V: Plotting Your Story

Last week I was left with determine the character goals for both my Hero and his brother, the Villain. Here is what I have come up with.

Hero : Sees this trip across the country as the last chance to mend their relationship before the cancer (that he hasn’t talked about) takes him.

Villain : Doesn’t want to go across the country. Believes the past is best left in the quest. Feeling like he is forced to drive his brother, every time a conversation is started he silences it.

While I really like the Hero’s goal, I feel the Villain’s goal needs a lot of work. I took the ‘opposing goals’ literally and it hasn’t worked out for me yet. Since nothing is written in stone at this point we’re just going to push forward with the Story Goal.

Goals become Questions

Remember all of those question and answers we did the first week? I hope so because you’re going to need it this week and moving forward. We’re going to start building the basic plot of our story. Our first stop on the path of plotting is what I call the STORY QUESTION. The central plot point of the story. The the question that is asked at the beginning of the film and answered at the end.

Does Luke Skywalker get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion in time to use them against the Empire?

That is the Story Question of Star Wars (1977). The question is asked the moment Luke learns about the plans placed inside Artoo-Detoo (R2-D2) and isn’t answered until the Death Star goes boom. The entire film pushes forward from question and answer with every event tied to this question. The Story Question does not talk about specifics, for example the question does not mention Luke’s destroying the Death Star. The question at it’s most simplest is Does something happen? 

Does Dory find her parents?

Does the Beast fall in love with Beauty, therefore breaking the curse?

We need to start the plotting process by coming up with this question. It is this question to which all of our plotting is tied to. As we plot we may find that we need to adjust the Story Question. That’s fine as long as we adjust our Story Goal and Log Line along with it. This process is not meant to suppress the creative process but rather get us thinking of ideas and thoughts we may not have had. It is a lot easier to allow your mind to wander if you know had to get back to the original path, but along the way your wanderings may find a better plan. If it truly is better, by all means take the new path.

Knowing the Rules

Before I continue this is an excellent point to tell you that we’re going to be following some very important rules. Yes I said rules. A screenplay is between 90 to 120 pages. Anything shorter or longer is often frowned upon. Why is this? When reading a screenplay it is assumed that one page equals one minute of screen time. Obviously some pages are longer than a minute, but then some pages are shorter than a minute. It all averages out. A screenplay is divided into three specific acts, called Act I, Act II and Act III. These acts divide screenplay into four quarters. Act I is the first quarter, Act II is the second and third quarters and Act III is the fourth quarter. A quarter is about 30 pages. I’m telling you this because you need to know the rules. As a beginner if you don’t follow these basic rules there is not much chance of getting your screenplay read.


Above is my diagram showing the division of a screenplay. The yellow, blue and green pages are the three different acts and the red pages are the 9 unique plot moments. We’re going to discuss each of these in detail in upcoming articles. There is a reason why it is called the Academy of Arts & Sciences. It takes a careful mix of the two in order to create the perfect screenplay. I call the first draft of a screenplay the science draft. This initial draft follows the rules very closely in order to ensure the story is completely told within the 90 to 120 pages. All drafts that follow the Science draft are the Art drafts. This is where you will hang the creative aspect of your story writing skills on the skeleton of the first draft. Just like building a house, first is the foundation and skeleton. Once they are firmly in place then, and only then, is it time to get creative.

We’re going to touch on the rules throughout the remaining articles and the first rule is called the Story Question.

Definition: The STORY QUESTION is the question that is asked at the beginning of the film and is answered at the end of the story. The story question is a goal that drives the story forward, both for the writer and the audience.

Asking the Story Question

My first story question would be based on the Story Goal. Do the brothers make it to the funeral in Vancouver in time? Do you see the problem with this question? In my three examples the Hero is mentioned specifically. Whereas in my Story Question the Hero is not mentioned. This is telling me that my Story Question is not specific enough. In my notes I’ve already mentioned that the Hero is suffering from cancer but hasn’t told his family. I’ve noted that he sees this trip as his last chance to talk to his brother and mend their relationship. So I will start shaping the story question around these points.

Does the Hero mend his relationship with his brother before reaching the funeral in Vancouver?

This is a huge step forward. Early in the story we would need to introduce the difficult relationship between the brothers and at the end of the story we answer the question, either yes or no. Since I see this as a character-driven story this might be my best Story Question, but I’m going to see what other thoughts I come up with. Do I put the question of the Hero’s death in the story question? If I do that would be two things I would need to introduce early in the story.

Does the Hero mend his relationship with his brother before the cancer takes him?

At this point reaching the funeral is no longer part of the question. Maybe the story ends on the side of the road in Alberta with the passing of the Hero? See how easy it is to adjust the direction of the story? It is possible that the Hero knows he only has days left to live and knows that he will never reach Vancouver alive. These are all great ideas that would add conflict and drama to the story. It all depends on the type of story I want to write. Remember these changes will change the Story Goal and the Log Line. As the Hero’s goal is better defined the Villain’s goal will focus as well and I need to work on that.

Spend the next hour working on finding your story question. Like everything else at this point nothing is ever written in stone. As we develop the story you will be able to go back and adjust the question. Start with a question based on the story goal as I did and rewrite it to make it specific to the Hero of the story. Next time we’ll discuss the first two story points that we will hang this question on.


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