Trying to learn how to break a story

For something like the past eight months I’ve been going back and forth with Disney on the proposal for my second book. It’s been a frustrating process at times, but I have learned a lot about how stories work.

(A proposal, for those not in the biz, is generally a 2-8 page synopsis and two sample chapters).

I’m not a big outliner. In fact, I have a phobia of it, since I feel like it’s possible to put things into an outline that would never work on the page. But this proposal process has forced me to think more deeply about outlining. And, as part of that, I’ve had to think a lot more about what makes a story work and what makes it not work.

I’ve always been fascinated by (and envious of) the way that they write scripts for TV or for the screen. They’re so good (even in terrible shows and movies) at sorting out exactly what the character wants and why it’s important. They even have a term for it. They call it ‘breaking’ the script: when you break it down to its barebones (desire, motivation, stakes, turning points) and see if the story works.

It’s astonishing how easy it is to write and write, including writing an entire novel, without ever getting a sense of the core essentials of a story. I think I’m particularly bad at this. Even the novel I sold had major problems with its character arc (since fixed, through a massive rewrite / revision).

So now I’m learning. It’s been VERy slow progress. I feel like the problem is that you can know these things, but it takes you a time to really feel them. Knowing is just words. And with words you can make anything sound workable. It’s only when you get your intuition involved that you really start being able to evaluate questions like, “Is this the right motivation? Are these the right stakes? Is everything really aligned here?”

One thought on “Trying to learn how to break a story

  1. rarelytame

    You have often talked about how many times you’ve had to throw out tens of thousands of words, and I have the same problem. I write and write and write, and so often I’m going in the wrong direction. I almost always have a “cut file” almost as long or longer than any novel I’ve finished. Because of character arc and motivation problems, yep. I’d be very interested in hearing more about your evolving process for story breaking, if it’s helping you. I guess things like this are pretty unique to each writer, and maybe it wouldn’t help me. But maybe it would!

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