Break Story – A Definition
I love the term ‘break story’ to describe the process of testing a new idea. (It’s borrowed from the building world, where you ‘break ground’ to lay the foundations of a building). Though I learned this in the screenwriting world, I discovered it works with all ideas. Now it does not matter if I am writing a script, novel or short story … I always break story.
Whilst every writer has their own individual process, most do it to check the story ‘stands up’ at concept level … Such as:
- Premise – does it ‘stand up’ to scrutiny? Or is it too like another story?
- Character – what are the characters’ motivations and role functions?
- Plot – how would this story work? What medium is it? Is it non-linear?
… And so on. Sometimes you may hear industry people saying a story ‘has legs’, too. Whatever you want to call it though, basically writers are road-testing their concepts.
The B2W Model To Break Story
Back in the day, I trained as a journalist. I soon found I preferred fiction to fact, but one thing that stuck in my mind were the ‘5 Ws’ … WHO – WHAT – WHERE – WHEN – WHY. As I started working as a script editor, I discovered very early their application to story works really well. Here you go:
What I love about The 5 Ws is they are …
… Short, so provide a useful framework. This keeps us focused, without going off at mad tangents.
… Obvious, so HOW they can be applied is intuitive. We can adapt to the story we want to tell easily.
… Clear, so if we CAN’T answer one of the questions, we know there is a gap somewhere in our thinking.
Why All Writers SHOULD Break Story
As far as B2W is concerned, ALL writers should break story first. Yes, this means professional to seasoned writers, right down to those wet-behind-the-ears newbies. Why?
i) Professional writers have limited time
If you break story, your drafts are MUCH easier to write and don’t take as much time. FACT. Plus in the industry, pro writers will be asked all sorts of questions about their material at meetings and pitches. Most of these questions will cover or cross-over with the WHO-WHAT-WHERE- WHEN-WHY? questions posed by the B2w Model above. For example, a lot of producers and publishers – especially in the UK – are obsessed with finding writers with ‘something to say’. This is adequately covered by ‘Why this story?’. So by breaking story, the pro writer not only has an answer ready, s/he LOOKS like a professional too. In an industry where first impressions count, this can be priceless.
ii) It makes seasoned writers level up
Seasoned writers are those who have been writing some time, but are yet to make a sale. The best thing that can do is learn how to break story because it gives them the laser focus they need to proceed to the next level. Honest guv! I have seen it happen again and again.
iii) Newbie writers can get tied up in knots easily
I get it. Some new writers need to SPLURGE a draft and then carve a story out of the mess they land on the page. But it literally takes three times as long, plus it’s not a luxury anyone will be afforded in the actual industry. It can also be hugely dispiriting for a new writer to try and untie all those story knots … I have seen many simply give up on whole drafts that COULD have worked, had they just done the foundation work of breaking story FIRST. (I have even seen more than a few give up writing altogether, convinced it was not for them. Eeek!!).
It is in every writer’s interest to break story. Doing so accelerates the writing process and avoids what I call ‘The Story Swamp’, which is soooooooo hard to get out of! Breaking story also helps us get to grips with the craft and depends our knowledge. Plus it also ensures we look like what we know what we’re doing in pitches and meetings. What’s not to like? Get going! Good luck!
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