Defining a Story in Three Sentences

Practically everyone in Los Angeles is writing a screenplay, yet when you ask these people what their story is about, you don’t often get a clear answer. Instead, you typically get a rambling discourse that describes the action in specific scenes, but a single interesting scene alone won’t make a good movie. What makes a good movie is a good story. Period.

Before you start writing, you must know the basic outline of your story and you can do that by writing just three sentences:

  • Once upon a time there was a hero who wanted a goal.
  • To get that goal, he had to defeat a villain.
  • Then he got that goal.

Every good story can be condensed into these three sentences. If these three sentences look interesting, chances are good the story idea is worth pursuing. Likewise if these three sentences look boring, chances are good you need to further clarify your story before you start writing.

“Die Hard” can be condensed into the following three sentences:

  • Once upon a time, there was a man who wanted to get back with his wife.
  • To get back with his wife, he has to defeat a group of well-armed terrorists single-handedly in a skyscraper.
  • After killing all the terrorists, he can finally get back with his wife.

Notice that the first sentence defines the beginning of the story with a clear goal for the hero. Then the last sentence defines the ending of the story that explains whether the hero achieved that initial goal or not. The second, middle sentence simply defines the villain and the main action of the story. When these three sentences don’t tell an interesting story, chances are good the story won’t work. Here’s how these three sentences work in the disappointing movie “The Maze Runner”:

  • Once upon a time, there was a boy who found himself trapped in a maze and trying to find a way out.
  • To get out of the maze, he has to figure out how the maze works.
  • After figuring out how the maze works, he can finally get out.

These three sentences aren’t necessary describing a bad story, but where “The Maze Runner” falls down is by the end of the movie, we never learn what the maze was for. We also never understand the villain’s motives for putting the hero into the maze, nor do we understand the flashbacks that hint that the hero actually created the maze. Because “The Maze Runner” creates an interesting premise of boys trapped in a maze, we want to know why, but the movie (and novel) never tells us why. It just ends on an incomplete note.

So while the hero does escape from the maze, it’s a hollow victory because we never understand why he was in there in the first place nor why his escape from the maze is a victory for the hero and a defeat for the villain. Because the villain isn’t really defeated, there’s little sense of accomplishment at the hero achieving his goal at the end.

If a villain is not defeated, then the ending is incomplete. Defeat for the villain doesn’t necessarily mean death to the villain. In “The Hunger Games,” the villain loses simply because the hero has managed to survive and keep her fellow tribute alive as well in clear violation of the game rules. This is a subtle form of rebellion against the villain and is thus a defeat for the villain, making the hero’s victory complete and satisfying.

Another movie that’s poorly structured is “The 5th Wave”:

  • Once upon a time, there was a girl who was living a normal life.
  • Aliens appear and destroy the world, separating the girl from her brother.
  • The girl finds her brother and rescues him from the aliens.

Here’s the first flaw. In the beginning, the hero has no goal. She just wants to live an ordinary life and that’s deadly dull from a story perspective because she’s passive. Until the aliens arrive and start wiping out the planet, this hero has no motivation to do anything. All she wants to do is protect her little brother, but that’s not clear from the beginning as various disasters strike, wiping out most of the human population.

Imagine how dull “Die Hard” would be in the beginning if the hero was happily married with his wife and attending her company Christmas party. Without a goal, the story would seem dull right from the start, and that’s the fatal flaw in “The 5th Wave.”

The second fatal flaw in “The 5th Wave” occurs in the end. The hero rescues her little brother and the villain is not only not defeated, but literally doesn’t care. The villain is never defeated because rescuing the hero’s little brother does nothing to hurt the villain.

By writing three sentences that roughly describe your story, you can see whether it’s compelling enough to turn into a full screenplay. Your first sentence needs to describe a goal for the hero right from the start. Your second sentence describes the villain and how he or she creates interesting obstacles for the hero to overcome. Your third sentence then concludes whether the hero achieve the initial goal or not.

Just three sentences can help you clearly define your story idea. If your story idea doesn’t neatly fit in three sentences, chances are good your story isn’t full formed yet. Make sure each sentence tells an interesting story and chances are good you’ll have a clearer idea why your story idea might make a great movie.

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