How to Keep Your Story Going: Start with a What, End with a Why

One common problem with writing a full-length screenplay is that writers start with a great idea — and run out of ideas by page 50. The problem isn’t that their idea isn’t good. The real problem is that they’re focused solely on that main story idea.

For example, ask most people what they think “Die Hard” is about and they’ll likely tell you it’s about a guy single-handedly battling terrorists in a skyscraper. That’s accurate, but that’s only half the story, and that’s where writers often stop.

The idea that one man must fight an army of terrorists single-handled is what the story is about. However, this What only takes us halfway through the story. The rest of the story is about learning the Why of the story.

In other words, why is there an army of terrorists taking over a skyscraper and why is this one man fighting them single-handedly?

Most movies explain the What perfectly but fail to explain the Why. In “Die Hard,” the What is that a man must battle an army of terrorists in a skyscraper. The Why is that the terrorists are really high-tech thieves who plan to steal corporate bonds from a vault and then blow up the hostages on the roof to make their getaway.

Notice that if you watch “Die Hard,” the first half of the movie is about one man fighting the terrorists alone. Then about halfway, the hero (and the audience) learns what the terrorists are really doing.

This combination of What and Why forms the foundation of telling a complete story in a full-length screenplay. Notice that this What and Why works with nearly every good movie.

The premise (What) in the animated film “Monster House” is that a house in the neighborhood is evil and the owner of the house, a grumpy old man, steals all toys that land on his yard. When the hero tries to go into the house to kill it by extinguishing its furnace (its heart), he learns Why the house is evil.

Apparently it’s the spirit of the grumpy old man’s wife who has always hated children tormenting her. Even though this woman is dead, her spirit animated the house, turning it into a monster that eats people and steals their toys.

Think of any decent movie’s premise and that’s the What. In “Willy’s Wonderland,” the premise (What) is that animatronic figures in a Chuck E. Cheese-like restaurant come alive and kill people. The hero is giving a job cleaning this restaurant at night and these animatronic figures come alive and try to kill him.

That alone is interesting, but halfway through, the movie gives us the Why. Apparently, this restaurant used to be run by serial killers who used a satanic ritual to commit suicide and avoid being punished for their crimes. By dying, they avoid prison and their spirits are put in the animatronic figures. Now we have our Why.

Bad movies often start out with an interesting Why (premise) but fail to tell us the Why (the backstory). Without this Why, the What won’t make much sense. Combine the Why with the What and you have a complete story.

Telling a story is a sleight of hand. In the first half, tell only the What to lead the audience into thinking they’re only seeing an interesting idea. Then halfway, start revealing the Why, which gives the reason for the story’s premise.

With this combination of What and Why, you can create a complete story that will hold our interesting from start to finish. Rather than hope an interesting premise can carry the entire story (What), adding the Why gives your story a twist halfway and makes it far more interesting as a result.

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