|Question: How do you know a story you want to turn into a screenplay or novel can carry an entire movie or book? |
There are many factors that determine a good story. When you are first considering whether a story idea will work as a novel or screenplay, look especially at two structural elements, which you can see right in the premise line: the desire line and the opposition. The hero’s goal provides the spine of the story, and it must extend all the way to the end of the story. So make sure the goal is difficult to achieve and will require the hero to take a lot of complex actions to reach it.
When considering the probable opposition in the story, make sure you can identify one character as the main opponent who wants to prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Then see if you can think of other characters who also oppose the hero’s desire, but for different reasons, and use different strategies than the main opponent.
Question: Does character come from plot, or plot from character?
|This question represents the Catch-22 of storytelling. Plot is the sequence of what your hero does while going after a goal. Character is not some separate entity from plot, automatically full grown at the start of the story. Character is defined by what your hero does over the course of the story. In other words, plot and character define one another. You can’t have a great plot without a strong, complex main character to generate those actions. And you can’t have a great main character without an intricate plot to test him to the depths of his being. |
Think of the relationship of plot and character as a feedback loop; when you improve one you automatically improve the other. The most important thing to remember is that character and plot must be organically and intricately linked for the story to be great.
Question: What defines a good story?
So many things. But fundamentally a good story is, once again, plot coming from character and character coming from plot. Most writers think plot and story are identical. They aren’t. Story is the perfect union of character and plot.
A good storyteller actually tracks two lines: the character’s success in the action line and the character’s internal change. The audience wants to see the hero succeed in both lines. The writer makes those two lines one by connecting plot and character under the surface, through the story structure.
There are many techniques for connecting plot to character. I explain these techniques in my Anatomy of Story Masterclass when I go through the 22 building blocks of every great story. Think of the 22 building blocks as the specific beats where plot is connected to character, from beginning to end. They’re especially useful for giving writers a precise map to the middle of the script, where 90% of scripts fail.
Question: The universe someone creates in their screenplay can be as big as a universe, or as small as an apartment. What factors determine what the size of your story world should be?
Story world has become one of the three or four most important elements in a good script. Much of the incredible success of the Harry Potter stories, for example, comes from the amazing details of the story world. I talk a lot about this in my Anatomy of Story class, because so few writers understand how to create and detail the story world. They think the story world is wherever the story happens to take place. In fact the story world holds an incredible amount of meaning for the audience.
The first step in creating the story world is figuring out the arena. The arena is some kind of wall that surrounds the world. Everything inside that wall is part of the story. Everything outside it is not. Once within the arena you then link the world to the main character. In other words, the world of the story is an expression of who your hero is. Then set up the major pillars of the story world, and these are often in some kind of opposition to each other. For example, within the vast world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, plants and water represent the forces of love and life while mountains and metal represent the forces of absolute power and death.
Question: Writing good, crisp dialogue is one of the toughest things to do. How do you give each of your characters an original voice when they speak?
This is another of the misunderstood elements of good writing. Certainly a character’s personality plays a role in how each speaks in a unique way. But the real trick to this technique has to do with two crucial structural elements: the character’s need and desire, the first two of the seven major story structure steps. Knowing the great weakness that each of the characters must overcome in their lives and being clear what each character wants in the story give you the fundamental “character” of the character. It’s who they are deep down. These two elements are the most important determinants of how each character talks. You then add on top of that each person’s unique personality, background and values so that every character has a distinctive voice.
Question: What is the biggest misconception about learning and understanding story structure?
Most writers never move past 3-act structure, which is deadly because 3-act is a mechanical, arbitrary way of dividing story. You can divide anything into three parts, but that won’t help you figure out a story that is complex enough to work at the professional level.
Real story structure, also known as deep structure, is organic. Instead of being imposed from the outside, it comes from inside the hero. Or to put it another way, it’s how the hero develops as a human being by working through a plot, a sequence of actions that tests that hero to the fullest.
Shifting from 3-act to organic story structure is not easy. Three-act is a magic bullet we all desperately want to work. But it won’t work. So let it go. Organic story structure requires knowing your hero with tremendous depth and being able to come up with story events that will inexorably lead that character to fundamental character change. If you can make the shift from 3-act to organic story, the payoff is huge. It’s what makes you a professional.
Question: Could you name 3 non-screenwriting sources writers should be learning from to sharpen their craft?
I’ll give you two. These are sleeper books that every serious writer should know and study carefully. They’re not easy to read, but they hold within them profound knowledge of the craft of story.
1. The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, the best book ever written on story world
2. Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrup Frye, especially the first essay on the theory of the hero
Question: There seems to be a lot of “re-booting” in Hollywood these days. They just wrapped the redo of “Total Recall,” they rebooted the “Batman” franchise, etc. What’s the best advice you can give when it comes to redoing, rebooting or re-visualizing a previous screenplay?
The key to the best reboots of the past ten years - Casino Royale (The Bond series), The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins, Star Trek and most recently, Rise of the Planet of the Apes - is that the writers have given their hero a weakness and need. Weakness-need is the first of the seven major story structure steps. Until about ten years ago, action and myth heroes were rarely given a deep character flaw because the conventional wisdom said that the superhero had to be upstanding and “heroic” the entire story. The conventional wisdom was wrong, because it gave writers a boring character and meant the plot was just a repetitive series of action stunts.
Giving the hero a weakness and need in a reboot not only makes the character more complex and engaging to the audience, it grounds the plot in character and makes it personal. That both delights the audience and makes them care.
Question: When you’re reading a screenplay, what are the danger signs you see in the first few pages that you just know will mean trouble in the script?
The biggest red flag: the writer doesn’t know how to catch the reader in the first 5-10 pages. And that means they don’t know story structure. Most writers have heard you want to catch the reader quickly, they just have never been taught how. Once again it has to do with understanding how story structure really works. When I go through the 22 building blocks of every great story in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, I explain all the key structural elements that you must include in the opening 5-10 pages to catch the reader. And I guarantee that if you do those things you will not only catch the reader you will take him or her on a story journey they will never forget.
The craft of story is not easy. But it can be learned and mastered. Don’t be intimidated by it. Take it step by step, and one day you will say with pride to anyone who asks you who you are: I am a writer.