Recently I gave a writer some screenwriting advice and like most of my suggestions to other people – it’s something I needed to do myself. If you admire the writing of any TV show or film or novel, or you hope to work on a particular TV show or write in a certain genre, the way to work out how it’s done is to take it apart. By that, I don’t mean lying on the sofa, eating chocolates and watching the TV show or film. Neither do I mean reading the script or book over a cup of coffee or a tackling a few pages in bed before you turn out the light. Deconstructing a narrative is far more unpleasant than that.
You need to turn the narrative into a step-by-step outline. This means breaking the story down into scenes, noting the location and then jotting down a couple of lines about what happens and how it progresses the story.
This boring task is invaluable. It’s like taking apart an engine and laying out all the bits on the dining room table. You find out how the thing works. Way back I did this exercise on lots of sitcoms. Among other things I realised that Roseanne episodes were always seven scenes long.
I’ve recently done this same exercise on a novel I admire. It took a while but I now have a strong sense of how the writer increases the tension, how the longer scenes at the end increase the suspense and how the characters are set up.