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A FLICK CHICK: How To Write A Story That Grabs Readers, ELF Edition

A story that grabs readers' attention must have a striking beginning and great plot. Paula Landry examines story through the lens of the movie, ELF, starring Will Farrell.

Paula Landry, MBA, is a writer/producer and consultant helping writers create strategies for INSPIRation, MOTIVATion & ACTivation to excel, improve storytelling, fusing business & creativity. Landry creates media business plans, marketing plans, movie budgets, coaching artists and teaching film business classes at NYU, SVA, Wagner College and MCNY. She’s co-authored This Business of FILM; and Sell Your Screenplay; and is the author of Scheduling and Budgeting Your Film. Connect via LinkedIn, @paulalandry on Twitter, email: or Facebook #filmdreamers #mediaentrepreneurs #aflickchick

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Writers are faced with how to write a story on a daily basis: and what is the best way to write a story that immediately sucks your readers in; and what is the best way to structure a story to keep readers glued to the page until the very end. Good writing gives readers a case of the I-Can’t-Put-It-Down-itis. One that is contagious, if we’re lucky.

Strong Storytelling Has A Vivid Beginning With A Solid Structure

A story that grabs readers' attention and keeps it must have a striking beginning, and great plot. We’ll look at these concepts through the lens of the movie, ELF, starring Will Farrell.

Grab The Reader’s Attention

Buddy the elf in the movie ELF is excited

David Berenbaum's script is a fun ride, and I strongly advise you to check it out, reading scripts is one of the nicest holiday gifts you can give yourself, because it's work that doesn't feel like work. And if you eschew all of the end-of-year holidays, then I totally envy you.

Stories that lead with a strong opening often pull you in with a combination of strong visuals, and use something familiar, with a twist. In the screenplay ELF, Papa Elf is telling us a story from a children’s book, it’s familiar, and we see him sitting in a big chair, with the colorful book in his hand. An adult reading a story book is very familiar, but if the adult is Bob Newhart, wearing tights, a hat and tunic, in Santa Land at the North Pole – well that’s the twist.

Script EXTRA: Meet the Reader: What I Look For

Keep The Reader’s Attention With Structure

So now that the reader has been sucked in with the Papa Elf business, and the story of a human living as an elf is weird, interesting and funny enough, the writer must figure out how to write a story with a strong structure that will pull the story along.

Papa elf will read a story
  • What do we do first?
  • What next?
  • How to get started?

Solid storytelling is comprised of several different activities, creating story structure, plot development, voice and characters, we can work on them separately and together in some combination,

Ideas rule, but you have to back it up with plot which stems from a solid structure. Therefore, to set up your structure, creating an outline will help you stay on track.

A story that grabs readers' attention must have a striking beginning and great plot. Paula Landry examines story through the lens of the movie, ELF, starring Will Farrell. Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

How To Write A Story With A Strong Plot

Story structure and plot can be taught and there are many tools to help improve your approach to plot development. Most commercial stories conform to the 3-act structure that prevails in modern storytelling. This story shape may not be intuitive to how you think, but you can and should learn it, even if you decide to abandon it. Then when your your Memento-style film hits it big, you can explain why it’s so good. If you’re not comfortable or fluent with structure, there are many guides, screenwriting books, software and techniques that can help.

Popular Resources To Help With Story Structure And Plot Development

If you need help with your story structure, here’s how to get started, in 3 phases.

  • Phase 1, write a logline. Do you have a heroine/her who wants something and encounters an obstacle that forces her to act until a dramatic climax? What’s the genre? When you like your logline, then you’re off to phase 2.
  • Phase 2, Throw heat onto your logline by creating a synopsis, extending it into more of story, with details, names, roles, more obstacles. Tell us the name of the heroine/hero including a key detail about her (quirky banker), (dorky little boy), (spunky Fortune-teller), and her goal. Ok so we know whom it’s about – great start. Now, what happens to her? We’ve got to get started, so get the story on its way. For example, in A Christmas Carol, a ghost appears to Scrooge. In Elf, Buddy discovers that he is, in fact, a human, not a giant elf, and this information throws him into crisis, moving the story forward.
  • Phase 3, Outline your story, using your own style, or borrow a method that works for many other people.
  • Phase 4, Write a first draft, adhering to your outline, which should remain intact, or be improved.

Outlining a story is one of the places where writers find that they lose the opportunity to grab readers, and the quality of their original idea gets diminished. If you can go from a good idea (test it out by pitching it to everyone you see), to a good outline, then you have a shot at writing a good story. While there are writers who don’t need any outline or plotting tools, going straight from a good idea to a brilliant script, they tend to be more rare than unicorns, or humans raised by elves.

Careful construction

Resources To Help Structure A Story That Grabs Readers

There are so very many resources, how do you decide? Ask writers. Read blogs about writing and follow writers. You’re already reading ScriptMag – so you’re a few steps ahead. And check out other screenwriting blogs for tips on storytelling tools - Screenwriting Spark lists about one gazillion blogs, so you can find something that speaks to you.

Many of the available resources come at this topic from different angles; here are some that I’ve found useful.

Script EXTRA: How a High-Concept Story Can Help You Sell Your Script

Generate Ideas

Fingers dance on keys, pencil to paper, voice-recording notes, however you do it, get going. As a warm up you can use writing prompts as inspiration. Creating more ideas just means you get better at creating ideas, all of which will feed your writing.


The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing

Martha Alderson’s book resembles calisthenics, getting you into shape with good habits with daily affirmations, plot advice and writing exercises. While it’s recommended like a regular vitamin or sit-ups, you can pick it up from time to time.

Prompts of any kind, whether you’re using a book or not, can be helpful, because a writing exercise of any kind is supposed to improve strength, flexibility and balance. So if you want to write a story that grabs readers, you have to practice; writing dramatic openers, hilarious villains, touching love scenes, jokes, fake news – whatever. Here’s a hint, you will use these later!

Set Up Your Basic Script Structure

Once your blood is pumping and your muscles are warmed up (7 minutes), dash off a logline in 10 minutes, then expand to a synopsis (10 minutes), now set your storytelling cornerstones with a structure.


The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting: Structure Your Screenplay Fast

Marilyn Horowitz’s book poses questions to the main character, and with these four questions, you have a handy guide to outline your screenplay. I like the 4 Magic Questions book as it helped me see how the 2nd act relates to the 1st – and that the 2nd act is in two parts – which helps keep it from slogging along. If you’re struggling with outlining and plot, this book is a great place to start.

Build The Plot In Your Script

With the foundations in place, you can set your timer for 30 minutes and create an outline to guide you forward.


Save The Cat!

Once you’ve got a feel for your how those 4 questions can give you a strong place to begin shaping your 3 acts, I suggest you read Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat book, then try out the trial version of the software, which further break up the acts with visualization techniques (opening, ending image) to keep your mind’s eye ‘seeing’ your movie.

In closing, these essentials of a great opener, strong idea muscles and tight plot can help you write a story that grabs readers and keeps them riveted until the very end - the gift that keeps on giving!

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