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Breaking the Story: Five Helpful Steps

By Patrick Kirkland · January 25, 2012

When you’re staring at page 42 and your eyes start to crust over, you may wish you spent a little more time breaking your story in prep. Sometimes, though, it's just way too tempting to jump right in, and we just can't wait. You hear about scripts that were written over a weekend, or entire films made from improv. And yes, some of them are good, but those tend to be one out of a thousand.

Before you type Fade In, you should prepare by using the following five helpful steps to break the story. It makes your first draft at least bearable.

1. Work out the one-liner.

Writing loglines really are a pain in the ass. They're generally a one-sentence summary of your project. "Two star-crossed lovers struggle aboard the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic." When you've written your script, it's hard to pare down all of your awesome moments and nuances into one sentence. But when you're still trying to break your story, it's damn near impossible. Still, working on it now will at least get you thinking in a straight line. It also may help you figure out which ideas you should definitely keep in your story, and which to weed out.

2. Brain-dump on Index Cards

Just write down everything you can. One sentence per card, for as many cards as it takes you to clear your head of any and all ideas. Your head is already clear? Just write anything. Write sentences that make no sense until you have a pile of index cards in front of you that may or may not be useable. The act of creating more sometimes needs to overtake the act of creating well. When you focus too much on trying to be good, you just might be limiting yourself. And index cards are ridiculously cheap, so there's no reason not to. Plus, they're fun to shuffle when you're finished.

3. Change your genre.

Your script is a Rom-Com? Now’s the time to put your improv skills to use and try it out as a psychological thriller. This step may seem drastic, and it is, but if you’re still trying to break your story, writing scenes in an entirely different genre can give you a stronger grip on your characters, their goals, and the overall tonality of your script. It might be hard to imagine, but it’s not necessarily hard to do. Where you thought one scene might be charming, you can make it dramatic.

“Tony takes her hand, kisses her. “ can be changed quickly to “Tony squeezes her hand, forces his lips onto hers. “ 

Your story isn’t locked in yet, and looking at it in a genre you never thought of could just give you the insight you need to finish it. 

4. Watch a lot of movies.

"It's like The Terminator meets Parenthood."

"It's like Home Alone meets Dogs in Heaven."

"It's like Candyman meets Tangled."

Lucky for you, the movie industry watches a lot of movies. So, in creating your story, you should do the same. Writing a romantic comedy? Pop in Sleepless in Seattle, Netflix When Harry Met Sally… and rent every Amy Adams movie there is. Learn your genre by learning the turns that are in every one of those movies. The boy will always lose the girl at some point. There will always be a speech given to change the boy's mind. Learn the main points of your genre, and then try to create scenes in your own script that replicate them. It doesn't matter if it works or not. The story point you need may have nothing to do with what you've already written.

5. Talk it out.

Writer's rooms. Teams. When you get inside a room with a bunch of writers, the ere of creativity smacks you in the face. You go in an unsure writer, then the energy pumps up, next thing you know, you're talking with your hands, and you've got an amazing idea. A lot of people tend to refrain from telling their ideas to others at the beginning, but sometimes, one good conversation is all you need to break a story.  Be open to all suggestions, every one of them, yes, even the bad ones, because they might just spark the idea you need.