In every movie, there are mini-stories that follow the four-part structure of stories like this:
- An attention-grabber highlights some problem that the characters face
- The characters try to solve this problem
- A setback occurs
- The character’s fate ends in a cliffhanger
In “Star Wars,” you can see how these mini-stories work together and also see their structure. Near the beginning of the movie, Luke is aboard the Millennium Falcon and heading towards Princess Leia’s planet. The structure of this mini-story looks like this:
- The Millennium Falcon arrives at Princess Leia’s planet
- It’s gone and they’re in danger from chunks of Princess Leia’s planet floating around
- A TIE fighter appears and threatens to give away their location
- While chasing the TIE fighter, the Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star and Obi-wan tells Hans that they don’t need to fight
As soon as we’re glued to our seats on what will happen to Luke as the Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star, the next mini-story answers that question with the following structure:
- The Millennium Falcon arrives in the docking bay
- Darth Vader learns that the Millennium Falcon is empty
- Darth Vader orders a crew to scan the ship anyway
- Darth Vader senses a strange presence
This mini-story leaves us in suspense as we’re told that the ship is empty, but we don’t know how they managed to avoid detection. The ending of this mini-story raises a new question on what Darth Vader could be sensing and what this even means.
To answer the question of what happened to Luke, the next mini-story not only tells us how the crew avoided detection, but also creates a new question to keep us in suspense. The structure of this next mini-story is this:
- Storm troopers roam around the starship
- Suddenly, Luke pops out of a hidden compartment, revealing how they managed to avoid detection
- Hans reminds us that the tractor beam makes escape impossible
- Obi-wan says he’ll take care of it
Notice that mini-stories don’t just answer previous questions, but create new ones to maintain suspense because once you answer a question, there’s less suspense to hold the audience. Any time you answer a question, it’s best to raise a new question, especially early in the story. In this case, Obi-wan’s promise to take care of the tractor beam gives him a goal and leaves us in suspense as to how he’ll do it.
When you’re writing your screenplay, think in terms of mini-stories that have their own attention grabber at the beginning, problems for the characters to resolve, setbacks, and cliffhangers that pull the audience into the next mini-story. At all times, mini-stories hold the audience’s attention and pull them into the next mini-story by creating cliffhangers or raising new questions that don’t get answered right away.
Rather than write your screenplay, just jot down basic mini-stories that represent the building blocks of your story. Each mini-story needs to start with a bang, show a problem, show a setback, and end with a cliffhanger. If you just jot these basic ideas down, then writing your actual screenplay will actually be far easier, more enjoyable, and more importantly, far more interesting so you’ll wind up creating a complete interesting screenplay.