Writering / September 29, 2017 Story Structure 101

Stories are complex things, and especially in TV scripts, you have to pay close attention to the rules. One of the most stubborn rules is: you only have a certain amount of time to tell this story, and it has to be fairly standard across the series.

And yet a TON of writers fall into this trap, at the springboard stage, premise and outline stages:

Bob has a lot of things he needs to do before he leaves for work: he has to brush his teeth, comb his hair, take out the trash, eat breakfast, feed pigeons, draw pictures of hamsters on his wall, sing to plants and also shower. But then, at work, he discovers Barb is upset because he forgot her birthday. So he buys her a muffin and everyone goes home happy.

What you have there is 3/4 set-up, and 1/4 inexplicably split between the meat of the story and the resolution. Worse, the set-up has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Now, I enjoy a good pivot as much as the next guy (teehee), so watching Bob do his morning routine for 3 or 4 minutes of a 22 minute show might actually be fun, if it’s done right. But that’s not what this springboard says: it says Bob is spending 17 minutes eating waffles, AND WAFFLES AREN’T EVEN IMPORTANT TO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Too many writers get lost writing fluff, and forget to write their actual stories. If I’m a story editor and I see that premise, I can’t even BEGIN to consider it, because I have no idea how we’re going to ACTUALLY fill 22 minutes based on a single line of text. I mean, I can IMAGINE ways to do it, but then I’D be writing the episode, not you.

Here’s a very simple rule of thumb for writing springboards, premises and outlines: you set-up should PHYSICALLY take up no more than 1/10th of your entire write-up. For springboards, that’s HALF A LINE OF TEXT, or:

Bob’s day is off to a good start, until—

That’s it. Nothing more. You can turn that into a page or two of witty whatever at 1st draft, but UNTIL the 1st draft, it’s a waste of space. Use the last 1/10th (or maybe 2/10ths, depending) to wrap things up, and the remaining space is — OMG! — for the actual goddamn story.

The same rule applies no matter how you scale it. Visually, on the page, make sure your set-up takes up no more than 1/10 of your text. Some people say “make your first paragraph the set-up” but then you see half-page paragraphs while everything else is 2 lines. No. VISUALLY, 1/10th of the page. No more.

There, I just saved you a millennia of procedural suffering.

Now with THIS as set-up, let me tell you about how to write compelling stories: put words on the page with a twist, and then you’re done.

Ta da!