Sunday, July 08, 2007

How To Break The "Rebreak" To A Writer...

Being the blogger with no niche, this is gonna seem like something Epstein might post.

There have been some good discourses recently at some of the usual blogs about the in's and out's of note-giving (and note taking) and the craft of story editing... specifically in Canada where the role is not just relegated to the staff of TV series, but also for features or TV movies. And one of the toughest tasks that you can face as a feature story editor is telling a writer he/she needs to 'rebreak' their story.

Breaking a story takes a number of forms, but it generally means laying out your tale in short concise 'beats' from beginning to end (on a whiteboard or 3x5 cards). Each beat usually describes or represents a scene. From that 'beatsheet', the writer does up an outline or step outline, essentially an expanded and more detailed version of said beats. And then that outline will go to the story editor for feedback.

This is a crucial stage in the development of any screenplay. It's usually the last step before the writer goes to first draft, and it's the story editors job to help the writer move forward armed with as solid an outline as possible. It's also their job to highlight what is working, then point out what isn't working, but with suggestions how to make it all a little cleaner, sharper, tighter, funnier, know, better. Notes without clear, concise suggested fixes are useless.

Now I've story edited several Canadian features and TV movies, and there's been more than one occasion when I joined the development fray that I had to suggest that the writer rethink their structure. The kernel of the cool idea may still exist, but their execution hasn't realized the full potential of the idea. It needs a rebreak. In essence, you're telling the writer they need to 'start over', and that's not easy for anyone to say...or hear.

One thing I've learned is that you've got to be up front in stating that objective. If you don't, and try to bury those dramatic changes in your notes, the writer will generally ignore them. Why? Because they're usually happy with what they have thus far, and are looking to you to help make it better...but only to make it better within the plot and structure and arcs that already exist. So slipping in a note like: "Oh, and it feels like the hero goes on the run too late, perhaps you can look at having it occur about a quarter of the way in instead of three quarters way through"...the writer will consider this, figure out that it changes everything, and tend to move on to the little, more doable notes. You have to acknowledge right off the bat that making this change will alter everything, and then do your damnedest to explain why you think it not only will be an improvement, but will more fully realize the writers original vision.

That's also very important. The rebreak has to be suggested with the writer's original intention in mind, NOT just to tell the story YOU'D rather tell. I'll always say: "The story you said you were writing was this, but I'm not reading that, I'm reading something else instead." That's why I also feel it's crucial for the writer to also provide a logline and 1-2 paragraph synopsis with their step outline, just to give everyone a place to come back to if it feels like the story has lost its way.

So writers, listen to your story editors...that's why you're paying them. And remember it's always better to try to fix it earlier in the game, as opposed to in the edit suite.


CAROLINE said...

I wish I could afford to hire you as my personal story editor. One day ...

BTW, I thought I was the blogger with no brand (niche) ;-)

Bill Cunningham said...

Yes, the logline is the first best tool (IMHO) for working out any story problems... It's the first thing that the producers sign off on, and is the touchstone you always go back to when writing the outline.

Great post, Will.

potdoll said...

very useful post. cheers!