Home » Archives » August 2006 » The Sound of One Forehead Slapping
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08/29/2006: The Sound of One Forehead Slapping
WorldCon made me get all theoretical and big-picture-y. That can be fun, but it isn't always helpful if you're sitting at home with your fingers on the keys, looking for advice you can put to work right away. So, how about we go back to talking about something more practical?
Let's suppose you're "breaking" the story for your drama spec script. You're in the early stages, thinking up the basic spine of the story, and looking for the act breaks – looking for the places where the story turns. So you come up with a nice exciting event for the end of the teaser, and other ones for the three or four breaks that follow -- all the places where the story will continue after commercials.
Let's say that the act breaks you come up with are compelling and suspenseful. What could possibly go wrong?
They could be duplicates, is what. Sometimes it's very easy to end up with two act breaks that are way too similar to each other. If you end act one with your detectives at a dead-end, you shouldn't end act three with another dead end. Or if an act ends with character one betraying character two, then it's best to avoid using a subsequent betrayal of c2 by c1 as another act break in the same episode.
This trap is so easy to fall into that I've been on staffs where no one notices that we've broken a story with this flaw for a strikingly long time. Then finally, someone points it out, and we all slap our foreheads in comical unison. Sometimes, it doesn't even get fixed. You can probably find produced episodes that do exactly this. Maybe it even works, if the two scenes are purposeful echoes of each other, or if the second of the two breaks is presented as existing at an order of magnitude greater than the first. But unless things work out just right, and you can bury the similarity, you're taking a risk of turning in a script that feels circular and repetitive.
In an extreme case of repeated act breaks, you can look at the story for an episode and realize that nothing would really change if you removed, say, act three. This is a very bad sign. Test your story against this property before you begin writing dialogue. If you've got an act that lifts out like part of a sectional sofa, then something's gone badly wrong. Change it now. Everything is easier to change in the pre-outline stage. And if no one sees you slap your forehead, does it really hurt?
Lunch: no new lunch since last entry