6 Steps to Better Linear Storytelling

by Fin Wheeler

Last week, Fin told us the truth about non-linear storytelling. This week, Fin expands on that idea with six steps to improve screenplay structure with better linear storytelling.

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1. Read complex classic literature

When you’ve read a few well-known classics, you realize that story is story; it always has been and always will be.

Reading classic literature help trains your mind to think in long-form. We live in a world where the vast majority of advertising, entertainment, and news clips are (very) short-form storytelling. It really is essential for aspiring storytellers to nourish and develop their understanding of long form.

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2. Read contemporary best sellers

Last year I read the twenty best selling Jack Reacher thriller novels by Lee Childs. It gave me a valuable insight into what the public want and like from their action/thrillers, and what they look for in their everyman anti-heroes.

Pick a handful of titles from the New York Times Bestseller list in genres you wouldn’t normally read and get sucked into them. Reading the top rom-com novels will help you improve the emotional journey of your action characters. Reading courtroom dramas will give you a much clearer idea about the use of interiors and exteriors in your screenplays, and the way non-chronological storytelling is routinely used to liven up courtroom dramas.

3. Read produced screenplays

Unfortunately, writing for screen has changed radically in the past few years. A 120-page script was acceptable ten years ago, but these days a screenwriter can only earn their first feature credit on a 90-minute film. So read recently produced screenplays. It’s an invaluable way of understanding the mechanics of storytelling for screen.

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4. Breakdown a TV episode

It’s not enough to just passively watch a million movies and binge entire television shows, you have to take out a pen and notebook, sit down with no distractions, and annotate episode after episode.

Pick one of your favorite shows, something you’re familiar with. Jot down the scene number, location, cast, if the scene related to the A, B, or C story, and the point of each scene as it plays. You’ll have to be quick because some scenes whiz by or dissolve into the next while you’re still trying to get the pen cap off.

Try not to pause the program. The point of the exercise it to make storytelling choices and decisions as quickly and effectively as possible. If you’re writing for TV, breaking story needs to become so natural that it’s a muscle memory chore, but you also need to be able to articulate the choices and decisions you’ve made when asked. This exercise is perfect for building that skill set.

Once you’ve mastered the television episode, try it with a feature length movie.

You should now have a much more solid understanding of plot points, breaking story, and identifying which elements are A/B/C story. (A story is generally the plot, B story is generally the emotional journey. Any subplots must pay off at the climax. TV dramas and sitcoms have their own set structure.)

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5. Write a screen adaptation of a fairytale

One of the major reasons why aspiring screenwriters find it so hard to get the knack of linear storytelling for screen is that they are trying to improve both their concept creation skills and storytelling skills at once.

We all want to tell our own original stories; it’s the desire of all humans. But it can be confusing and frustrating to try and learn the complexities of screenwriting while you’re also trying desperately to wrestle with the angst of revealing your own personal stories.

Fairytales are perfect because everyone knows at least a dozen fairy stories. Plus, the plot points and the ending are already fixed. You don’t have to create them then worry if they’re a good enough. Pick a tale, say Cinderella, and break the story down into Acts and scenes.

If you’re a bit hazy about how to outline in three act structure, don’t worry. Even award-winning screenwriters reference screenwriting manuals from time to time.

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6. Tell your plot/story to someone with a short attention span

Another way to hone your story skills is to tell your plot to someone with a short attention span. It can be a painful blow to the ego, but the learning curve is steep. Kids are a great audience for this. If they wander off, you may have too much fluff between the salient plot points.

If you like a scene, but it has no point, cut it. If you’re finding this too hard to do because you consider everything you write to be beautiful and precious, you need to toughen up. Time is money. Producers simply don’t have the time to wait for you to mature to a point where you can respect their knowledge of the industry and respond properly to their request for script changes.

You don’t have to discard all the darlings you slash from your script. You can store them in a file you keep all to yourself. Alternatively, you could decide that you like all your non-essential scenes, and you’re only interested in screenwriting as a hobby, not a profession. Plenty of people find happiness and creative fulfillment just creating stories for themselves.

Creating compelling long-form professional screen stories is a complex art form, but with practice you can understand and implement the rules of linear storytelling in fresh, inventive, and exciting ways.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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