“It’s a writing term in general. I know it from screenwriting, more specifically, but it applies to all kinds of creative writing. Breaking, in this context, means to expand upon a simple idea. You know, you can get a story idea from anywhere. Taking an observation you make, or a random news article you read, or even words that just pop in your head… it’s about expanding those concepts into a larger, more complicated plot. But it’s basically the whole process of fleshing out the germ of an idea to the next step to the next step until it’s a fully developed story with an intricate plot and complicated characters. It’s about expanding on simple ideas to create something larger. And figuring out how that story is best told, whether it should be a short film or a novel or a feature length script. The name is misleading; it makes it sound like you’re destroying the idea when it’s entirely about the process of creating it into something larger and more intricate. I don’t remember the first time I heard the term. I learned it from other writers when I first started really working in collaboration with other writers and, well, breaking stories with them.”
Occupational folk speech for writers is particularly interesting because writers do not necessarily need to meet and work with other writers. So the fact that there are specific terms associated with writing that almost all writers know and use, without attending classes on or reading books about “writing terminology,” is surprising. I would posit that part of the development of this terminology was most likely influenced by the creation of television and the medium of television writing. As television writing requires anywhere from three to ten writers per show to work together to write a season of television, a language had to develop so that writers could communicate the same concepts and steps in the writing process to each other without confusion. Because of the highly collaborative nature of television, unified communication became necessary to streamline different writers with different writing processes and methods discussing their writing and working as a cohesive whole. So when the task for that day of writing is to come up with and flesh out a story idea, rather than having to give a long explanation, the writers can simply say “we need to break the story now.” Knowledge of this terminology indicates that a writer has most likely had the opportunity to work in some sort of collaborative environment with other writers. It legitimizes his writing. Rather than simply claiming that he is a writer, the fact that he is aware of the terminology implies that he had already worked as one. It establishes a hierarchy of experience.
This term is also used and defined in the book Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Outside the Box by Alex Epstein.