Ask the Tough Questions to Write Better Screenplays
I don’t love the story-breaking process. 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. And every time, I’m really, really glad I did it.
Being a stickler about my story-breaking is one of the key reasons I’ve managed to sustain a 20+ year successful writing career. Early on I was pretty informal with how I did it, but as time went on my story-breaking started crystallizing into a method that I would repeat with each new feature and pilot I commenced. 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.
I started out with ten questions. Many of them were intuitive, like “Do I know what my story is about?” and “What is the Call to Action?” 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 bouncing around in my head – and always improves upon them. “Do I know what my story is about?” is particularly important because the answer ends up being the cornerstone of my screenplay (or pilot or series pitch). If I can’t distill my concept into a simple, clear, one-sentence logline – the Post-It note – I may be sitting on a story that’s weak, broken or over-complicated. Here’s an example of a good logline: “A good-hearted but insecure 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 (insecurity), the main antagonistic force (his stutter), the Journey (working with a speech therapist), the Climax (the speech) and the stakes (unifying his kingdom).
Other questions are more challenging and require more thought. “Who is my Central Character(s) and what is their Conscious and Unconscious Desire?” 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. Story-related questions like “What is the Overarching Conflict?” and “What is the Central Character’s Lowest Point?” are good because they help me stake out the bewildering badlands of the Second Act.
I added an eleventh question a couple years ago after a conversation with screenwriter Billy Ray (“Captain Phillip”), with whom I serve on the Writers Guild West Board of Directors. He felt it was important that all stories have a Central Idea, which 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 the 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 for feature screenplays, pilots and TV series pitches, and 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.
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 eleven sequels. Current projects include a Warner Bros feature 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% discount to InkTip writers. To find out how to receive the discount, first contact Aaron by emailing: AaronMendelsohn (at) Mac dot com and mention you are an InkTip writer.