What Does It Mean to “Break” a TV Script?

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Answer by M. Scott Veach, I write one-hour dramas:

It basically refers to the part of writing a script where you decide on the story or plot points or narrative elements of the episode.

Backing up for a second. The writing of an episode of TV is generally dividing into two major abstract, creative elements: the story and the writing.

The writing refers to the actual text of the script, the words that the actors (if you’re lucky) will say. It’s the finest level of granularity and detail in the the writing process.

The story is considerably less granular and detailed. It’s generally a list of plot points or story beats that when ordered correctly provide a blueprint of the narrative plot.

The distinction is surprisingly subtle, and there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two; in this way, it reminds me of trying to explain the difference between tactics and strategy. But in general practice, when one says he needs to break the episode, he’s saying he needs to decide what basic plot points and narrative events should occur in the episode and in what order.

Once you have those plot points locked down, then you can add the details like who says what when. At that point, you’ve moved from breaking a story into writing a script.

You might find it interesting to note that breaking a story and writing a script are not particularly strongly related skills. Some people can’t write their way out of paper bags but are monsters at breaking stories. People have built entire careers off doing this. And the reverse is true, too: Some people aren’t great at story, but if they’re given one they’ll come back with an incredible script. 

In terms of what it’s like to do it? It’s pretty straightforward. Imagine a room of between three and 10 people, with one person nominally leading a discussion of what should happen next in our story.  It could literally start with a person saying, “I’d like to a do a story about stage magicians using their skills to succeed as high-stakes heist.” And people will, in a group brainstorming style, begin to riff and contribute to the idea until the writer feels like he or she has enough to being writing.

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