t just written a good script, you’ve written a show.