Before you can even start writing a screenplay, you need an idea. Start by summarizing your story in one sentence. Your story idea should contain four elements:
- A hero with a seemingly impossible goal
- A problem that creates a dilemma for the hero
- A deadline
- The threat of death
All stories are about somebody even if your hero is a robot (“WALL-E”), a pig (“Babe”), or a car (“Cars”). Whether your hero is a person or not, your hero represents the focus of your story. In every story, audiences need someone they can root for because your hero is pursuing a seemingly impossible goal. The more difficult the goal, the greater our respect for the hero in pursuing that goal. Climbing a flight of stairs isn’t an interesting goal because it’s fairly easy to achieve. Climbing Mount Everest is an interesting goal because its difficulty makes it less likely to achieve.
Besides an impossible goal, every audience stays glued to their seats when a story creates problems that block the hero from a goal. Once we know that a hero wants something important, we want to know how she will get it. If a hero wants a goal and immediately achieves it, that’s boring. Audiences really want to see a hero struggle to achieve a worthwhile goal. That struggle makes us fear that the hero might fail, but also keeps us wanting to know if the hero might overcome all problems and achieve the goal anyway.
Problems define every story. Without problems to create conflict, there is no story. Imagine a story about a man who goes shopping. There’s no worthwhile goal and there’s no conflict. As a result, there’s no story.
Now let’s see what happens when we add a problem. A man goes shopping and suddenly spots the woman of his dreams. The problem is how can he get to know her? With a goal and a problem blocking that goal, the story suddenly becomes more interesting.
To crank up the interest, let’s add a deadline. A man goes shopping, spots the woman of his dreams, and has to get to know her before she leaves the shopping mall where he might never see her again. Notice that this is far more interesting than just a story about a man going shopping. Just by adding a goal and a deadline cranks up the tension and suspense.
To really ratchet up the tension, let’s add the threat of death. If the hero fails to achieve his goal, he’ll either experience physical death or emotional death. A physical death means the hero could die, which is the common threat used in action/thrillers like “The Expendables” and every James Bond movie. An emotional death means that the hero may live, but may miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. In every romantic comedy, the hero risks an emotional death if he or she doesn’t find true love.
Whether you have a physical or emotional death, the threat of death adds extra urgency to any story. Not only must the hero pursue a seemingly impossible goal, but she must also face a deadline where failure could mean physical or emotional death.
Suppose a man goes shopping, spots the woman of his dreams, talks to her for a while to realize she’s the one for him, then loses sight of her in the largest shopping mall in America. Now he has to find her before she leaves and he might never see her again. To add the threat of emotional death, imagine this man is already engaged to be married but suddenly realizes that he’s going to marry the wrong woman. If he doesn’t find the woman of his dreams, he’ll not only lose her, but also suffer from an emotional death by getting stuck in an unhappy marriage.
Does the threat of an emotional death, combined with a deadline and a goal make this simple story dramatically more interesting than a story about a guy who goes shopping?
Now that you know that every story needs a hero, a goal, obstacles, a deadline, and the threat of death, study the summaries of the following movies:
“Alien” — The crew of a spaceship must find a way to defeat a carnivorous alien that’s killing them one by one.
“Titanic” — A woman finally finds love, but it’s on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
“The Hunger Games” — A teenage girl, living in a dystopian future world, must survive a reality TV show where only one person can win by killing the other contestants.
“E.T.” — A boy must help a stranded alien get back to a spaceship before the authorities can capture it.
“Back to the Future” — A teenager goes back in time and must help his mother and father meet to make sure he’ll be born in the future.
If you can summarize your story in a single sentence that describes a hero, a goal, problems, a deadline, and the threat of death, you’ll likely create a great idea for a story. If you can’t do that, chances are good that your story isn’t quite defined in your mind yet.
It’s easier to refine and modify your story idea now when it’s just one sentence rather than wait until you’ve written 120 pages of a script that isn’t interesting or coherent. Once you create an exciting, one sentence summary of your story, you’ll be eager to start writing. However, if your story summary is vague and uninteresting, you won’t know how to start or what to write next.
Novelists can often jump right into writing their story because novels allow room to expand ideas and go off on tangents. As a result, novels can afford a more rambling story telling style with less planning ahead of time.
Screenplays, on the other hand, must stay tightly focused with far less room for exploration. You only have 120 pages where every single page must contribute to your story. Study great movies and you’ll find that every scene works together to tell a coherent tale. Watch bad movies and you’ll find that scenes don’t always support each other, tell the same story, or even complete the ideas they initially set up. That creates a less focused, coherent story, which is why some movies tend to “drag” despite endless amounts of special effects, gunfire, and explosions.
Coming up with movie ideas can be easy and fun. When you come up with a great idea, you’ll be highly motivated to do the work necessary to write the actual screenplay. A good idea gives you a great start, but what ultimately matters is that you finish your idea as a completed screenplay in the end.