Typing Faster

July 29, 2009

The Great Jigsaw Puzzle: Breaking Story 101

Filed under: Craft, Pilot School — petertypingfaster @ 4:02 pm

I’ve always liked puzzles. I like figuring out how things fit together. How they connect. In other words, I love breaking story.

In my book, breaking story is the most enjoyable thing about writing. Since I’m in the midst of breaking a pilot, I figured I’d share a bit about my process. Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to break a story, at the end of the day use whatever works for you.

So, how does one go about breaking a television pilot?

I’m going to assume that you’ve already come up with an air tight premise, some interesting characters, and a dramatic world for them to inhabit. You should also have a general idea of what tone you’re shooting for, as well as what recurring themes you’ll focus on for the series.

With that knowledge in hand, lets break some story!

What’s your Ending?
It’s always easier to break a story if you know your end point. Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to end your pilot, it’s easy to backfill the rest of the story. All you have to do is include everything you need to happen in order to reach your desired outcome. You want to end your pilot on a nice dramatic beat, something that’ll sell people on coming back for the rest of your series.

If you don’t have an ending yet, don’t worry, it’ll come. It’ll just be a bit harder is all.

What’s your Beginning?
Beginning’s are just as important as endings, though for my money they’re harder to figure out. A lot of writers think that their stories begin earlier than they actually do. You don’t want to become a slave to your backstory. It’s much better to jump in late, than to start too early.

What’s your Tentpole?
The tentpole is your big dramatic beat that the episode hinges on. This beat usually falls in the middle, and it’ll usually be an Act out. If you’re writing a show with five acts, which seems to be the current standard, then your tentpole will probably be your Act Three or Act Four out.

What’s your A plot? What’s your B? C?
Once I’ve figured out what my pilot’s beginning, tentpole, and ending are, then I’ll usually go in and figure out what my A, B and C plots are going to be. Of course you aren’t limited to an A, B and C plot, but I find three are usually enough for the stories I tell, with maybe a couple of runners tacked on for good measure. In general the plot points you’ve already figured out are going to belong to your A story, but that’s not always the case.

I like to start with a general sentence describing each of my plots.

Then I give them all the Beginning, Middle, End approach, and write a sentence to describe each corresponding plot point.

If a plot still feels a bit vague, or is giving me trouble, then I’ll go and write out a semi-detailed paragraph summary. Usually it doesn’t come to this.

What are your Act Outs?
Once I have my Beginning, Middle and End, as well as my plot and sub-plots, then I start to lay out the spine of my story. The first step in this process is figuring out what your Act Outs are.

You want them to be big, sexy moments that will bring the audience back. There are three ways to do this:

You can go out on Jeopardy:

OMG our hero just got shot!

You can go out on Revelation:

Luke, I am your father!

Or you can go out on a mix of the two:

Luke, I am your father! BANG!

You don’t have to go out on your A plot, so don’t be afraid to mix it up if you feel the need to!

What are your Act Ins?

These are easier to figure out than your outs, because often you’re just dealing with the aftermath of the previous out. Don’t be afraid to come in on a different story that what you went out on previously, it can be a good way to draw out the tension. Be careful you don’t completely diffuse it though!

Filling in the rest.
Now that you’ve nailed out the spine of your story, it’s time to fill in the rest. Here’s a trick I learned from the great DMc.

Take a piece of paper and divide it into two. Now on one side write down all the plot points that HAVE to happen for your story to work.

On the other side of the paper you write down all the really cool shit that COULD happen.

These are the rest of the puzzle pieces you have to work with. Slot them into the story however it makes sense.

Once I’ve laid out the spine of my story I tend to work chronologically, going from start to finish, and making sure that all my stories are interwoven in a way that works. Usually you want to avoid clumping multiple beats of the same plot together, though that’s far from an absolute rule.

Tips, Tricks and Addendums.

It helps to be able to see your entire story visually, this is why practically every story department is addicted to white boards. Personally I prefer cork boards with different colored cue cards.

Every now and then a plot’s just not going to work. Don’t be afraid to ditch it, though this doesn’t mean you have to throw ALL your plots out.

Once you’ve finished weaving your plots together you essentially have a beat sheet. Throw in a little bit more detail and you have an outline. When I’m writing for myself I tend to just stick with the beat sheet.

When you’re breaking story don’t bother writing dialogue. Once you get sucked into dialogue, you get sucked into writing the scene. This is about seeing if the pieces of your story are going to work together. Save the actual writing for your first draft (or your outline).

Don’t be afraid to show beat sheets to people, just make sure that they’re people who know how to read a beat sheet. Like many things in life, breaking story is easier when you’ve got a bunch of smart people working on it together.



  1. “In my book, breaking story is the most enjoyable thing about writing.”

    I didn’t know you had a book…congrats!

    Nice post.

    Comment by wcdixon — July 29, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

    • No book yet, but if I keep getting comments like that I might just have to write one!

      Comment by petertypingfaster — July 29, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

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