We can all agree that a great screenplay is the foundation of a great film. And I don’t think it’s controversial to say a great story is the foundation of a great screenplay.
So how come so many of us skip the story-breaking process, or rush through it to get to the good stuff?
Maybe it’s because we hate it. Breaking story, writing outlines—for me, it’s like putting on sunscreen when all I really want to do is get outside and play with my kids. It’s like doing push-ups before breakfast. I whine about it, I put it off, I dread it every time. Then, every time, I’m really, really glad I did it.
Here’s another confession: I’m not that great at it. I’m not one of those people who can touch fingers to keyboard and watch their screenplays pour out in perfect story form, as if they were channeling from the ether. No, I have to work at my stories—massage and knead and beat them like dough until they start to take shape, because I know that if I don’t do the work, my screenplays will suffer for it.
Being a stickler about my story-breaking is one of the key reasons I’ve managed to sustain a successful two decade writing career. Early on I was pretty informal with how I did it (often to ill effect) but as time went on my story-breaking started crystalizing into a method that I would repeat with each new feature and pilot I sat down to write. My method is simply this: I ask myself a series of questions that prompt ideas about key character and story points. Once I answer the questions to my satisfaction, I start filling in the story until I have a detailed outline.
(This story-asking method, by the way, works great whether you’re writing your own stuff or directing or producing someone else’s work and need to offer up some really great notes.)
I started out with 10 questions, then moved to 11—and I’ll explain most of them here. Many of them were intuitive, like “Do I know what my story is about? (Question #1)” and “What is the ‘Call to Action?’ (Question #6).” Storytelling 101, for sure, but I have found that taking the time to answer the “easy” questions with a good, thoughtful paragraph or two always adds substance and nuance to the under-developed notions that are in my head—and always improves them.
“Do I know what my story is about?” is particularly important because the answer ends up being the cornerstone for my screenplay (or pilot or pitch), upon which everything is built. If I can’t distill my concept into a simple, clear, one-sentence logline, I may be sitting on a story that’s weak, broken or over-complicated. Here’s an example of a good logline: “An arrogant king who suffers from a debilitating stutter is forced to work with an eccentric speech therapist to deliver the speech that will unify his kingdom.” In that one sentence I summed up the central character (the king), his fatal flaw (arrogance), the main antagonistic force (his stutter), the journey (working with a speech therapist), the climax (the speech) and the stakes (unifying his kingdom).
Similarly, when I take the time write out my Call to Action (a.k.a. the “Inciting Incident”), most of the time I find ways to tweak and amplify the moment so that it shatters my central character’s status quo, rather than merely rocking it. Answering the question also helps me flesh out the story beats that come before and after the Call to Action, and the next thing I know, my first act is taking shape.
Another question that’s intuitive but important is “How am I honoring and subverting my genre? (Question #2)” When it comes to genres like action and horror and sci-fi, my audience is going to have certain expectations when it comes to tropes of the genre. Deadpool has a ton of action, but it also cleverly subverts the superhero genre with an arch sense of humor, a hero who is often less than heroic, and loads of self-awareness. It’s important to remember that producers and executives have been exposed to every story permutation under the sun. They’re looking for something different, a new spin on a saturated genre or trope. So this question forces me to think about the fresh twists I can bring to my story that will surprise the reader and upend their expectations.
Other questions are more challenging and require more thought. “Who is my central character(s) and what is his/her/their conscious and unconscious desire? (Question #4)” is an important one because it prompts me to write a character bio and spell out the dilemma and conflict that will drive the central character’s journey. In most stories, the Central Character starts out fixated on a specific desire or goal, and as they travel along their outward or inward journey (also known as the second act), a different desire or goal starts to make itself known, complicating the initial desire. In The Graduate, Benjamin starts out thinking that sex, in the form of Mrs. Robinson, will fill the void in his life, only to find, halfway through the story, it’s love—Elaine—that he really wants. The complication, of course, is that Elaine is Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. In The Matrix, Neo’s conscious desire is to find out the truth about the Matrix. His unconscious desire—to accept that he’s the One—is introduced fairly early in the second act, and he fights it all the way to the end.
If I’m writing a two-hander (a play or story with two actors), answering Question #4 helps me come up with the most diametrically opposed conscious desires with which I could possibly saddle my two leads. If I’m writing one of those rarer stories where there’s only a conscious desire—think There’s Something About Mary and any James Bond film—answering this question and Question #9 (see below) in tandem helps me figure out how my hero is going to have to change to achieve it.
Once I’ve answered #4, the next question, “What is my central character’s fatal flaw? (Question #5),” helps me round out my character development and identify the Achilles’ heel that’s preventing my hero from successfully completing his or her journey. In Birdman, Riggan’s fatal flaw is his insecurity as an actor, which manifests cleverly in the Birdman character who constantly tells him he’s “above this shit.” In Mad Men, Don’s shameful past is the fatal flaw that influences his choices and actions as a character.
Story-related questions like “What is the overarching conflict? (Question #9)” and “What is the central character’s lowest point? (Question #10)” are good because they help me navigate the bewildering, impenetrable forest that is the second act. Once I know my overarching conflict, or the primary challenge my central character faces on his or her journey, I have a “trail guide” to help lead the way.
From there I can start building in the escalating series of sequences—made up of obstacles, choices and actions—that will make up the second act. Some examples: in Meet the Parents, the overarching conflict is, “In trying to impress his fiancee’s parents, Greg continually makes things worse.” Which leads to the lowest point of the movie, when Greg’s failed actions lead to the wedding being called off.
Most stories have a low point at the end of the second act, whether they’re the basis for a feature, pilot or series. In Inside Out, Joy’s lowest point is when she tries to prevent Sadness from getting back to Headquarters (succumbing to her fatal flaw, which is her belief that sadness has no place in a little girl’s life), and as a result she ends up in the Memory Dump. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s lowest point comes toward the end of the series, when his actions lead to the murder of a key character and the dissolution of his and Jesse’s partnership.
Incidentally, if your story ends on a tragic or ambiguous note, the end of the second act may be the high point of your story.
I added an 11th question a couple years ago after a conversation with Captain Phillips screenwriter Billy Ray, with whom I serve on the Writers Guild West Board of Directors. He felt it was important to ask, “What is the central idea? (Question #3)” The central idea is an overarching notion or theme that pushes the story forward and is tested in every scene. It is not to be confused with a logline. To cite some examples, the central idea for The Matrix (in my view) is: Neo can only be the One when he believes he’s the One. For Selma: Martin Luther King knows that Selma is the key to the Civil Rights Movement. For Mad Men: Don Draper’s worst enemy is himself and the shameful past he’s trying to escape. It’s like a thesis your story is testing out.
I use my 11 questions to stress-test every story I’m breaking, and at every phase of the writing process, whether I’m just getting started or fine-tuning a rewrite. I use it when I’m giving notes on someone else’s work. I use it for feature screenplays, pilots and TV series pitches and bibles, but it works equally well for books, plays and web series too. But it only works if I answer the questions truthfully. If I try to “cheat” and come up with an answer that’s vague or that twists a notion I already have in my head so it kinda-sorta answers the question, I’m not doing myself any favors. That’s just lazy writing. When I answer truthfully, and with thought and substance, I end up with stronger story bones and, ultimately, a better screenplay.
Asking yourself the tough questions–whether they’re my 11 or your magic number—is a great way to stimulate ideas and make sure your story-breaking is on track. Because—to cite the central idea of The Money Pit—without a sound foundation, the house will collapse. MM
Aaron Mendelsohn is a working screenwriter, a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University, and the Secretary-Treasurer of the Writers Guild of America West. He is best known for Disney’s Air Bud, which spawned 11 sequels. Current projects include a Warner Bros feature, a Spike TV drama series and a Hallmark movie. Aaron’s story-breaking method is now available as an ebook, The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay. For a limited time he’s offering a 20 percent discount to MovieMaker readers. Go to 11questionsbook.com for more information.