Plotting & Structuring the Story

Now the fun begins! We have details about our characters as well as our location. Those details have sketched a story of a man who is so attached with his house that nothing else matters and another much younger man who doesn’t care about much except himself. How do we tell that story?

We’ll start at the end of the story. I touched on this in the first blog about this story, but it was very loose and ready to change. So now we’re going to make those changes. When structuring your screenplay the best place to begin is in fact the end. A golfer stands at the tee and looks down the green and he will see the flag pole at the end of the hole. Even before his tee shot the golfer knows where he’s going and so will we.

Endings & Beginnings

How do I see the The Family House ending? In some of the details I’ve discussed already, I want Derek to turn the villagers against him after Simon’s death. To be a true feel good story, Derek has to take actions that turn the villagers on his side. While those actions will probably take place during the Climax or the Second Plot Point. The end of the screenplay is the final scene. The FADE OUT scene.

So I’ll take one of my cue cards and write down “Derek and Cynthia have added photos to the walls of the house first of them and then of their newborn baby.  I’ve changed this scene after writing the details of the climax below. I needed to have the final scene show Derek’s growth. I’m going to add points in the film where Cynthia will doubt if the newlyweds will ever have a child because there just isn’t the money. This scene shows the new photos on the wall. Maybe a photo of Derek and Simon taken when they first met (just after the First Obstacle). The last frames will be a new family portrait being taken by Derek. Derek, Cynthia there son (now three) and a second baby, in Cynthia’s arms. Derek has planted roots and has developed a deep understanding of history and family.

Let’s now move to the second cue card. The beginning. The first scene of your screenplay. Best way to start your screenplay is to introduce your Hero and their environment. On the second cue card I’ll write, “Derek sneaks into his apartment late at night from an evening at the casino. Cynthia is waiting up for him.Boom! Conflict. It shows that Derek is trying to make some money and is not doing a very good job of it. We see his small, sparely decorated apartment. We also meet his wife, Cynthia who rather just continue living within their means. Derek is unemployed at this point of the story. He lost his job a few weeks earlier. A interesting start to the screenplay, but there’s room for improvement.

Building the First Act Pillars

There are two more Story Pillars in the first act. Next I will determine the inciting incident which introduces the problem to the audience and the Hero. How can I introduce a story that’s taking place in England to a Hero living in Canada? Another story card; “The next morning, Derek flips on the TV while his wife prepares for work he sees a story about an old man and his house in England.” I see this scene playing out with the story not being the key part of the scene. I think I might continue the disagreement between Derek and Cynthia. Derek sees the story on the TV about the house, but is then drawn into the conversation with his wife. I’ll give this scene some thought and maybe write a quick prose detailing this scene and see how it plays out. But remember, at this point nothing is perfect. Everything has room to improve. Maybe instead of continuing the argument, Cynthia instead asks for a ride to work, taking Derek away from the TV before the news item was finished. Or maybe Derek ends the scene by saying to Cynthia, “I’d just sell the house.” – Foreshadowing!

The last story pillar in the first act is the First Plot Point. This is the point where the Hero is given the opportunity to enter the story and chooses to do so. “After learning that he is the last living heir to a man living in England, Derek agrees to fly to England to find out what he’s going to inherent.” See how Derek is presented the option to go to England and meet his Great Great Uncle Simon? He is not forced. It is clearly his choice. He discusses with Cynthia and then Derek agrees to fly to England. This pillar is not so much about conflict, but rather it is about pushing the story forward into the second act.

On one side of the cards I’ve written the scene descriptions in bold above while on the backside of the cards I’ve written some notes that will allow me to remember some of the thoughts I had while I wrote the cards (and this blog post). If you’ve read the Workshop posts (and if you haven’t I strongly recommend that you do) you’ll know there are three Story Pillars in the first act (Opening, Inciting Incident and First Plot Point) as well a 11 other story cards. Each of these 11 story cards will be filled out in the next step describing the other scenes needed to build the first act. An example would be that someone will need to tell Derek that he has been named heir, so that will be a card just before the Plot Point card. We’ll get to that in a week or two.

Second Act Pillars

In the second act we have four more Story Pillars, they are the First Obstacle, the Midpoint, the Second Obstacle and the Second Plot Point. If you remember a recent post a week ago, I had written two scenes in prose format. These two scenes were going to be the midpoint of the film. My first story card of the second act reads as this, “Derek has a meeting with Ronald were the two come to an agreement that Derek will sell the house upon Simon’s death.” That’s my midpoint. I think it twists the story around in a different direction. This makes the Second Obstacle even more powerful. Remember our story question? Will Derek realize the importance of history and family in time to save his Family House? When the hero reaches the Second Obstacle the hero is suppose to almost give up, or almost fail. With the Midpoint deal in place, we’ve set up Derek’s failure will time to turn the villagers and Cynthia against him.

Since we know the Second Obstacle, let’s take the moment to fill out that Story Card. “Simon dies during an on camera BBC interview, opening the door for Ronald to buy the house from Derek.” At this point Derek has failed. The audience, the villagers and Cynthia are all made at Derek. At this point he’s answered the story question with a big red “NO!” While Ronald and Derek shook hands at the Midpoint the deal is not legally finalized. There is a lot that can happen between the Second Obstacle and the Climax, including Simon’s funeral where the villagers turn against Derek for selling out their village, as well as a scene where Cynthia moves into a bed and breakfast in the village, leaving Derek alone in the house that he’s sold.

So let’s go back to the First Obstacle. This is supposed to be the scene where the Hero almost fails by no fault of his own. Originally I was thinking that British immigration could get involved and almost deport Derek & Cynthia back to Canada. But there is a second part to the Obstacle rule – the Obstacle must be initiated by the villain of the story – meaning Ronald. So I need to come up with a scene where Ronald does something that almost makes Derek fail. Threatening comes to mind, but I don’t want to make Ronald evil, he’s simply a man trying to do his job. I’ve envisioning their first meeting where Ronald simply tells Derek how much he’s offering Simon to buy the house. Work Derek’s flaw – GREED! “Derek & Cynthia meet Ronald who explains the offer to Derek. Seeing dollar signs, Derek tells Ronald that he will talk to his great great uncle and convince him to sell the house.” The details of the scene will shake out as I write it, but that’s a great obstacle. Right away Derek wants the money. His own greed has caused him to fail the story question without him even knowing.

With 24 other cards in the second act there is going to be a lot happening. We need to introduce Derek to Simon. Derek will try to talk Simon into selling. Simon will explain why he would rather die than sell the house. The audience needs to be introduced to the villagers and hear their stories. A huge mall will kill business in the village. The stores will all close under the pressure of a mall. There is a lot at stake than just a house and some money. The survival of a village’s culture and history is at stake and Derek doesn’t understand that.

Finally the Second Plot Point will bring Derek to his big choice. To sell the house or not to sell the house. I see this scene coming very close to the end of the film. “Derek heads into town to talk with Cynthia about the house and his final decision.” Derek has wondered the house alone after Simon’s death. Cynthia has been spending her nights at the bed and breakfast, leaving him to either sell the house and return to Canada or to grow up and do the right thing. Of course the reader will know what’s he should do, but the conversation with Cynthia will show both sides of Derek the greedy side and well as the new generous side of him that is starting to develop. It is at this point the Hero will either overcome his flaw or he won’t and we won’t know what Derek does until the Climax in act three.

Bringing it to a Close

The third act is where all of the loose ends are tied up. There are only two Story pillars in the second act. The first is the Climax and the second is the Final Scene (which have already written). After the conversation with Cynthia Derek tells her as well as the villagers he has a meeting with Ronald where the deal will be finalized. “Derek meets with Ronald, while the villagers and Cynthia protest the building of the mall. Derek looks at Ronald’s cheque before ripping it up and handing it back to Ronald.” The villagers (and Cynthia) expected Derek to accept the cheque and turn over the keys to the house, but at the last minute Derek decides that family and history are more important than money and rips up the cheque. He tells Ronald that he’s going to have to look elsewhere to build his mall because the village is closed.

There will only be one or two scenes between the climax and the final scene. Derek receives a kiss from Cynthia and congratulations and thank you’s from the villagers. Of course Ronald will have a few words of disappoint to say. He had invited the media to the sale of the house and had a great speech written for the occasion. Then the camera will slow fade from this scene to the final scene as described above.

This is an image capture of the 9 Story Pillars (as shown in the iPad app, Index Card) as we discussed above. Card number 7 is yellow because at the moment I’m not exactly happy with that scene. While I will use the card, I believe this is the scene that follows the Second Plot Point. I think the card should simply read, “Alone in the Family House, Derek learns what it means to be part of a larger family.” Very simple and to the point. The moment where he looks past his flaw and sees the larger world. He overcomes his greed and needs a plan to save the house. Then he heads into town to talk with Cynthia.

That’s the beauty of the card system over note books, if you decide the scene is not right, you can just move it and then write a new card. I read a blog about two months ago where the author did not like the cue card system. He claimed that the ‘so-called’ advantage of the system (the ability to move the scenes around easily) was not an advantage at all. If the scene, he claimed, was meant to be in a spot in the screenplay, that’s where it goes. Moving scenes around distorts the story. I do agree that a scene meant to be in Act III can not be moved to Act I, however, the order of scenes within an act can be adjusted, especially when dealing with fitting plots and sub-plots together. The author prefer a Beat Sheet, a list of each scene listed in point form. I’ve tried it and promptly returned to the detail cue card system.

Well, that’s the nine story pillars. The basic story in writing. A great start to my latest screenplay.

Talk to you again soon,



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