Going story to script you have to first have a story– at least a full-page of synopsis– to work with. If you had to really stretch it at some points to make the length. keep at it. Let the ideas flow out and address those problem areas head on. whether you came in short or spilled over onto other pages the same thing is key. You have three acts that should break into approximately four equal parts act 1, act 2a, act 2b, and act 3. At a glance you might be able to tell if some of the proportions are wrong. Even if the synopsis seems balanced read through and search for inconsistencies in the level of detail. Lots of detail is good, but if you load up on all the aspects of one scene that stands out in your mind and you gloss over some uncrystalized ideas with vague generalities, the time will come when you are under a time crunch and you will have to fill in the blanks with something. The idea here is to know your story before you begin scripting it. The better you understand it now, the more fluid and creative you can be when you apply your story to script form.
Hopefully you are really jazzed about your synopsis. I know I always feel like I don’t have it in me. Whether I’m struggling to get the right third act or figuring out how to plot the second, the mystery of it all causes me to question if I can even tell the story. Ridiculous! But it’s so exhilarating to dream up the puzzle pieces and put them into place. Even if you don’t quite have a full-page, or if your synopsis takes four pages, finding the balance and pacing of your story becomes much easier with the use of index cards. Since the cards can be shuffled around you can adjust your story much easier than you can with a normal list, or worse, paragraphs. The idea here is to get all of those story elements out and give you some perspective on where you have holes that need to be filled. The cards are also a great visual aid to indicate where you may be at on pacing.
A film reel’s standard length is 11 minutes. Television shows usually run 22 or 44 minutes. Check your Firefly, and Arrested Development DVD’s.* A feature film normally gets about twelve reels to make up a movie that’s around 2 hours in length. Those reels are sequences, or a string of related scenes that almost make up a mini movie. You already have your sequences broken down: 3 for act 1, 6 for act 2, and 3 for act 3. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s journey,” not surprisingly can be broken down into 12 basic steps:**
Ordinary world, Call to adventure, Refusal, Meeting a mentor, Crossing the threshold, New world Tests (allies and enemies), New world preparations, Ordeal (hero faces death), Reward, Road to home, Resurrection of the enemy and Return with elixir.
These steps do not run parallel to the sequences. As you can see the first five are spent in act 1. The longest act has the lowest steps to sequence ratio and act 3 is all based on the idea that protagonist is going home. That’s what heroes have to do, but westerns don’t work that way. Actually, most movies don’t. If you are writing a hero’s journey and relying on these steps, helpful as they are, you may have difficulty developing the middle and end of your story and have a fabulously detailed beginning. If you are not, they are still helpful as a starting point.
Take your cards and start writing quick notes about what is going on in your synopsis. Just use a short sentence to describe each event. lay the cards in front of you in 12 columns. Some cards might describe a specific scene, some will be information that needs to get out at a particular point, but not yet tied to a scene. Even scenes you describe might change later, what you first want to focus on is those twelve columns representing each sequence. the sequences should each have a through line that connects the events and a cliffhanger that will link them to the next sequence. Remember the cigarette burns Tyler Durden talks about in Fight Club that signal the protectionists when to change a reel? That’s the end of a sequence.
Try stacking your cards according to logical sections of the story. My guess is the first three sequences will be easy to identify and the last three won’t be hard either, because they have these big tent poles. Luckily, you’ve wandered the wilderness and you have a lot of raw material for your middle six sequences, you just need to make sense of them. Use what tent poles you have, like new world rules, entering the inmost cave and seizing the sword as markers to work around and place cards where you think they should fall according to sequence. Use the turning point, the moment that changes the protagonists course toward the inevitable conclusion, as an anchor in your second act to work around.
Once you’ve broken your page or so of story down into cards and sorted them out you should see long and short columns. Some cards can be combined. Three pieces of information might go into one scene, or very short scenes. But over all, you should be able to see what parts of your story are under developed at a glance. Develop the story where you see holes. Keep in mid that conflict and escalating tension are a good choice, but you have to change it up a bit and give the audience and your character a small breather, or comic relief. Just don’t be boring.
If you see huge gaps, or inconsistencies in the balance of your story and need to frame things in a different way to get the creativity flowing, another way to look at your story in three acts is thesis+antithesis=synthesis. The protagonist in your story needs something. It might be something they want it might be something they don’t want, but because of the crisis they are in, an inciting incident throws that character out of their daze and into some drama. The second act is all about playing off of that conflict and the change at the end is the result of the effect of the conflict on the character in crisis. Philosophically, you present one point of view, contradict that with conflicting views, then combine the initial assumptions with the contrary experiences to form a whole different point of view.
If your character wishes his family world disappear and he wakes up the next day and their gone, he’s going to celebrate like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. But then he’ll realize it’s the worst thing as the second act conflict bears down on him, finally in being forced to take on responsibility and defend his home against intruders he learns that it wasn’t so bad after all, but he still wants his family back and he’ll be a little more mature until next Christmas when he meets Tim Curry.
*This post wasn’t sponsored by Fox or anything those were just the examples I thought of. I also thought of The X Files, Dollhouse, and The Simpsons.
**These steps are worded differently than in the previous post about the hero’s journey and are meant to describe stretches of time rather than moments such as entering the cave, seizing the sword, etc.