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Make the Big Building Blocks of Your Script Work Before Developing the Details
By Jeff Kitchen
The last thing to do in the process of building a script is to add in the details. If you don’t get the big picture working properly, then the details do not matter. You’ve probably seen writers with a wonderfully written scene in a script that doesn’t work. That’s like having an ornately finished room in a house that’s falling. There’s oak trim, polished marble, gold leaf, and top-notch furnishings, but the house is caving in. A great scene in a script that doesn’t work is worthless.
‘Your job as a script writer is to come up with the best story possible and to dramatize it’
So you’ve got to focus on your story’s major building blocks and get them working. Your job as a scriptwriter is to come up with the best story possible and to dramatize it. Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines, so it’s tricky why something looks good on paper but then falls apart on the big screen. It’s slippery and unpredictable why a script can work most of the way through and then fall apart. How does a big production with all the best talent lose a fortune while the same basic story shot for a pittance with a bunch of unknowns go on to make a fortune? The ability to consistently crank out scripts that tend to work is rare, and what makes a dramatic story work is the sixty-four million dollar question these days.
‘Now mere dramatic structure means nothing without a dynamite story to work with’
Scripts are extremely stripped-down literary forms, with no room for the unnecessary. Like a kite or a glider, they consist only of what is necessary to advance the action. A script is structure and nothing else—a framework with minimal elements bolted onto it and no more. Like the frame of a skyscraper, with just the steel girders and beams assembled, the core structure gives the building its shape and function. As a dramatist, you have to make your story work dramatically. Now mere dramatic structure means nothing without a dynamite story to work with. Well-structured crap is still crap. But assuming that your story passes the So What? test, then it’s your job to make it work as a performance medium, with real actors performing it in such a way that it grips an audience, no matter what the genre. Whether it’s a bone-crunching thriller or a nut-job comedy, it has to work dramatically.
‘Once you’ve built the superstructure of the script, then the rest is just details from one point of view’
So your first job is to assemble the major components, the big bones of the story’s structure. That’s the real work. Once you’ve built the superstructure of the script, then the rest is just details from one point of view. Aristotle got it right, saying that in building a script, the writer “should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail.” By working from the general to the specific, you can prioritize the building of the script in a way that enables you to make the big picture work, and then systematically make each of the smaller units in the story work. You make the overall story tight and dramatic, then do the same for each act, then for each sequence, and then for each scene, gradually fleshing out the detail as it becomes necessary. And you don’t proceed to build out the acts if the overall structure doesn’t work. The underlying principle behind this approach is that you can take much of the energy that goes into rewrites and put it into engineering your script properly before you write it.