Monday, November 14, 2005


Breaking Stories and Rules

Over on his blog, Ron Moore (the mind behind the brilliant Battlestar Galactica relaunch) reminisces about the late Michael Piller, a producer and writer of various entries in the Star Trek franchise since the late eighties. In recounting his early experiences with Piller in the production offices of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Moore recounts Piller's process of "breaking" a story.
"Every episode – every episode – on Trek went through a process known as “The Break,” wherein the entire writing staff was gathered in Michael’s office to “break” the episode on a white dry erase board in excruciating detail, before a word of the teleplay was ever written. Michael ran the breaks and he was the final arbiter of what went on the board (and hence, in the show) and what did not. With a roomful of writers, this means a continuous running argument about where the story should and should not go and it takes a particular kind of show-runner to successfully guide a break session without blood on the walls. "
What's interesting to me about this is that the process Moore describes is virtually identical to my own writing process--if you substituted "Me talking outloud to myself" for "a room full of writers," and "spiral bound notebooks" for "white dry erase board." When I'm writing, whether a short story or a chapter from a longer work, I block out a rough outline of where I anticipate the plot will begin and end. Then I take that outline to pieces, attacking it from all sides--to see if there are any points where the plot falls apart, any instances of characters behaving in illogical ways just to advance the needs of the plot, any plot holes or dangling threads needing stitching up. Then I work up another outline, in more detail. Then I go at this more detailed outline, this time with thematic concerns in mind, to make sure that the story still says what I intended it to say; sometimes, a bit of shoring up brings the theme back into focus, and other times it turns out that the message of a story is something other than I originally intended. Then I break the story down on a paragraph by paragraph level, and comb through it to make sure that crucial bits of information are revealed to the reader at the right time--not too soon, not too late, or, worse, not at all! Only when I've done all this, and built and rebuilt the plot several times over, do I write the first word.

I don't think I'd known previously that the Star Trek writing staff used this same sort of approach--I've found a similar approach in the "story is king" approach used by the Pixar folks, though; the audio commentaries on any given Pixar DVD are the best instruction in the art of storytelling that I've ever found--but it's impossible to calculate the kind of impact that ST:TNG (and, later, Deep Space Nine) had on my conception of storytelling. I was a senior in high school when "Encounter at Farpoint" relaunched the franchise on television (and changed the face of syndicated tv forever... but that's a different matter entirely), but I was in college before the series developed to the point that it was anything like "good" (it's not a coincidence, I think, that the quality of the series picked up exponentially when Piller came onboard as a staff writer, based on what Moore has said above). My friends and I watched and rewatched every episode of TNG with a level of devotion and attention that approached that of medieval rabbis poring over the torah. Admittedly, it became a game early on to see who could predict the ending of the story earlier than the others. In later seasons, we perfected the game to the extent that we could often predict with unerring accuracy the entire shape of the plot, from beginning to end, by the time the opening credits ran, seeing the whole encoded in the shape of the opening few minutes worth of teaser. There was definitely a formula to what the TNG writers were doing, but for all of that it was a good formula, one that served them well. Arguably, it was a good enough structure for storytelling that they were able to cost for the better part of two decades, spinning series after series out of the franchise with only minor retooling.

I think that formulas, and by extention the formulaic conventions of genre, can unquestionably be limiting, and the best writers are those who grow beyond them. But it is through understanding these formulas in the first place that most writers learn their craft in the first place. (I say "most," while I was tempted to say "all," because I'm sure that there are those who arrive at their craft sui generis, owing nothing to the traditions that preceded them; but I don't know any of them.) It's like that old saw--"You have to learn the rules before you can break them." And while I hadn't really recognized it before, one of the classrooms in which I learned the rules of formulaic storytelling were the years I spent watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I suppose, in hindsight, that I ultimately have Michael Piller to thank for that.

I was in high school when TNG came on, at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday nights for us, so me being a good student, I would tape it and watch it after school the next day. Haha. I agree that it was formulaic, but yeah, what a formula!

Your posts on how you outline stories has made me re-evaluate my method. I notice that I'm more satisfied with my outlined stories than the ones that I work out as they go along.
There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to each approach. I used to write much more organically, starting without anykind of outline and with only the barest of notions where the story might be heading. My notes would usually consist of nothing more than a few interesting facts and a list of characters' names. The problem with that approach, at least for me, was that while I occassionally tripped over brilliance and wrote a really great story, more often than not I'd turn out something with a few really great passages or scenes that didn't hang together as a whole. My success rate was pretty low, with the majority of the stories I wrote that way being competent but not much more besides. When I started spending a lot more time on the outlining phase, I knew that if nothing else the resulting story would work as a whole. However, an unexpected benefit was that, since I didn't have to worry about "What happens next?" while writing, since I'd already outlinging the plot to within an inch of its life, I could concentrate entirely on the language, on how the narrative would describe what I already knew would happen. As a result, my prose became quite a bit more lyrical and polished, where I might have expected it instead to become more mechanical and rote.

It's not a process that works for everyone, obviously, but it's really served me in good stead the last few years. If nothing else, I recommend that every writer starting out should try it out (as, really, they should try out any other process they come across), to see if it works for them.
I completely agree (about trying things out). I'm, ah, far from being in the "starting out" phase (to my chagrin), but I thing the outlining holds a certain appeal, especially since a story I recently outlined came out really well, while other stories I haven't outlined are half-done. I figure a new approach couldn't hurt, though your method will probably be far far far more thorough than mine. :-)
Sorry, Mahesh, didn't mean to lump you in with the "starting out" crowd. For my part, though I didn't realize it at the time, I was "starting out" from the ages of 18 to 31, and wrote something like seven novels and a few dozen short stories along the way (most of which the world will never see). Some of them were good, but most of them were crap. I think I stopped "starting out" and started "getting on with it" when the ratio of good to crap climbed to a decent level, and that was a result of figuring out which kind of writing approach worked best for me.
Oh, no need to apologize, Chris ... I mean I'm not starting out in the sense of writing and sending stuff out, you know? I've taken it seriously for half my life, but have been trying to find a consistent method to at least get stuff onto the screen/page/whatever. So I have tremendous respect for guys like you, who have found a method that consistently works well.
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