Breaking a Story

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Everybody has their own way of breaking a story or finding the shape of a narrative.

One of the ways I use when I’m working with writers or working on my own stories is a variation of something Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls The Clothesline Method. You can find it here. 

The basic method involves drawing a straight line “a clothesline,” marking off the main act breaks/turning points and then “hanging” the “clothes” on it. The clothes are the scenes you know or are thinking about. So perhaps you have the final scene or know what the first turning point is going to be “hang” these scenes on the line and continue to develop the other beats from there “hanging” them on the line as you go. Gradually this will give you the general shape of the narrative.

 

The line looks something like this:

____l_______________l____________l____________l________________l____________l_

Inciting Incident     End Act One    Midpoint           End Act Two          Climax          Resolution

 

Which loosely corresponds to the following page numbers:

Inciting incident (10-15)

End of act one (20-30)

Midpoint (60)

End of act two (90)

Climax (95)

Resolution (100)

 

With the “clothesline” laid out you can rough in the beats you already have in mind. As you do this look for the three main plot lines which should dovetail over the course of the story:

Internal Character Arc – the main shifts in character that lead to the protagonist’s transformation.

External Plot Line – the main action.

Relationship Line – the primary relationship that helps move the story forward and brings the character to a point of transformation.

 

As you rough in the main beats you can see the natural progression of the story and determine what’s working and what isn’t. You can brainstorm ideas and solutions and when you’re ready take your clothesline and turn it into an outline and eventually a draft.

Obviously everyone has their own way of cracking a story and this is just one way to go about it. The Clothesline Method is relatively loose and free form and fits the way I think about story.  You, of course, will have your own process which I’d love to hear about in the comments below. Hearing how other writers develop stories can be very helpful and it’s good to share our processes.

If you want to know how David Seidler (The King’s Speech), John August (Big Fish), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and others break a story check out The Academy’s excellent Creative Spark series on YouTube. You can find the link here. 

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