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Script Angel: Laying Solid Story Foundations

Script Angel's Hayley McKenzie looks at creating solid story foundations without outlining.

Script Angel's Hayley McKenzie looks at creating solid story foundations without outlining.

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow Hayley on Twitter @scriptangel1.

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Most screenwriters love writing scenes. We love making our characters come alive, interact with and talk to each other. Writing the script, the dialogue, is usually the fun part. The heavy-lifting of laying the story foundations can feel like a real drag but your script needs to be built on strong story foundations if it's to survive the scrutiny of the myriad of people needed to bring it to the screen.

Lots of screenwriting books, and indeed this terrific article by Brad Johnson advocate outlining your story before you even write your first scene header. And they're not wrong. Of course the most efficient way through the development process is to build the story from the ground up, with the dialogue the very last thing that gets sprinkled on the top and only when you know exactly what the purpose of the scene is, and you're sure that it's essential.

story foundations hard graft

The trouble is that is rarely how the creative process works. It's just not that neat for most of us. The finished script is made up of bits that you crafted to get you from one place to the next but often it's in equal parts made up of ideas and inspiration; moments and lines of dialogue and scenarios and events that came to you while you were in the shower or washing the dishes or driving to work.

There are great books, like Pilar Alessandra's The Coffee Break Screenwriter, that can walk you through the ideal process, step by step, from concept to polished script. At the end of it you'll have a perfectly crafted script. It is undoubtedly a brilliant template to be aimed for. But the truth is that creating original material is usually much, much more messy and complicated than that. And that's OK too, because when you're in the mess, that's when the magic happens. Outlining is fantastic but planning can take all the fun out of the process. If it doesn't work for you, don't beat yourself up. Get it writ, then get it right.

So, you may well have a first draft script that hasn't been fully outlined first, where you started with a sort of a plan but veered off a bit, or a lot! Your script has moments that are brilliant and a pretty solid concept behind it but things maybe aren't happening in quite the right order. There's a classic sketch from British 1970s comedians Morecombe and Wise that illustrates my point beautifully: View on YouTube.

If your first draft script feels a bit like this - don't panic. You are not alone. If you didn't outline the story to within an inch of its life before you started writing the script, it's not too late. But now definitely is the time to tackle that hard graft to ensure that every sequence, every scene, is the best possible choice for the story you want to tell.

Now is the time to switch from your creative brain and to harness your inner critic to help you analyse your script in the cold light of day. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the central story track?
  • Is there enough strong story material to hold an audience's interest or are you repeating yourself?
  • Have you gone off down a story cul-de-sac and got stuck?
  • Are the subplots too dominant because you've fallen a bit in love with one of your secondary characters and like writing scenes for them more than for your protagonist?
  • Does the plot really challenge your characters; are you giving them a hard enough time?
  • Do I believe what your character does, the choices she makes? Is there a believable motivation or are they doing things just because you need them to do that thing to take the plot where it needs to go?
  • Are you missing opportunities for more powerful drama and conflict if you made a slightly different story choice?

This is the time, if you haven't already, to ask all those important 'what if' questions. Explore all the story possibilities. Take ideas for a walk and see if you end up with something better, richer, more interesting or surprising.

You might have to make some hard choices and cut lines of dialogue, whole scenes, characters or story strands if they're not serving your central purpose. But this hard graft of sorting out the story will pay dividends. Because when you've got really solid story foundations you get to the fun bit - adding the finishing touches, but this time they're coming on top of something that will stand up to scrutiny and won't fall down no matter how strong the critical winds blowing on it.

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