Sunday, January 23, 2011


Well, you just sit down and start writing, don't you? Just bang away and hope the story finds itself as you explore your ideas as you write. Well, you could do this, but this would be akin to getting in your car and hitting the road without any idea of how to get where you're going. And, you will most likely end up with a 150-page monster of a first draft that is meandering, unfocused, and haphazard in its structure. When it comes time to rewrite, you may be in over your head. It may take several drafts to pound your original story idea into workable shape.

However, if you take the time and effort before you start to explore and understand exactly what this story is that you are trying to create and what path must be laid in front of your characters to execute it, you can cut the torture of rewriting in half. This preparation all comes down to a series of simple steps.

Your script begins mostly as a loose collections of thoughts in your head. You've come up with a basic premise, thought up the characters who will occupy it, and have probably managed a few pages of notes or a couple dozen notecards scribbled with ideas for scenes, bits of character, scraps of dialogue, and the like. But, regardless of what your Syd Field book tells you, the last thing you want to do at this point is grab the corkboard and hack out some halfass 3-Act structure. This might help you churn out a first draft, but it will undoubtedly be so weak and hole-filled that you will be consumed with confusion when you try to fix things in the rewrite. You are trying to create a story, and story does not come from plot. Story comes from character. So this is where we must start.


You may be confused to hear that all story comes from your protagonist, and not the other way around. After all, you probably came up with your screenplay's premise first, and then invented a character suited to be its lead. But this was not the story that created your protagonist. This was merely the premise- the seed of inspiration that will eventually lead to the creation of the story proper.

For now, forget about all the events your foresee happening in your story and focus only on your main character. Really get to know them, the way you would seek to get to know a stranger whom you will be sharing the next year of your life – because, in a way, you WILL be. You need to grow to know this person better than you know your best friend. Explore their world, the people, places, and things they share it with. Understand how they feel about these things and how they choose to interact with them. Think of how they see themselves as fitting in with that world. Think about the unique point of view they have towards it. How to they interpret the things around them? Positively? Negatively? Apathetically? Look into their past and find the reason behind that particular outlook. We are all an accumulation of our past experiences, and in order to understand who this person is in the present, you need to look into his or her past.

Above all, root out your protagonist's MAIN FLAW. The main flaw is the one thing about the character psychologically that holds them back in life. This is the major roadblock dominating the character's life that keeps him or her from being as happy or as successful as would wish to be. We are all incomplete human beings. We all have internal flaws holding us back. No character can be perfect. If you have envisioned a “perfect” protagonist, give up on this script right now and start again, because nothing could be more boring or more inauthentic. A good story can be thought of as a process of watching someone grow as a person. A character begins flawed, but through the heat of the conflict the character faces through the story, the character is forced to change. The character cannot overcome to story problem while they are still flawed, so the character is forced to self-evaluate and grow to become a better, more capable person. No matter who your character is, no matter how successful or happy they start out, they can never be 100% complete persons. They all have a flaw, and that flaw is holding them back. Find this flaw. It will be the source of the protagonist's INTERNAL NEED.


The internal need is the thing that is missing from the protagonist's life. It the thing that needs to be achieved to make the character less of a broken, incomplete person. The internal need becomes the subconscious desire that drives the actions of every character.

The internal need is always directly related to the character's main flaw. For instance if a character's flaw that he is timid and cowardly, and this flaw stops him from standing up for himself and getting want he wants out of life, his internal need is to gain self-confidence. If a character starts the story as a go-nowhere slacker who never tries accomplish anything, the character's internal need is to find drive and discipline in life.

Internal need should not be confused with a character's Story Goal. The Story Goal is an action the character must physically accomplish by the end of the story to defeat the conflict and overcome the Story Problem that threatens the character's existence. The Story Goal requires physical action. The internal need applies the the character's internal nature only; a change that needs to be made psychologically. Story Goal defines what the protagonist must do. The internal need drives and influences how the protagonist does it..

Characters rarely realize their internal need. Most are ignorant that they have a need at all. If they understood from the beginning that they were such incomplete persons and could be so much happier with a simple change, they would probably make an effort to achieve it on their own before the story even begins. In other cases, characters are begin aware of their personal problems, but refuse to change out of stubbornness or lack of will. No, in order to achieve the internal need, a character needs the physical events of the story to force him or her in the right direction.


Here is the point where story literally emerges from character. The characters need to change. But they aren't going to change on their own. The rules of inertia are at play. Things don't start moving unless something forces them to move. When the Story Problem engages at the inciting incident, it must be something that forces the character to act, putting him or her on a road filled with physical situations that will slowly and gradually mold the characters into new and better people.

This is the “Mind Worm” that Robert McKee mentions in STORY. A mind worm is a fictional creature that can burrow inside a person's brain, learn what that person needs out of life, and then create an adventure specifically tailored for that person that will have the end result of giving the person exactly what they need. The mind worm might take our character in need of self-confidence and draft him into the army and send him to war. Here, the character must either become confident and brave, or die. It might take our slacker character and make his rich industrialist father die, putting the family business into the slacker's hands- a business his father's rival wishes to bankrupt.

You already have the premise of your story already in mind, so at this point it is just a matter of adapting what you wish to happen in the story to what the character personally needs to happen, or perhaps consider the reverse by reimaging your protagonist so that his or her needs are a better fit for what feel must happen (though this may be a bit like putting the cart before the horse). Remember that a cinematic story must be made of physical actions that can be photographed by a film crew and shown to an audience on screen. A strictly internal journey will not play on screen. The plot must be made of tangible events in the external world that will by consequence influence your character's internal nature.


Now that you have a story situation that directly relates to your protagonist's internal need, map out the Story Spine that will be the basis of your hero's journey. (Do I have to again repeat just how damn important a Story Spine is? There's a reason why I capitalize it!) Specifically state – IN WRITING – 1. The Story Problem that confronts the protagonist. 2. The Story Goal the protagonist must achieve in order to overcome that problem. 3. The Path of Action – the series of actions the protagonist must take in order to reach that goal. 4. The Conflict that stands in the protagonist's way of that goal. And, last but not least, 5. The Stakes that continue to motivate the protagonist to keep pushing for the goal despite the conflict in the way – what the protagonist has to gain upon success and what he or she will lose upon failure.

The Story Spine will be the basic roadmap for the rest of your story development.


Since the majority of a story's action is made up of the protagonist and antagonist struggling over their competing goals, it is important to consider the second half of the conflict before we move on to plotting. Take time to think about the antagonist (or source of antagonism if the main conflict does not come from a singular person or creature) in the same way that you explored your protagonist. Map out the antagonist's spine. Have a clear idea before you start plotting your story of what the antagonist considers to be his or her problem, what the antagonist has chosen as a goal, what the antagonist is willing to do to get that goal, what stands in his/her way (the protagonist of course, but it could be more than that), and what the antagonist has to win or lose to motivate his/her actions. The spines of the protagonist and antagonist should be in opposition to each other. The protagonist's story goal should be the complete opposite of the antagonist's goal. This will create the most dramatic conflict possible, since it will be impossible for one side to win without first utterly defeating the other.


Now it is time to plan out the major events that will make up your story. This is where the world-famous 3-Act structure finally comes into play. But rather than start at the beginning and continuing to the end, there is a much easier and more logical way to perform the tasking mindwork of what-must-happen-when. Like any building project, we start with the most basic framework, and then gradually fill it in to slowly make it stronger and more complex.

The easiest, and possibly the most productive approach is to take a page from the world of animation artists. Animators use a method called “in-betweening” when it comes to drawing the many pictures necessary to make a character move. If an animator needs to draw an action, let's say make Bugs Bunny jump straight up in the air and land again, and this action needs to last for twenty frames (twenty individual drawings), the animator does not simply start with frame 1, then move on to frame 2, 3, 4... Instead, animators start by first drawing the two extremes of action. That would be Frame 1 of Bugs standing still before starting his jumping motion, and frame 20, when Bugs hits the ground again. They then draw the midpoint drawing, the drawing that is smack dab in the middle of the action. This would be frame 10, where Bugs Bunny is at the height of his leap. We now have three drawings: 1, 10, & 20. Now, the animator draws the “in-betweens,” the two frames that exist right in at the middle point between the drawings we already have, meaning frame 5 & 15. This gives us five completed drawings. With that done, the animator does the in-betweens again for frames that exist squarely between 1, 5, 10, 15, & 20, until we have nine drawings completed: frames 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15, 18, 20. This process continues until all twenty frames are finished.

When beating out your major turning points, start by establishing your extremes: the inciting incident and the climax – the points where the story begins and ends. Then, fill in your two most important turning points between the beginning and end, the end of first act turning point, and end of second act turning point, (we are using 3-Act structure after all). Now, do some in-betweening. What major event needs to occur to get your protagonist from the inciting incident to the end of first act turning point? From the end of first act turning point to the end of second act turning point? From the end of second act turning point to the climax? When that is done, in-between again, until your story contains all its necessary major turning point events and a full 3-Act structure. A first act will usually have 2-3 turning points, including the inciting incident and end of first act turning point. The second act usually have 5-7, including the end of second act turning point. The third act will have another 2-3, including the climax.


See those gaps between your turning points? Those are called scene sequences. Scene sequences are made up of (duh) a series of related scenes. In each sequence, the protagonist has an immediate sequence goal he or she will pursue that is related to his or her Main Story Goal. The object of the sequence goal is usually set up by whatever game-changing event caused the previous turning point. The pursuit of this sequence goal is what will move the story forward, sending the protagonist onward down the Path of Action until he or she runs smack-dab into the next game-changing turning point.

Here is where you finally beat scene-by-scene how the movie will play itself out. You must come up with the actions that move your character from one turning point to the next. First understand what immediate goal the character will be pursuing in this sequence. Consider what action the character might choose to do at this moment to continue to pursue his or her main Story Goal given the obstacle they have just encountered at the last turning point. What could be the immediate sequence goal, and how could the character go after it? Think about your antagonist or force of antagonism. Where is he/she at this point in his/her pursuit of the antagonist's main goal? What might the antagonist conceivably do at this point in reaction to the choices the protagonist has made?


You should by now have something close to a completed outline. Review it thoroughly. Make sure it works. There should be no holes, everything should make sense, the story should have flow and movement, and the structure should be strong and secure. Go back make changes if things aren't shaping up the way they should be. It doesn't have to be perfect at this point. It is just for a first draft. But make it as strong as possible before moving on to the writing stage. It is far easier to spot mistakes and make changes at this point than wading through 120 pages of wood pulp.

1 comment:

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