Last time we discussed the creation of our Idea Tree and how we can use it to develop a story from just a single thought. Then we began to develop a new story using the information from our Idea Tree. We were able to come up with a possible Story Question as well as the first two (of nine) Story Beats. Here is that information as a summary.
Story Question – Will the Hero come to terms with causing the sudden and unexpected death of their sibling?
Inciting Incident – Sibling is injured because of Hero’s actions.
Climax – Hero is arrested for the death of his sibling.
Since we’re just beginning there is ample room to grow and develop this Story Question but it is a solid starting point. Once the story and characters have been developed we will go back and rebuild the Story Question to better match our creation. This is an evolutionary process. The beats grow out of your need to show different events and different personality quirks of your characters.
Let’s Start and Finish
Like the Inciting Incident and Climax the next two Story Flags are also connected (as are the remaining beats except for the last one we’re going to discuss). The Opening Scene and Closing Scene are just that, they are the first and last scene your audience will see, each playing a key role in story. We begin today at the end.
Closing Scene – This is the last image (and the last Story Beat) your audience will see of your film and it will guide your audience’s opinion of your film. This is how your audience will leave the theatre whether it’s sad, happy, excited or confused. When they talk to their friends about your film they might say, “I cried for the final ten minutes of the film” or “I was so confused at the end of the film, I thought I had just wasted two hours.” Both can affect whether others will come and see your film or not. In Star Wars the final scene was the medal ceremony where Luke and Han were given their medals for destroying the Death Star. This ensured the audience left happy. The original Die Hard showed the audience John and his wife getting into the limo and driving away from the scene together. The audience can then build on the story in their own way. The finale of The Sopranos’ was the most controversial final scene in recent history, the sudden cut to black just as audiences realized that Tony was about to get wacked. HBO and cable companies received phone calls from angry viewers demanding why their signal had cut out. It was such a sudden and expected ending and to this day people are still wondering what happened to Tony. Coming up with a solid final scene sometimes takes time while other times it just happens. Again, at this point nothing is carved in stone so write down exactly how you want it to end, regardless whether it is possible or not.
Closing Scene – Hero is lead away in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.
Opening Scene – The most effective Opening Scene I’ve ever seen is from the movie Star Wars. After the title and the scroll we pan down to see the edge of Tatooine and then suddenly the Rebel Blockage Runner enters the shot from above followed by the Imperial Star Destroyer. It grabs everyone’s attention and told the audience their about to go on a ride and that’s exactly what you need to with your Opening Scene. The first scene (the first Story Beat) must hook the audience right away. It must introduce as many ‘story rules’ as possible and prepare the audience for what’s coming. In the Fellowship of the Ring there is a prologue that introduces the audience to past events as well as the story’s rules and the effects grab the audience’s attention. This is why mysteries start with the crime itself or a comedy starts with one of its best jokes. You need to grab the audience right away so they stay to watch it all. Starting your screenplay with your Hero is a great idea, but not required. Within the first five minutes (the first three story beats) the audience must learn who the Hero is and what is the Hero’s present situation. Creating some sort of sympathy between the audience and the Hero will allow you to have a more emotional piece towards the end. We route for the Hero to win and we cry when he loses. The Hero doesn’t need to be in the Opening Scene beat, but he should be in the next one.
Opening Scene – A back yard funeral as the Hero and his family bury the pet hamster.
Plotting Towards Conflict
There are two specific Plot Points in a screenplay. Most people call them Plot Points I and II or Turning Points. I’ve seen nearly half a dozen different names. I keep it simple and call them Plot Points. Each has a specific purpose but to talk generally they divide your screenplay into three acts. A plot point is a moment where one act finishes and the next act begins.
Plot Point I – This is the point where the first act ends. This is the final beat (number 14) of the First Act. The key thing to remember about this Plot Point is that the Hero must decide on his own to move into the second act of the story. While you as the writer may force his choice you should never have another character force the Hero into the second act. When Luke discovers that his Aunt and Uncle had been killed by the Imperial Stormtroopers he decides to leave with Ben and learn about the Force. As the writer, George Lucas, could have had Luke do something else, such as track down the Stormtroopers (as Anakin does with the sandpeople in Episode II to find his mother) or just run off and hide but instead Lucas wrote that Luke decides to go with Ben to Alderaan. “I want to go with you to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, like my father”, Luke says to Ben when he returns to the Jawa’s sandcrawler. You’re hero must make the choice without it being forced on him (or her). This is the point that the Hero is finally and fully involved with the story. The questions Luke had after the Inciting Incident has been answered and he’s ready to move forward.
Plot Point I – Hero decides to visit their sibling in the hospital, despite feeling shame for causing the injury.
Plot Point II – The final beat (number 28) of the Second Act before moving into the third act. It’s been defined as the point of no return and the best example I can think of is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy, Brody and his father, Henry, have caught up to Donovan and Indy has refused to go after the Holy Grail. Donovan than shoots Henry in the stomach leaving Indy with the choice; “do I get the Grail and save my father or stand my ground, allowing my father to die?” Indy has a choice. Neither option is the perfect option but he can’t let his father die. This is the point where you as the writer can raise the stakes. Up to this point, Indy has been struggling to keep the Grail out of the Nazi’s hands, which is pretty high stakes already, but to have to get it to save his father’s life that’s pushing the stakes up even more. In Star Wars the second Plot Point happens when the fighters leave Yavin to take on the Death Star. Luke has decided to return to the Death Star to destroy it and when the Death Star arrives in the Yavin system the stakes are raised as failure to destroy the Death will mean the end to the Rebellion (and the movie franchise).
Plot Point II – Hero decides to run away as the police come to arrest them for the death of their sibling.
Set Aside the Obstacles
The next two beats are controlled by the Villain of the story. The purpose of the Villain is simply to oppose the Hero. The Hero wants one thing and the Villain wants the exact opposite. But at the moment I don’t have a specific Villain. The Villain in Star Wars is easy, Darth Vader but what about Twister? Who’s the Hero for that matter? The Hero is Jo (Helen Hunt) as she the character with the flaw; she’s obsessed with learning everything she can tornados because one ripped her father from her life. Bill (Bill Paxon) arrives looking for a divorce. She wants one thing and he wants something else. Jo ‘defeats’ Bill when he decides to join her in launching Dorothy into the twister. The Villain doesn’t have to be a ‘bad guy’ they just need to oppose the Hero.
Who opposes our Hero? What does the Hero want? The Hero wants their sibling to survive. The Story Question asks whether the Hero will learn to come to terms with causing the death of their sibling. This is where we start refining the story and then possibly the Story Question itself. Up to this point we have been building a single-character story. Now we’re adding the Villain. Story is conflict. To create conflict we need two characters who oppose each other. Since the Hero runs at the second Plot Point maybe the Villain is a police detective. The Villain would be introduced in the scene after the sibling is seriously injured because of the investigation. Now with the Villain roughly defined we move to the next two Story Beats – Central Obstacles.
First Central Obstacle – Throughout the story our hero will face a number of obstacles that will keep them from reaching his goal. However there are two key obstacles that will seriously set him back. The first happens at Beat 7 of the Second Act. At this point in the story the Villain does something that causes the Hero to almost fail. In Star Wars Darth Vader destroys Alderaan. It is important that the Villain takes this action for his own purposes. Vader is trying to get Leia to talk. Luke was heading to Alderaan because that’s where Leia’s message told him to go. It’s the only way Luke knows to find the Rebellion. After Alderaan is destroyed Luke is lost. He doesn’t know where to go. Unless something happens Luke has failed. He will not get the plans to the Rebellion. That’s a perfect First Central Obstacle.
First Central Obstacle –The Police Detective calls the Hero into the station to discuss the injuries.
Second Central Obstacle – Fourteen beats after the first Central Obstacle comes the Second Central Obstacle. Like the first one the Villain triggers the event and does so to further their own purposes. The Hero sees it as the final blow against them. The Obstacle makes the Hero want to give up and depending on the movie you’re writing they just might. In many movies, including Star Wars, this is the point where a friend, mentor or love interest is killed. Vader kills Obi-Wan at this point. Vader is finally finishing the battle that was started 18 years earlier on Mustafar. Luke witnesses the final moments of the battle including Obi-Wan’s death. This sends Luke into shock. Luke wants to give up, as does most Heroes at this point of their story. It’s their lowest moment, courtesy of the Villain.
Second Central Obstacle – Police Detective arrives to arrest the Hero for the death of their sibling.
Midpoint – Found in the very middle of your story (beat 28). This is an interesting point in any film. It took me a while to figure out the purpose of this point. After some thought it occurred to be that this is the point where the Hero gets a moment to rest (as does the audience) just seconds before the story takes a crazy twist that raises the stakes. The Midpoint in Star Wars happens after Obi-Wan has left the control room to shut down the tractor beam and Luke and Han are left in the control room to wait for his return. The two talk about Ben (the brief rest) and then Artoo-Detoo tells them that he’s found the Princess (the twist) and she’s about to be executed (the raised stakes). Other films have love scenes, or getting-to-know-the-hero moments at this point. Watch just about any movie and about half way you’ll find this scene.
Midpoint – The Sibling dies of their injuries.
Putting it all Together
We’ve built a story with just three characters (the Hero, Villain and Victim). Of course there’s going to be more characters, such as other officers and the Hero’s parents. These characters will have their own stories going on at the same time as the Hero’s, but for the moment lets put original our nine points together into a story line. As we further develop the characters and the story, these points will be replaced by other, more refined points
Opening Scene (1) – A back yard funeral as the Hero and his family bury the pet hamster.
Inciting Incident (5) – Sibling is injured because of Hero’s actions.
Plot Point I (14) – Hero decides to visit their sibling in the hospital, despite feeling shame for causing the injury.
First Central Obstacle (21) – The Police Detective calls the Hero into the station to discuss the injuries.
Midpoint (28) – The Sibling dies of their injuries.
Second Central Obstacle (35) – Police Detective arrives to arrest the Hero for the death of their sibling.
Plot Point II (42)- Hero decides to run away as the police come to arrest them for the death of their sibling.
Climax (51) – Hero is arrested for the death of his sibling.
Closing Scene (56) – Hero is lead away in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.