Asking the Story Question Early

If you’ve been following the Absolute Beginner Screenwriter’s Workshop then you know I’ve recently talked about the Story Question. This is the question your screenplay asks in Act I that remains unanswered until the Climax of the screenplay. Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope’s story question “Will Luke Skywalker get the stolen plans to the Rebellion in time for them to be used against the Empire?” is not answered until we reach the moment where Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. I’ve been working on a new screenplay and I have been trying to write the Log Line (January’s Workshop Lesson) for a few days now with no luck.

My problem is that I don’t know the story well enough yet to put together a clear log line. The log line must describe the noun of the story, the person in a place doing a thing (in grammar a noun is often defined as a person, place or thing). In my current story I know the person rather well. I’ve created the character a number of years ago and have been trying to write her story ever since. I’ve decided to include her in this screenplay because she fits what I want to see in the Hero. I know the place. The hero must return to her home town to deal with the aftermath of the death of her father. Although that sounds like the thing of the story, it’s really not. There is no conflict. It’s an idea, not a story. That’s where the problem lies, I don’t know the story.

Using Questions to Build Your Character

When building a screenplay you start with some questions. The first question you should ask is; who is your story about? You’re answer should speak of the character specifically. My story is about Melissa, a early-20’s woman who’s life in the big city has not been going well. That answer should then lead the writer to additional questions that begin to flesh out your character. As you are answering your questions, you should be thinking, can any of this information be used directly to build the story? In the case of Melissa she had a child far too early in life and it’s been a struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I’m starting to paint the picture of a woman who would be on the verge of giving up if it wasn’t for her 6 year old son, Thomas. The Q and A session continues until you have enough information about your character to build a story around her. Melissa found herself pregnant at 17 years old and although she was able to finish high school, she had to give up her dream of going to university. Originally from a small town in Northern Ontario, Melissa came to Toronto with the hope of finding a job and an apartment so she could raise the baby.

At this point we have to ask ourselves what were conditions like at home that forced Melissa to leave home before the baby was born. Of course there is the small community aspect. It may be too easy to say she was shunned and looked down on for becoming pregnant. But what if her father was the reverend at the town’s only Presbyterian church? It’s a start. Now we have direct conflict between a father and a daughter. We throw in the mother’s opinion as well and we have the start of a good story. But wait a minute, I want to tell the story of her return to the town after the death of her father. If the father’s dead, where’s the conflict going to come from?

Using the Story Question

Rather than starting with the log line, what if I were to start with a possible story question? As I’ve shown, starting to build a screenplay is all about questions and answers. The story question is the biggest question you can ask and will drive all of the possible conflict and obstacles of your story. In Star Wars all of the obstacles and plot twists were built to try and prevent Luke from getting the plans to the Rebellion. What would Melissa’s story question be? That will depend on the surviving parent’s opinion of her pregnancy 7 years ago. Her mother could have been secretly excited for Melissa but remained silent so she wouldn’t oppose her husband. With the husband now dead, what conflict would there be in a mother who accepts Melissa back with open arms? To generate conflict and obstacles Melissa’s mother, Nancy, will need to have opposed the pregnancy and ignores the child. The mother will need to be just as strict as the father was.

But this leads to another question, if the mother survived the father, why is Melissa called north to take care of her father’s estate? Normally the surviving spouse is responsible for the deceased estate. What has happened in those seven years that has made the mother unable to care for her husband’s estate? The mother has become extremely ill in the time after Melissa left home. During the last couple of years Melissa’s father has been Nancy’s caregiver. To determine the exact illness there will need to be some research because Nancy will need to have much of her wits but none of her strength or mobility. Now we’re beginning to see a story question forming. It could be as simple as “Will Melissa remain at home to care for her mother?” The problem with this question is that it’s answered by the end of the first act. Melissa will either go back to the city or stay in the family home at the First Plot Point. We need a story question that will carry through 120 pages.

Increasing the Drama

Let’s take a moment and consider how the screenplay will end. What event will be the climax of the story? I think the death of the mother would make for a very dramatic ending to the story. Melissa will discover that her parents were preparing for Nancy’s death, however Melissa’s father’s death was sudden and unexpected. Nancy only has a number of months left and Melissa feels that Thomas (her son) needs to know who his grandmother is. The opposition is that Nancy does not want to see the bastard child. We’re starting to build a very simple story question. Can Melissa convince her mother to accept her grandson before Nancy dies of a grave illness? Reading that over a couple of times I think that makes a perfect first version of the story question. Like any writing your story question will need to be revised and rewritten as you develop the story. What makes this a good start is the dramatic level of the question. There is a time limit in which the action must take place in. Nancy will die and Melissa must work hard to get through to her mother before that happens. The question immediately springs forth ideas for conflict and obstacles. The first obstacle in Act II would be that Nancy refuses to see her grandson. How will she ever accept the boy as family if she won’t even see him?

But at the same time there will be two other stories going on at the same time. The B Plot will be linked very closely with the main story (the A Plot) having to do with Melissa’s and Nancy’s relationship as Melissa grew up. Melissa will need to mend their relationship before she loses her mother. She didn’t have the chance with her father and that weighs heavily on her. The C Plot will be Melissa running into Thomas’ father, Jonathan, and the fact that Jonathan has never seen his son. The C Plot could spark a bit of a love story in the film to help raise the mood from time to time.

From Question to Plot

When I sat down to write this blog post I knew very little about the story. Now I know there will be three different plots interwoven about Melissa’s relationship with the people in her life. Now the story has a theme, telling loved ones how you feel before they’re gone. Taking the time to research this theme I might be able to add even more to my story. Where do I go from here? The first step now is to take the information I have created here and put some meat on the bones. Write out the character’s backgrounds. How did young Melissa and Jonathan meet? What act drove Melissa to finally leave home? Build the characters and you’ll be building the story. If your characters have deep and rich backgrounds you’ll have more places to hang story points from. Once the characters are created it’s time to start developing the Nine Story Pillars. What will be the last scene? The first? What twist does the story take at the first Plot Point and then another twist at the second? How does the story question build the two obstacles? What happens at the midpoint of the story, a quiet moment followed immediately by an unexpected twist?

Thanks for being an ear while I talked through my story. I need to transfer much of this blog to my notebook so that it’s not lost. There is still a lot to develop, but I’m off to a great start. Can you plot a story using the story question? I think so. It seems to work easier than the log line. You can develop your Story Question without needing to know every moment of your story. The story builds the question while the question builds the story.

Until next time,
Steve

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