Last time I talked about a question I ask to help students define their character journey – “What does the character learn from this experience?” You might call this the Socratic method of giving notes. It got me thinking about other questions I use with students and in my own work to identify important elements of my structure.
I’m going to list some of these questions – if you’re so inclined, answer them for whatever story or script you’re currently working on. Then I’ll explain how to translate those answers into your outline.
1. What does your character want in the story? What is their primary goal?
2. Do they achieve it?
3. What’s the worst thing that could happen to them while they try to achieve their goal? What’s the best thing?
4. What happens to the character if they walk away?
5. What happens to the character if they succeed?
6. What happens to the character if they fail?
7. What’s the primary external obstacle they face?
8. What’s the primary internal obstacle they face?
9. What other obstacles do they face?
Have your answers? Okay, now let’s look at how they suggest your story structure:
Question 1. Your character’s want or goal will drive the plot of your story. The point at which you establish that want or goal is probably the catalyst of your film.
Question 2. When we learn whether the character succeeds or fails at achieving their want, the story is over. In other words, that’s your resolution.
Question 3. If the character is going to achieve their goal, then the worst thing that could happen along the way probably ought to happen at the end of Act II. How they overcome that becomes the object of Act III. Conversely, if the character will fail, then the best thing that could happen along the way should happen at the end of Act II. When I see screenplays that lack drama, it’s often because the things that happen to the character aren’t really that bad. They’re speed bumps, not roadblocks.
By the way, if your character is going to succeed, the best thing that could happen along the way might be a good candidate for the midpoint. And vice versa if they’re going to fail.
Question 4. Of course, the character should not be able to walk away from their goal without serious consequences. Most often, the establishment of those consequences occurs at the end of Act I.
Questions 5 and 6. These questions are related to stakes. Again, there should be consequences to the character for success and failure. Otherwise, why do we care? You must clearly establish what is at stake for the character by the end of Act I. And ideally, raise those stakes as the movie progresses.
Questions 7 and 8. The primary obstacle could be a villain or it could be a situation or it could be something in the character’s psychology. You want to make sure this obstacle is big enough to justify a movie. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the accomplishment if they overcome it. The best movies have both internal and external obstacles. Overcoming the external obstacle is the plot, overcoming the internal is the character arc. Whichever is bigger is probably your primary storyline. But you ought to have the other type of obstacle in the film as well.
Question 9. This is for Act II. In addition to the big obstacles, the character will likely face many small obstacles. These are often related to the big obstacles – in fact, it’s usually best if they are. If the character is only facing one thing they have to overcome, you may have trouble fleshing out Act II. Think about what other challenges they might have to face.
You can ask yourself these questions every time you develop a story – I do. If I can’t answer one, then it means I have some more thinking to do. The nice thing about this approach is rather than filling in the blanks on a structural diagram, you are finding the structure in the story that’s already taking shape in your imagination.