The step by step development of the story underlying your teleplay is crucial to its success, yet it’s no exaggeration to say that for most writers – even the most experienced – the actual structuring of their film or episode (whether the episode is for your own new series or one already on the air) is the most difficult part of the writing process.
How many times have you sat down to write and then thrown your hands up in despair. “This isn’t right! This scene doesn’t belong here! OMG! OMG! I can’t figure out what happens next!”
All of us go through this one time or another (or another, or another), but that doesn’t have to be the case. Honest. Not if you know a few tricks.
The most important of those tricks is this:
MAKE YOUR STORY TELL ITSELF.
Again, with the dread exclamation point:
MAKE YOUR STORY TELL ITSELF!
That’s how important this is.
Notice that I didn’t say “let it tell itself.” Because it won’t. Left to its own devices, your storyline will just sit there and shrivel, and finally die.
I know of three ways to keep that from happening. Three ways to push your story into shape. Both of them start with that wonderful invention, the leavebehind.
Remember all that thought you put into the leavebehind? Into shaping a beginning, middle, and end? All the basics for your story, and, ultimately, your teleplay, are right there. Your job now is to dig in and expose what lurks beneath its slick (we hope) surface and make it expand.
The first way to go about this is by creating what the biz calls a character-driven piece. To do this, you work out your characters as fully as possible, and then, since you know them so well, you create your plotline by writing what these people would inevitably do in this situation. As Sartre once said (although not in anything written for TV), “Existence precedes essence.” And working out your story this way is very existential indeed.
The idea here is to work out complete biographies of all the main characters. Not just name and occupation and personality, but height, weight, date of birth, place of birth, astrological sign, favorite color, education, relationship with family, income, habits.everything you can think of about a person.
Once you’ve written all that down for, say 5-10 characters, you know these people well. So well that their behavior will dictate the story. Some characters will inevitably be attracted to each other. Others will hate each other. Others will be indifferent. Some characters will be aggressive in certain situations, others passive. Their interactions, based on who they are, will move the story along.
New writers often are drawn to this procedure. It seems to much more literary. So, I dunno, pure. But if you think about it for a minute, character-driven stories are really illusory. Because if your plot really, really, really depends on the characters, how do you control it? How do you get it to hew to your already determined beginning, middle, and end? The beginning, middle, and end, which, if you’re a pro, you’ve already gotten the go-ahead for, from your producer?
When faced with this situation, many writers fall back on the story-driven technique, where all they have to do (did I really say “all?”) is think of every possible interesting and exciting thing that could happen within the context of the leavebehind and make a list.
Arguments! Love-making! Shootings! A great boat ride! A guy trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea! In other words, whatever “works” for the idea. Shuffle the scenes around. Organize them so they head toward a climax. Put in some connective tissue so that the movement from one really cool/neat thing to the next really cool/neat thing makes sense. Wham! You’re done.
What? That’s not working for you?
Yeah, it usually doesn’t. Because when you do this you end up with a missing piece – i.e., the sense of character integrity and realism.
So what’s the answer? For most of us who spend our lives writing, it’s to combine the two methods. To know your characters and also know the necessities of the kind of story you’re telling.
A fantasy story that starts with an innocent hero receiving a mysterious object and being told to protect it at all costs has certain obligatory scenes from that point on. Obligatory for audience satisfaction. Someone or some thing must try to steal the object. The hero must at first decide that keeping it isn’t worth the danger. Then the hero must realize that he has no choice but to take the object where it will be safe, or serve its purpose for good before the villain uses it for bad. These are mythic elements that appeal to everyone’s primal instincts. They give the story power. A power that is enhanced because the hero’s personality, his strengths and his weaknesses, influence and guide his every step.
Similarly, a realistic, contemporary story that starts with a brash, wise guy hero losing his girl and his job has obligatory scenes of its own. As soon as these events occur, the audience is triggered into the realization that this is going to be the tale of an inner journey of self-discovery, and that by the end the hero will become a better person. He’ll be worthy of a better girl, and a better job. Again, this structure and the scenes that go with it are mythic and primal. And, again, the mythic and primal elements are strengthened because the villain the hero must fight in this kind of story is -himself.
Over the years I’ve found that I have always created my stories by relying on what I call “genre patterns,” similar to those analyzed in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, which has been an inspiration to several generations of writers (and which I encourage you to read…a couple of times at least). My genre patterns, however, don’t come from just one book. They come from a lifetime of reading every book and watching every film and TV show I could.
My research – which was and is of course my entertainment as well – has helped me develop an intuitive sense of what steps must come in what order in any type of story. Whenever I sit down to plot anything I pick my genre, determine where the story is starting, where it’s ending, and the most important and exciting action along the way. Then I create characters whose personalities are best suited for taking the trip down the story’s path. And then I sit back and let my mind flood with memories of similar paths taken by everything I’ve read and watched…and that’s it. I’m flying through an outline like a bat out of hell.
Which brings us to the little matter of how to create the most useful, efficient outline. Like every other aspect of the creative process in television, your story has to please two masters – your creativity and the needs and desires of the buyer who has agreed to pay (or who you hope will agree to pay) for that creativity. The natures of TV and film being what they are, that means that you don’t just work out a story and outline it for yourself, you deliver that outline to the development exec.
You may have written out the moves your characters are going to take on the back of envelopes, or on note cards that you can shuffle around. But the exec wants to see it in one of two formats. Either a beatsheet, also known as a stepsheet, or a treatment.
The beatsheet is just that, a 3-12 page outline that lists and numbers the scenes in the upcoming teleplay. What’s my definition of “scene?” How about this:
Each scene is one integral event in the story that propels us on to the next integral event. Sometimes scenes are set in different locations. Sometimes they happen one after another in the same place.
And when I say “one event” I mean it literally. Scenes work best when they’re easiest for the audience to assimilate, so keep them on one topic plot-wise, and one topic character-wise. A woman goes to the supermarket after work and is accosted by a very demanding man. She reacts with anger – or terror – or joy. The events and feelings before being accosted are a different scene. So is anything that happens afterward.
The beatsheet for the average screenplay is about 12 pages, single-spaced. Into those 12 pages are crammed 50-60 scenes, each one set off by a short heading that tells the setting, and consisting of a sentence or two – three at the most – describing what happens in a way that is useful to both you, the writer, so you are clear on what you’re going to be writing, and to the exec, so he’s got it too. That way the executive knows what to expect from the screenplay – and what to object to now so it can be changed before the actual script-writing begins.
The beatsheet for the average hour episode is about half as long as a screenplay’s, with half as many scenes. If it’s for a broadcast channel or basic cable it’s commonly structured into 5 or even 6 acts, including an opening Teaser and a closing Tag. If it’s for premium cable, where there are no commercials, then you don’t have to worry about labeling acts.
The beatsheet for the average half-hour sitcom episode is about half as long as an hour’s, broken into half as many acts (or no acts for premium cable) but with less than half the number of scenes. Anywhere between 6 and 10 scenes is common.
Oh, if you’re writing a pilot the professional thing to do is stick to the same procedures as for ongoing shows. And if there’s one thing you want to appear it’s professional.
A BRIEF WORD ABOUT TREATMENTS
Every writer has heard the word “treatment,” but, like “high concept,” few understand what a treatment is. That’s because it’s probably the most misused word in TV or screenwriting, after “scenario,” which we won’t even get into here, I swear.
Too often, a treatment is whatever the person who says the word wants it to be. Sometimes the speaker – usually our friend the Suit – means what we’ve been calling a leavebehind. Sometimes the speaker means a beatsheet or outline of any kind.
Strictly speaking, however, a treatment is a detailed description of the progression of scenes in the story, covering exactly what happens in each of those scenes, and written as much like a publishable short story as possible…except that it’s always told in the present tense and only has occasional dialog, for the purposes of emphasis and attitude. Most treatments are double-spaced, and although writers try to keep one scene per paragraph the scenes aren’t numbered because that would impede the short story-like narrative flow. Page count can go from 10-15 pages for an episode of an animated series to 50+ for a screenplay. Hell, years ago I wrote one that was 200+ pages. On assignment for a major studio. (Note: That was a very bad idea. We never went to script, probably because the treatment was too daunting for anyone to even try to read.)
Because of the detail involved, treatments are useful when the story has to be sent “upstairs,” to a higher executive who hasn’t been part of the development process. While shorthand references to things that have been talked about in meetings are usually all the writer and development execs need to understand what’s going on, bigger shots need the nuances explained. So all in all, my experience has been to always write an outline unless the producer or development executive I’m working with requests a treatment. Then it’s a matter of making sure you’re in agreement on exactly how the producer/exec defines treatment.
This story/outlining thing still feeling murky to you? I’ve written another article in which I break it down even more. So if you haven’t already done so, take a look at Writing the Dreaded Outline right here on TVWriter™.