Column: With Jeff Kitchen

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Make the Big Building Blocks of Your Script Work Before Developing the Details

By Jeff Kitchen


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.


Jeff Kitchen

Jeff Kitchen


Jeff has taught thousands of students from Broadway to Hollywood. Jeff was classically trained as a playwright in the works of Aristotle and the legendary Broadway script doctor, W.T. Price, who in the early 1900’s established the world’s foremost playwriting school. Price instructed twenty-eight students and twenty-four of them had hits on Broadway. So why wasn’t everyone studying him? Price’s complex techniques and thinking processes were not easily understood.

Determined to get to the bottom of Price’s technique, Jeff spent three years intensely studying his work. He had a major epiphany when he discovered a groundbreaking technique from Price, called Sequence, Proposition, Plot and that’s when it all clicked together. This tool was a giant leap forward in the craft of the dramatist, but somehow it went unnoticed by Price’s students. For Jeff, this technique was quite clear, but still incomplete. He combined this tool with insights gathered from Price’s students, then added to it himself, and it worked—saving this revolutionary tool from being lost. Jeff then integrated this tool and several others with Aristotle’s dilemma—and a new process of writing for the dramatist was born.

Jeff taught for thirty years in Hollywood and New York. He worked as a dramaturg in New York theater and taught playwriting on Broadway, presenting his innovative process to select groups of writers and executives, and did private script consultations. He was constantly refining his teaching and writing techniques, and then wrote the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting.

Even as the process received significant praise, Jeff knew that it would take more than seminars and classes for these complex tools to be permanently integrated into his students’ writing habits. So for the past three years Jeff focused exclusively on adapting and modernizing the program into a comprehensive digital apprenticeship. Scriptwriting Mastery is the result.

Jeff’s entire adult life has been committed to one thing, teaching the craft of the dramatist to anyone serious about writing. More than ever now, people are looking for ways to fulfill their dreams, and for writers, Jeff Kitchen’s Scriptwriting Mastery is the answer. It’s Jeff’s dream that anyone who wants to write, can write well.