Sunday, March 11, 2007

Breaking The Story

When journalists are the first to publish news, it's called "breaking a story", but the meaning is different for film and TV writers: to "break the story" is to find the beginning and end of a story and all its "chapters" (i.e., in TV, the parts that lead up to the credits and all the longer bits between commercials).

I've often thought the story of Jackie Robinson would make for an amazing film, and it even looks like one is already on the way. If you don't know who Jackie Robinson is, watch this 10 minute clip to see how he left an indelible impression on America:

The question here is, with so many interesting parts of his life to tell, where does the story begin? How much of his life do you tell? Which parts are more significant than others? If you tell everything in his life, it's probably not going to be emotionally powerful. Where does the story start? And where does it end? These are the demons storytellers wrestle with all day... and often all night, too.

In 1990, a 2 hour 40 minute movie-of-the-week retold the events behind NASA's shuttle disaster in Challenger. They chose to tell the story from Christa McAuliffe's viewpoint, because she was the first teacher to be going into space. That's a good idea, but to me, this movie was an enormous letdown because they spent 160 minutes building up to the shuttle takeoff and ended it right before the explosion. In my opinion, they broke the story off prematurely: I know how the story publicly ended, but I wanted to see how NASA dealt with the disaster, how McAuliffe's family reacted, how the public received the news. It was like 3 hours of foreplay and no climax. Dude—killing me a little bit inside. I need the payoff.

When I think about Jackie Robinson's life, I start thinking about what might be the most emotional moments, the ones with the most tension. That's the climax to lead up to, the crucible we're willing pay $9 to experience. There are many variations to choose from, but which serves the story the best—his entrance into the major league? His momentous walking onto the baseball field on April 15, 1947? His funeral procession? His funeral? Do you start with the funeral, and do the whole film in flashback? Do you start with him in the dugout on April 15 and do flashbacks until that scene... and then tell the rest of the story from there? Do you start with him as a little boy? The story can be told 100 different ways and each of them isn't wrong—but some of them will have more emotional impact than others.

In TV, this process is run through heavy scrutiny because TV viewers haven't paid money for a move ticket, so they won't stay tuned unless the story is intriguing enough to run that evening's gauntlet of commercials. The opening "teaser" has to hook the viewer without mercy, and subsequent acts must end with worthwhile cliffhangers. Sometimes, as in the first season of Alias, every episode's story is broken off early to be continued in the next episode, which is what made it so imperative not to miss any episodes. Most series, though, conclude the episode with some fitting resolution, especially as their viewers become more loyal.

If Jackie Robinson's story does get told next year, we'll see how they do it. If it were up to me, I'd probably tell parallel stories. Start with his funeral procession to get an idea of just how important Robinson was, then flashback to Robinson in the dugout waiting to go out, then flashback again to Robinson as a boy to appreciate why his going out on the field was so important. All the while, inserting clips of the funeral procession and ending with the moving funeral speech, and synching that speech to Robinson's climactic walking onto the baseball field. The game itself seems emotionally redundant—his walking onto the field was the most electrifying event we herald now. You could end with Robinson sliding into home, but that might be a little cliché... and that kind of realization is the nuts and bolts behind breaking the story.

Breaking the story is as much fun as it is excruciating. Like Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry once said, "It's like having sex with someone you really don't like and after you come, you think to yourself, hey, that wasn't so bad after all."

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