II: What’s Your Story About?

I completed last posting’s assignment this afternoon. I answered each of the original five ‘W’ questions and then asked additional questions for each answer. This created an additional 16 questions. We’ll get to these questions in another post or two, so for now  set those notes aside and don’t loose them. Today we’re going to answer the number one question asked of all writers; What’s your story about?

If you remember, the idea I am developing is two brothers driving across the country. That’s not a story. It’s just an idea or a thought. To have a story there must be a beginning, middle and end. Our idea is probably the middle, but where is the beginning (how they started driving across the country) and the ending (what happens when they get there). Some of the original 5 answers from last week will provide you with some of that information. For example, the two brothers are driving across the country to attend the funeral of an old friend. When I review all of my questions and answers so far, I don’t have an ending at all. So I’m going to have to build it.

What Do I Need For a Story?

Look at any story and you will find the same things. No matter what, or who, the story is about there are four very specific things. In some stories these items are more obvious than others, but they are all there. Each story has a HERO, a VILLAIN, a GOAL and STAKES. Here are some quick definitions.

Hero – The individual the story is about. Every story has just one Hero. This is the lead character. Even movies with large casts only has one Hero. All the other characters play a part in the story. In The Fellowship of the Ring the Hero was Frodo. It was his story. Everyone was there to service Frodo’s story.

Villain – The individual who opposes the Hero. Again, just one person. Even if your Hero is up against a large, multi-national spy ring there will be one specific person that the Hero will face and have to defeat to succeed. Frodo’s villain was Golem as it was Golem that Frodo had to defeat at the end of the film to be able to cast the ring into the Pit of Doom.

Goal – This is what the Hero needs to do in order to succeed. Also known as the Story Goal as the Hero may have several smaller goals over the course of the film. Luke Skywalker started out with the goal of heading to Toshe Station but was told to wipe the new droids memories. The next morning his goal was to find and return with R2-D2 before his uncle noticed they were missing.

Stakes – A goal must have a successful outcome and a not-successful outcome, these are the stakes. If Luke did not return with R2-D2 then he would have to face his Uncle Owen who would be very angry. Stakes are often the motivation a character needs to get a goal completed. With every minor goal the stakes must increase. Luke went from worrying about his Uncle’s wrath to trying to escape the Death Star with the princess and then trying to stop the Death Star before it blew up Yavin. This is called “raising the stakes”. With his challenge the cost of failure comes greater than the last.

Now that we know what we need to create a story let’s look at our idea and start to develop it into a basic story. The Hero of my story is the Older Brother while the Villain will be the Younger Brother. The Villain can be whatever character directly opposes the Hero’s goals. For example in romantic comedies the Villain is often also the Love Interest. Their goal is to arrive at the funeral in Vancouver in time. While my two characters share the same goal, it is how they will to succeed that’s going to cause the conflict.

There must be conflict in your story. Without conflict there is no drama. Without drama there is no story and without story there is no screenplay. Not only is there a story conflict that lasts throughout the film, but you need to have conflicts spanning each act as well as mini-conflicts in each scene or sequence (I’m going to call them beats – we’ll discuss this shortly). Consider a scene between a mother and young daughter. The mother tells her daughter to go to bed so that Santa can come down the chimney but the daughter would rather stay up and wait for Santa. That is an example of mini-conflict. The characters oppose each other in this one scene, but throughout the story they are considered to be on the same side. Next time you watch a movie try to indentify the conflict in each sequence.

Finally the stakes. What will happen if your Hero fails to reach their goal? I’ll be honest, They’ll miss the funeral is so weak but at the moment it’s all I got. The nice thing we can use “miss the funeral” as a placeholder for the time being. We’ll talk about raising the stakes in a later article. Once we have this information what are we going to do about it?

Writing the First Log Line

You will write several Log Lines for your story as you develop and write it. The purpose of the log line as I see it is two-fold. First is the a high-level map of your story. You will use it as a guide to keep you going. Second it is the answer when someone asks, “What’s your story about?” Let’s take a look at building the log line. There are a couple of things to remember when you are developing your log line.

  • Keep it to no more than two (2) sentences, preferably one (1). This will be the ‘elevator pitch’. You need to get some exciting about your story very quickly as you may only have a couple of minutes. If you go on and on while talking about your story, people will think that you really don’t know what your own story is about. You don’t want that.
  • Never use names in a log line. A name does not describe the character, it’s a label. Your character is not their name so use adjectives when describing them. And be precise. Elderly Man is better than Old Man. When we get to character flaws, you might find it useful to use the character’s flaw in the log line as a way of describing the character.
  • Never spoil the ending of your story in your log line (this is why the exact ending is not needed at the moment). The point of the log line is to get someone interested enough to read your screenplay. They may not want to if they know the ending already. As my grandmother used to say, “You won’t buy the cow if you get the milk for free.”

One thing you’re going to find as we proceed through these articles is that screenwriting is a very rigid form of writing. There are ‘rules’ to writing to screenwriting and new writers should follow those rules if they want to have a better chance to getting your screenplay sold. Once you know the rules and know how to write following the rules you will then know when and how to bend the rules. A log line is really no different.

[HERO] {conflict word} [VILLAIN] [GOAL] [STAKES]

Conflict words are words that immediately make the reader see the built in conflict in your screenplay. Of course once you have the basics you will need to massage the sentence until you have a grammatically correct sentence. So let’s see what I can get for my road trip movie.

An [elderly man] agrees to drive across country with [his younger brother] to [attend a funeral] of an old flame.

This is far from perfect but something is written down. We now have something to massage and rework. Remember, at this point you have five answers and, in my case, 16 additional questions so there will be some story gaps that will need to be filled in.

  • The first thing I need to figure out is the best way to communicate the conflict between the two brothers.
  • While ‘Younger Brother’ works for now, ‘Elderly Man’ is not good enough of a description of the Hero.
  • The stakes are just assumed in this log line and the goal is not specific enough.

Assignment

Write your first log line. Start with the basics and then worked on each section. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus to find wonderful, descriptive words because each word you use must do work in your log line. You may need to rewrite your log line three or four times before your happy with it. Take your time and get it write. I’ll share mine in the next article.

Stephen

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