If writing is re-writing, scriptwriting is script editing. And one of the most basic tools of script editing is the One Liner, which focuses you on POS (point of scene).
As a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed trainee script editor, my boss assigned me some practise. After I’d mangled my way through a set of off-balance notes, he kindly explained how to do a One Liner (the script editing kind, not the shooting schedule kind), and got me to do my notes again, this time properly. What an eye-opener.
Shortly after, the process was reinforced when I undertook the excellent Script Editing for TV course (with Alexa Wyatt) run by the Australian Film, Television and Radio School’s Open Program*. The course covered a lot but at its heart was a thorough schooling in the standard issue weapon of every self-respecting Script Editor, the One Liner.
What is a One Liner?
A One Liner is a tool that assists in the structural analysis of a script. A bit like a medical check-up for your writing, it focuses you on strengthening the narrative drive of a screenplay by helping pinpoint underlying structural weaknesses.
It’s a fantastic exercise that experienced writers and script editors do instinctively, but even then, some will go back to a written One Liner when they’re working with a difficult draft and need a quick clarity hit.
How do you create a One Liner?
Starting at the beginning of your screenplay, go through each and every scene methodically and summarise the action in a concise sentence, i.e. ‘one line’. List these one after the other with their corresponding scene number and location.
To give you an example, here’s the first four scenes of a piece I’m currently working on in One Liner form:
- EXT. CITY BAR – Drunk, NICK celebrates his win with his raucous work colleagues.
- INT. LANA’S CAR – It’s late and LANA is having no luck reaching NICK on his mobile.
- EXT. CITY BAR – NICK is mortified when LANA pulls up and demands they leave, only for SUZIE to call asking for help. LANA leaves with no intention of coming back for NICK.
- INT. LANA’S CAR – As KRISTOF vomits in the back seat, NICK (over the phone) gets SUZIE to convince LANA to come back to get him…
You’re basically asking yourself, “What is the point of this scene as it’s been scripted?” so you can build a plot summary of your work.
Stick to the essential purpose of the action, the most basic summary that is the POS (point of scene) as it stands on the page. We don’t need to know what the characters say, we don’t need peripherals, we just need to get a solid grasp of what’s actually happening.
If you have multiple threads in your story, you may need to summarise the action for each thread in separate sentences. If this is the case, identify those various threads by colour-coding them. The easiest and quickest way to do this is to print out your completed One Liner and then work through with a highlighter. It’s old school, but it’s easier, faster and more useful to do it on actual paper than doing it on a computer screen. Believe me, I’ve tried.
And that’s it. That’s your One Liner. Now for the fun part…
How do you use a One Liner?
Even as you work through this process, you’ll start to see your script very differently. This is a big picture exercise that takes the emotion out of analysing a script.
With the completed One Liner in front of you, go through it scene by scene. As you read each concise scene summary, ask yourself “Is this the dramatic point this scene should be making?” Every scene should have dramatic purpose; characters motivated into action with those actions having knock-on consequences for themselves and those around them.
You’ll begin to see plot holes, laboured actions and missing actions. You’ll start to see that your B and C-stories are subsuming your A-story. You’ll wonder why certain characters are making the choices they are. You’ll wonder what happened to your third act turning point…
If you can’t pinpoint the POS on the page, or it’s unclear, that scene is not pulling its weight, and you need to work out what the POS should be – or cut it.
You may find some scenes have the wrong focus; the point they’re making isn’t the right point to be making. You may well find a bunch of scenes with no point at all! Or at least, no point which serves the greater intent you had in telling this particular story.
A One Liner shows you the strengths and weaknesses in a script’s fundamental construction, allowing you to:
- See the narrative progression of the story as it stands;
- Identify superfluous or repetitive scenes, characters and locations;
- Assess the motivations of your characters through their actions;
- Prioritise story threads according to their importance in your story;
- Ensure there are enough beats playing out in each thread;
- Ensure that every scene in the script has a good reason to be there.
As you work through your One Liner, you should be asking yourself all those questions you would ask of your script anyway, questions like:
- Who is the main protagonist? Is that clear?
- Who is the main character in this scene? Are they at the centre of the scene? If not, why not?
- How many stories am I telling? Is it clear which story is the A-Story?
- What do my characters want? What is standing in their way?
- What choices are the characters making? Are they making choices throughout the story? Is another character making the choices for them?
- Are the characters’ actions both true to their character while also putting them in direct conflict with other characters?
- Who is in each scene? Do they really need to be there? Why?
- Where is this scene happening? Is this the best location to make this dramatic point?
- Where are the act breaks? Are there clearly delineated turning points? Do they happen in the right places for this story?
I could go on and on…
The advantage of laying out your story in a One Liner is that it allows you to take in the big picture; it makes assessing and reworking your plot much more manageable (and more objective) than trying to do so with the script itself. And once you have addressed the issues in your One Liner (by making clear notes, reworking scene placement and so on), you have a solid road map from which you can begin your next draft.
While on the surface this process won’t tell you how your characters should speak or how a scene should feel, getting your structure right and ensuring your characters’ actions are consistently driving your story forward will put you more in control of your story. And when you are in control of your story, you’ll be in a great position to make better dramatic choices.
When do you use a One Liner?
Most writers and script editors would go through this process instinctively with every single draft, so my answer is – ideally with every draft. I like the process of writing it out rather than trying to hold it all in my mind because there will always be something you pick up that you just didn’t notice without specifically going through the exercise.
However, One Liners are perhaps most useful for first and early drafts when you are still working out your story, or when you’ve hit a snag with a later draft and you just can’t see the wood for the trees anymore.
Who can use a One Liner?
Obviously writers and script editors, but it’s important to stress that this is an excellent tool for other key roles in a production like producers and directors who would like to better understand the mechanics of the script they are working with.
It also, usefully, can give producers and directors another way to ask constructive questions that genuinely assist the writer in their re-writing process, and helps get everyone on the same page as to what the story is really about.
Give it a go!
It’s hard going through this process with your own writing, but it’s an invaluable exercise that really does aid objective analysis. It forces you to see your scenes from a purely dramatic perspective – is your plot progressing, are your characters pulling their weight?
While I’ve only used this on screenplays, I imagine this technique applies to any sort of dramatic writing where you’re conscious of maintaining a compelling narrative, without trailing off on tangents or undermining the integrity of your characters’ actions.
Admittedly, I’m still fairly new to this method, and feel a bit of an idiot for not working this out for myself years ago! But, next time you are looking to rework a draft of your script and have no idea where to start, try this out. I guarantee it will help.
*Incidentally, I highly recommend the course to any emerging writer but also to producers and directors too as it provides an excellent grounding in the business of TV writing rooms in Australia. The AFTRS Open Program runs lots of courses, unfortunately though the Script Editing course isn’t run regularly. It’s worth signing up to their e-bulletin for updates. And for those wondering, nope, I’m not affiliated with AFTRS in any way. I paid for that course with my own hard-earned moolah and I genuinely thought it was very, very good.