The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of

Vik Rubenfeld#AskVik12 Comments

Lose the Writer Blues with Techniques from the Suspense Guru

Lose the Writer Blues with Techniques from the Suspense Guru

There’s an extremely important writing technique that is well-known in Hollywood, called “storybreaking”. Yet when I did a Twitter search for “film storybreaking” and “tv storybreaking”, here’s what came up:

film storybreaking twitter search

tv storybreaking twitter search

No tweets found! Yet this is a technique that is widely talked about and used in Hollywood. Here’s the definition of storybreaking on screenwriting.io:

Breaking story basically means figuring out the screenplay’s blueprint — mapping out a story and coming up with a logically and dramatically consistent beginning, middle, and end, and the major checkpoints therein.

Here’s Vince Gilligan, Creator of BREAKING BAD: talking about storybreaking. Note the part I’ve highlighted:

VINCE GILLIGAN: Breaking a story…the way we do it on Breaking Bad—the shows I’ve worked on have been very complex plot-wise. Very complex. And to that end you have to know you can’t just sit down and write and have just a vague inspiration for an episode.

There are shows like that, and they’re very different creatures. I wouldn’t know how to write a show like that that’s a little more meandering and a little more character- and dialog-based. That’s not what I was trained to do. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not, you know—it’s the difference between writing a poem and writing a song or whatever—it’s just different kinds of writing.

But the kind of stuff we did on the X-Files was, the hard work, the heavy lifting of the job was—we would sit in front of a cork board, 3 feet by 5 feet, with a big thing of thumb tacks and a big thing of index cards, and a whole bunch of Sharpie magic markers. And we’d sit there and we’d say okay, okay, what’s the teaser? We know we’re doing an episode about Aztec mummies, so what’s the teaser? What’s a really scary teaser? And you’d build it brick by brick. Each card represents a plot beat [note from Vik: a plot beat is an event that takes place in the story]. Not necessarily a scene, but 3, 4, 6, 8 cards might represent one scene. Each one of those cards is some indispensable plot beat of that scene. You’d break the story, you build it in other words, brick by brick, index card by index card, and put it up there, and by the end of it you filled up this entire 3 foot by 5 foot cork board with a teaser and the four act structure that we would do in the X-Files, which we also do in Breaking Bad. Teaser, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 4. And this whole 3 foot by 5 foot board is filled with pinned-up index cards by the time you’re done. And it would take, sometimes you would really have to gang—bang it out quick in a day or two but that was hopefully a rarity. Usually it would take a week or two to break an episode. On Breaking Bad it takes a solid two weeks plus to break an episode. And it is the hardest part of the job as a writer.

A plot beat is essentially—a good analogy I suppose is a bunch of engineers sitting around their communal drafting table drawing the design, the architectural drawings for a skyscraper. Then you gotta go build the skyscraper which is a huge amount of man-hour and labor and all of that. But you can’t build that skyscraper unless you’ve got the architectural blueprints to begin with. And to us, the writing, the actual sitting down and writing is kind of carefree compared to the breaking. Cause I’ve got this outline, I’ve got these index cards, and I know what happens next. Then it’s fleshing it out with dialog. There is certainly invention to be had. You have to invent as you write. But what we try to do in the writing room on Breaking Bad, and what we tried to do on X-Files is, anyone in the writers room for the time it took to break that story, could go off and write that particular episode. Everyone knows the story. They know intimately, beat by beat, what’s supposed to happen. Any one of those writers could therefore—if one of us got hit by a bus, the others could go and, you know—if we dropped in our traces, someone else could pick up where we left off and write that given episode.

So the writing is an important part of it, but it’s not the hardest part and it’s not to me the most crucial part.

As you can see from the definition and from what Vince says, storybreaking has a lot to offer.

Notice the sentence of Vince’s that I highlighted above: “Each one of those cards is some indispensable plot beat of that scene.” That plot beat is not merely indispensable to the scene it is in—it’s indispensable to the script as a whole.

Using storybreaking, writers discover plot beats that are essential to their stories.

Storybreaking is guided by three goals:

  • Find the essential plot beats your story must have
  • Make every scene  exciting
  • Make every scene contribute what it must to setting up the scenes that follow

For each scene to work, quite a bit must be in place.  The information the characters must have at that point in the story, the objects they possess, their relationships to one another—all the story elements have to be just right to make that cool scene possible. That means you have to have other scenes prior to it that get everything into place. Storybreaking techniques provide powerful methods for achieving these things.

Interested in learning more? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

12 Comments on “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. Hi, love your blog. I’m a professional writer and editor, but of the traditional stripe and not familiar with Hollywood’s writing techniques. Fascinating. I’d like to re-blog some of your posts on my blog (which is followed mostly by writers). Interested?

  2. Hi Margaret,

    Thanks very much! I’ve just been looking at and enjoying your site. I would love to discuss this with you further, via email. I’ve just signed up to follow your blog via email, so you may find my email that way. And it is listed on the top right of this page under the Contact heading. I look forward to hearing from you!

  3. Do you have specific criteria for deciding if a scene should play out in detail or happen off-screen and only be referred to or discussed as it impacts the story?

  4. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for this question. I think this is very much a matter of the author’s personal preference. At the same time, if the scene is powerful in terms of delivering on your goal as an author, that’s a pretty strong argument for keeping it on-screen. What STYLE is your story? Style (as opposed to GENRE) is determined by what your goal is as an author in terms of the effect you want to have on an audience. Here’s a list of STYLES:

    http://www.vikrubenfeld.com/style/

  5. What does Vince G. mean by four Acts? I thought it was just beginning. middle and end?

    Thanks,
    David

  6. That’s a great question, David. In TV it is common to think of an episode as being divided into a number of acts based on the number of commercial breaks. With the exception of brief “cold open” sequences that can be at the beginning of the show, and brief “tags” that can be at the end, the portion of the show between any two commercial breaks is considered an Act.

  7. I really like this post. This goes way beyond building the story structure around commercial breaks by acts, or using 3×5 cards but explains the relationship of beat points to scene building to acts and story arc.

  8. Hi Vik,

    This is fascinating for me as I’m about to potentially start writing a TV series. I’m intrigued as to what a “plot beat” constitutes. I realize you note it is “an event that takes place in the story”, but how does it differentiate from a beat indicating a scene, such as a specific plot point. How would a scene break down into beats?

    Thanks so much,
    D.E.

  9. Yes, I’ve been sitting with a cardboard, surrounded by professionals, gluing up the story. It ended up in a Full Feature that earned it’s money, but except that was a piece of shit. But I am a novel writer — I have published some 200 titles, and I have always done it wrong. Even with those stories that have fairly sold well. I just start with an idea, let the steps produce the road, so some rewriting, and then…
    But I have decided: I will work in Scrivener, I will throw balls and put note-it’s, and then I will introduce the result to my brand new American publisher. I look forward to it. Thanks for the kick in my a..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *