Create using a Formula

I’ve been in development for a new screenplay for a little over a month now and I’d like to discuss my process with you. I find development the most difficult part of writing a screenplay because this is where you need to discover all of the major pieces and figure out where they need to go. The screenwriting process is not the time to have moments of discovery. When writing a new screenplay at least 50% of your time should be dedicated to development, maybe even as high as 75%. When you sit down to write you just want to write and you having answered all of your questions during development. This is why I use a formula during development so that all the pieces are discovered and placed where they should go before I write a single word of the screenplay.

What Do I Need?

To start you just need an idea, a notebook and pen. I prefer my initial notes to be handwritten and after they begin to take shape I will often scan those notes and import them into Scrivener so that they are handy as I get to the core development process. I prefer to develop the story first before I start depositing characters into the story. As an experiment, take a movie you’ve seen recently and change the lead character in your head. What if instead of a male adult the hero was a female child. How would the same story change? This is why a create the hero after the basic story idea is created; so we can tailor a hero to fit the story.

Start with a single thought. You could even call it the theme of your story. What is your story about? On a clean piece of note paper write down the word or phrase and circle it. We’re going to draw an idea tree. An idea tree is a serious of related thoughts, words and phrases that are tied together along a single theme. That single theme is located at the center and everything else grows out from that single theme giving the creator the chance to allow their thoughts to flow in a controlled manner. I’m going to start with the words “Dealing with Death”.


Everyone has to deal with death at some point in their life. Centering a story on a character’s dealing with a death has made many wonderful movies in the past, such as The Big Chill and My Girl that I know it is a solid theme to start with. Now the next step is to build on the theme so that we start to discover the story. Begin to ask and answer questions adding the information to your idea tree.


I then start asking questions, in the case above; WHO? Assuming that the red circle in the center represents the hero the first key question I would like to answer is who is going to die. Start with Family, Friend, Loved One or Self and then expand on those. Don’t choose anything just yet. Right now I’m just building my options. If I were to choose Loved One I would then expand this thought to determine who specifically dies, but right now that idea bubble is localized. If you can think of more, then add more. Keep expanding your options until you think you have every possible option.


Next I list all of the possible HOW’s I can think of; again I’m not making any choices at this time. Just list the options. Expand the idea bubbles as much as you can. Just looking at what we have so far a movie about a man at war fearful of his own death would be completely different from a child who loses her mother to a ravaging disease. Two different movies and both are possible thanks to this idea tree. One idea tree can feed you with possible stories for years.


Just keep answering questions and your idea tree will continue to grow. In the case illustrated here I’ve left the WHY unanswered because I think that will be the story. The ‘why question’ would explain the details, such as in the case of an illness, murder or accident. So we now get to the point where I need to make choices. These are not cast in stone, but they are points on the tree that interest us.

WHO – A sibling
HOW – A sudden illness
WHERE – North American City
WHEN – The Recent Past

Now just let your free your mind for a few minutes and determine what sort of person would be the perfect hero for this story. Losing a sibling is difficult, but what if it’s an older sibling that you look up to. This leads me to think that my hero could be a child. Maybe a ten year old who loses their older brother to a disease? I decided on the recent past to eliminate things like the internet and cell phones. I think these things might get in the way of good story telling because they making solving problems so much easier.

The Story Question

 A good film asks a question at the beginning and answers the question at the end. These two points in the film are the first two Story Flags I have in my formula.

Inciting Incident: This happens on the fourth, fifth or sixth story beat card. When asking the Story Question don’t ask it on screen (or on the page). In Star Wars the Story Question is Will Luke get the plans back to the Rebellion in time for them to be used against the Empire? Nobody asks Luke this directly, although the hologram of Leia does get pretty close. The Inciting Incident in Star Wars is when Luke accidently discovers a piece of Leia’s message to Ben. It introduces the Question to the audience and the story to the hero. Luke now wants to learn more about the message, who the girl and Obi-Wan Kenobi are. The Inciting Incident pulls the Hero towards the story, but not into the story – not just yet. The Hero wants to investigate what they’ve learned. Often they may resist what’s being shown them (therefore becoming a reluctant hero). In the very next scene when Luke sits down to lunch with his aunt and uncle he is full of questions. That’s the point of the Inciting Incident. Questions; for both the Hero and the audience

Climax: The matching bookend to the Inciting Incident is the Climax. The Climax is the answer to the Story Question. In Star Wars when Luke destroys the Death Star that is Climax of the movie and it answers the question. Yes, Luke does get the plans to the Rebellion in time for it to be used against the Empire. The Climax of your film should happen as close to the end of the film as possible. When you look at Star Wars there are only two scenes after the Death Star’s destruction (Luke disembarks his X-Wing amongst cheers and then the medal ceremony). I try to keep the climax as far away from the end of the film as the Inciting Incident is from the beginning. If the Inciting Incident is the fourth beat then the Climax is the fourth beat from the end of the film (Beat 52).

For our story about death what could be a good story question? What do we want our hero to explore? Will the Hero learn to accept the death of their sibling and get on with their life? It’s a broad question, but it is a great starting point. On a new piece of paper take a few moments and write down. What should the hero learn from the death of his sibling? What if instead of an illness I can change it to an accident that the Hero blames them self for. There’s more drama there. Now the hero needs to work through the blame. There could be a police investigation as well. The Hero’s parents could also have problems, again the Hero would blame them self.

WHO – A sibling
HOW – An accident leading to a slow and painful death
WHERE – North American City
WHEN – The Recent Past

A story is conflict. Without conflict there is no story. The more conflict we can create at this point the better story we’re going to create. Now that the hero causes the accident that kills their sibling there is going to be a lot of potential conflict. The new Story Question could be Will the Hero come to terms with causing the sudden and unexpected death of their sibling? It’s a yes or no answer. The Hero will either come to terms or not, but the story will be about the conflict that the hero experiences while trying to come to terms with the accident. On a new piece of paper write down the story events that happen as the Inciting Incident and the Climax. Notice how there is very little detail at this point. It’s the story point that’s important to capture here.

Inciting Incident – Sibling is injured because of Hero’s actions.
Climax – Hero is arrested for the death of his sibling.

Next time we’ll talk about the remaining seven Story Flags that we will need to define in order to assemble the basic outline of our story.

How do you develop your own stories? Do you work with an Idea Tree when developing your story? Would you every try it?


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