There is nothing as frustrating as those times when, in the story lining process, a meaty, potentially dramatic and resonant storyline is not plotted to the fullest extent of it’s potential, and so what the writer ultimately writes in the script, and what the viewers see on screen, is actually a much tamer, watered down, insipid version of the storyline the producer and the writing team discussed around the table at the Story Conference. And I talk here about long running series and scripts of shows you will know; shows like Holby City, and Coronation Street and EastEnders. These are the shows that I have worked on. But I don’t want you to think that the story lining that shapes the scripts of long running shows like these particular giants is nothing to do with the story lining that you will be faced with when constructing your scripts. Far from it. This craft, this art, is the same knotty bugger you have to face in any dramatic form.
No-one is saying that story lining is easy – or even interesting – it’s not always, sometimes it’s just a hard plotting slog. But in the planning of any drama, be it a single or a series, an un-produced or production script, it is essential that your storylines are plotted properly. Story lining is something writers should do in their sleep. Do it a lot. It will get easier and with experience the obvious beats will slot themselves in place without you even noticing, leaving you to concentrate on digging out the beats in a storyline that are not so obvious, but once discovered, will make all the difference to the original idea.
Each beat of each storyline needs to be worked out carefully. I am not of the school of thought that says ‘sit down and write something and where ever your character takes you that’s the place you’ll end up’ because I for one do not have the patience or the time (and in production both of these things are in very short supply) to dig under a lot of un-necessary, extraneous writing to find the original storyline.
Because believe me, and I say this with a bleeding heart, (having had to steer script editing sessions well into the early hours after a storyline had been allowed to go walk about during the drafting process and ended up infecting a bunch of scripts ready to go to camera) you will write too much, you will veer off the point, you will write yourself into a blind alley if you do not firstly, work out the main and the minor beats in the story line and secondly, work out how this story line impacts and affects the other story lines in your script.
There is a sort of dread that sets in occasionally, from my experience, when you are faced with a white, blank board (I use a wall chart, but insert page or computer screen to make this visual work) when you know you have your character all sorted out nicely, and you know what (vaguely) you want to happen to him/her and you certainly know the best bits of the storyline you’ve conjured up for them, but, there’s those awful stages in between the best bits, that you have to fill in. You have an hour of drama to plot, or even a half hour if it’s a series/soap you are creating/working on/wrestling with.
That’s a ton of story beats and a lot of mini peaks, a whole bunch of shallow troughs and a certain amount of path-picking until you get to the summit – the grand peak of your storyline. And that, (I am sure you will be pleased to read) just about finishes the mountaineering metaphors.
And this is where the skill comes in. This is where the true storyteller comes to the fore; where the teller of tales can shine at the craft of controlling and containing the elements of the story; pulling, teasing-out and revealing the optimum dramatic impact of the narrative.
There are lots of reasons why, between creation and execution, a storyline can fall foul of the production process and ultimately end up a shadow of the original idea, but if you stick to the rule book (there are just a few essentials to remember) when it comes to story lining, your story will not go far wrong and you will find that your story lines naturally weave and loop around and through each other – thus giving your final script a real depth, a fitness, a resonance all of it’s own.
The Basic Rules of Story Lining.
1/ Know your length
Know the natural length of the story line you want to create. Think about it instinctively and you will find you will land on a ball park sort of length. Not all your story lines will need, or be able, to stretch the full length of the 15min, 30min, 60min, 90 min of drama you are writing. Some stories may be short and sweet and best plotted over perhaps only a third of your script, some may feature in the first 2 thirds and be resolved by the last ‘act’ of your script, but in all cases, every story has a natural length and this you need to ascertain from the start.
2/ Know your rank
Decide if this storyline is an A or a B or a minor C storyline and plot it accordingly. An A story is one that can best be described as ‘what the episode is about’ – it’s the central theme, message and forms the internal shape of your script/episode. A B story takes up less script space but is important in that it will have the most impact on and resonance to, the A story. A and B stories run parallel and inter-connect through the script/episode and will influence the majority of the shape of the script. A C story is a minor one, a smaller and shorter story but still important in that it can undercut, contrast too, conflict with, or highlight and augment, the A and B stories. The idea is to get all stories, major and minor, doing a cohesive job together throughout the script.
3/ Look for the detail
Once you’ve got the main beats in place; those moments where the drama literally peaks and the dramatic impact is most intensely felt, then make sure you plot the lesser moments leading up to those dramatic highs. If you fail to carve out the detail of the quieter, subtler, gentler, sub-textual moments in your story line, the over all impact will be lessened and the pay off you are looking for will not happen.
4/ Work the connections
How do your story lines connect? How do they contrast and highlight each other? Look at their separate paths and it will appear obvious at first, the places where your story lines could interconnect and relate to each other. The less obvious moments of interaction and reaction between story lines is your next and more difficult job to identify. How can each story get the best out of itself and the others in the script as a whole? There are cross-over points in all stories and it is those junctions you will need to identify first. Next, plot in the parallel moments of each story line – when you allow your audience the opportunity to see and follow, your separate stories and spend time with each one.
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