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08/26/2007: Hot Rat-Taunting Story Documents
Some shows use a different kind of outline than you might've seen before. It's actually a sort of pre-outline, and it reads more like a traditional prose short story than you might be used to. It doesn't indicate act breaks, it just tells the story of the episode from beginning to end. And, get this, it tells the A-story separate from any secondary stories.
Can you picture the kind of document I'm talking about? It starts with a brief one-paragraph summary of the episode as a whole -- a little recap that sums up the reasons for telling the episode -- what does it mean? Then the next section is all A-story, all the time, a prose walk-through of those events, generally told scene-by-scene but without explicitly giving scene headings. Then the B-story is laid out, beginning to end, and then, if there's a substantial enough C-story to merit it, it can have its own section, too.
Here's a mini-example, using a fake ep of a fake show I'm making up as I go for the sake of exemplarity.
Summary: When does a false memory of abuse itself become abuse? Jeremy discovers that he does have symptoms of trauma, not from any childhood events, but from years of exposure to an unethical therapist who has planted false traumatic memories. At the same time, his wife Amy is called to their son's school because the boy has been taunting the classroom's pet rat. Amy and Jeremy have to face the fact that their own psychological problems might have been handed down to their child. In the end, just as Jeremy is himself feeling more stable, another call comes from the school... and this one is more serious.
We start out in JEREMY's head as he sleeps, in a dream set in his childhood - CHILD-JEREMY listens to his parents fighting in another room. Only there's an additional character in the dream. Jeremy's therapist, GRAYSON, is there, directing the scene as if it was a movie. Jeremy wakes up to find he's alone in bed.
He heads to work, but we can see that he's still pondering the message of the dream... [MORE-- ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THE A-STORY]
AMY gets an early-morning phone call from her son's teacher. She's been unable to reach Amy at any other time. Amy slips out of bed without disturbing Jeremy, feeling guilty that her work is removing her from family life so much that she wasn't available for the call. The teacher asks Amy if she can come in to the school to meet with her about something "sort of urgent." Puzzled, Amy agrees. [MORE-- TO THE END OF THE B-STORY]
See how that goes? I haven't written very many of these in my career. It always seemed to me like an odd stutter-step to tease the stories apart so you can tell them with narrative flow, when they're not going to appear that way in the finished script at all. And yet, whenever I do employ this step, I'm shocked at how useful it is. Especially when it comes to checking secondary stories for internal coherence.
It's easy to think of a B-story as a series of scenes that are useful for commenting on and transitioning in and out of the main story scenes. Being forced to tell a B-story in a compelling way that stands alone can help you make sure it's doing more than that.
Also, I think any step that forces you to think hard about all your stories before you write dialogue is a good thing. I picture it this way... there are hidden gems in every story, little moments that end up being the reason a reader drops your script so that he can pick up the phone and call your agent. But you have to find those gems before you can put them into the script. An outline slices up your story horizontally, so you can look into the cuts for those gems. The kind of story document I'm talking about here slices up your story vertically, so if you do both, you're creating a much better search grid.
Lunch: crab dip with pita bread