Story development encompasses everything from your story idea to working script to final edits. In the beginning, the script is your responsibility. You will be the one fleshing out characters and solidifying the plot, and it’s your vision that drives you to complete your script.
If you are writing a script on spec (speculation), focus on creating your best story possible. But, keep in mind that many people will have input into what shows up on the screen. Your story will go through many changes. You may be involved in all the steps—or not. What you create is a framework for all the people involved to create a visual story.
Development notes from many production angles may change your story radically. Working with others and meeting story development requests requires a tough skin and collaboration skills.
Story Development Is Writer Development
While you’ve locked yourself away working alone on your script, you’ve been in control. Once your script is sold, you become part of a team—a large team. Your success will depend on your ability to work with the script notes you receive from a diverse array of people involved in production. From investors, to actors, to location managers, everyone will have suggestions for tweaks and changes. Some will be small, others will involve major changes.
As you work with the team, you’ll develop a reputation that has little to do with writing. Your reputation will turn positive or negative, depending on how well you work with other members. That means listening, responding professionally, and making changes.
Screenwriting is a collaborative job. As your story goes through development changes, boost your career by being a collaborative part of the team.
Script development has one final goal—to get your story commercially viable ready for industry circulation, subsequent production, distribution, and exhibition. Aligning your story vision with the world of production is part of your role in story development.
Let’s look at how story development progresses as your script goes through pre-sale to post-sale.
The story starts with an idea. The first stage of pre-sale is you writing the script. It’s all the drafts and revisions you make to the script, honing it to meet industry standards: adding dialogue, trimming action, deleting dialogue, beefing up action, creating a story arc and arcs for the subplots, and using proper formatting to make your story understandable in the film world.
Before you do your final edits to the script, work on your marketing. These are the tools you’ll use to create interest in your script. Design each one to create interest in the full script.
- Premise: A two-sentence statement about the genre, protagonist, stakes, and goals of the story.
- Logline: A one-sentence (or possibly two-sentence) hook that conveys the essence of your story that conveys the high concept, the tone, and core emotion of your premise. Find your complete guide to writing a stellar logline here.
- One-page: A one-page synopsis or overview with the logline, the setup, and the ending. It serves as a quick follow-up to a conversation or pitch. Match the tone to the genre. Include a visual.
- Treatment/Synopsis: A document that presents the story idea of the film. Written in narrative prose, highlighting the most important information: title, logline, story summary, and character descriptions.
Many writers start with the logline once they have their story idea. They do this to keep the story focus as they write. Other writers create a scene-by-scene synopsis, so they have an overview of the story before they start writing the script.
PRO TIP: Watch this ProWritingAid interview with Story Development Consultant Jeff Lyons as he conducts a logline lab for screenwriters. He outlines what goes into a logline and how to make the hook implicit.
The next step is getting your material in front of eyes. This stage is your pre-sale marketing. Memorize your logline. This is when it turns into an “elevator pitch,” helping you know precisely what to say, get to the point and generate interest in the story.
Start your collaborative journey by working with an independent script consultant. Submit your script for evaluation. Then, pay attention to the notes. The script consultant understands the industry. Their feedback will give you an idea of how your script fits into the industry. More importantly, your emotional response to the notes and your willingness to revisit your script and make suggested changes is powerful training for what’s to come in your screenwriting career.
You want to build industry awareness. You may commission posters and marketing materials, secure media opportunities with key cast and crew, or create a proof-of-concept video depicting key scenes and the feel of the story.
If a producer sees potential, they may option your story and then pay you for a rewrite or a polish. Established screenwriters with a proven track record may get their ideas purchased from a pitch, and then they are paid to develop the screenplay, including multiple rewrites and polishes.
Once you’ve sold your script, story development depends on input from a variety of people from producers to actors cast for the project and everyone in between. At any point along the way, requests can clash with your original vision. These development “recommendations” can lead to the infamous development hell.
Developmental notes fall into two major categories: logistical and creative.
Your story vision can meet the harsh reality of production costs. The line producer tells the producer that your fantastic surfing scene when the hero returns victorious and the girl who dumped him sees him in a new light needs to go because insurance costs skyrocket when actors are in the ocean water.
Most logistical notes for changes to your screenplay are business and practical changes. These include altering or removing locales, special effects, difficult shots, excessive or expensive cast, and stunts.
Experienced screenwriters know some of these pitfalls and write around them. If this is your first screenplay, go through the script looking for scenes that might add production challenges.
A new and significant investor may ask for a rewrite. Be prepared for requests to substantially alter the plot and structure. And I mean substantial, to the point of the story becoming almost unrecognizable from your original construct. Or they may ask for tweaks or polish on an idea, changes not to the idea itself but to the execution.
Meetings send your script into the world of design by committee. Nuanced change suggestions come from a variety of sources, from both cast and crew. From technical suggestions to character arc, be prepared to meet new challenges to “fix” your script.
Almost everyone will have something to say about your script. There may be an in-house script editor and a development exec. The producer for the first production company to come on board will give you notes. As other producers join and commit money, they’ll expect a say in the script as well.
Actors may have ideas about how the character should change during the course of the story. Or mid-career or seasoned actors may want to change the “image” of a character to meet their fans’ expectations. These considerations have nothing to do with the quality of your writing, but you will be asked to make changes.
Directors may have a different vision of your story, and ask for creative changes to enhance their vision of how the film progresses. Hope for a director whose vision meshes with yours. But that isn’t always the case.
Be prepared for anything. The production can stall, sometimes for years, at any point. Or, in television, a well-written series with ardent fans like Josh Whedon’s Firefly can be canceled. Again, these actions have little to do with your writing ability.
Write, Collaborate, Keep Writing
Story development is a process. It’s a long and multi-faceted endeavor to get your story to the screen. In film and television, the process involves many people. Your career depends on receiving notes with aplomb and doing your best to respond.
Defending your position on a story note is up to you. You don’t need to follow every recommendation. On the other hand, be prepared to work as a collaborative team member, responding professionally and writing revisions that add to the overall value for the production.
Understanding the collaborative framework and learning to work with diverse ideas strengthens your scriptwriting career. When you know what lies ahead, you’ll be prepared to work on your script in story development as it heads toward production.
Also, especially in the film world, be prepared to hand off your story. Script analyst Hayley McKenzie prepared screenwriters with this advice in her article The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide to Production:
The chances of a screenwriter, even a successful one, being fired or replaced on their own original work are incredibly high…
Keep in mind that your script is the framework for others to use. Producers, directors, actors, script editors, line producers, and others in the production world will all have a slant on how to interpret the script and bring it to life on the screen.
Grow your career, and keep writing.