MEET THE READER: Five Questions to Ask (and Answer) Before You Start Writing

When you sit down to craft your story, you are the master, but how do you maximize the story's potential? Ray Morton shares five questions to ask before you start writing your screenplay.
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When you sit down to craft your story, you are the master, but how do you maximize the story's potential? Ray Morton shares five questions to ask before you start writing your screenplay.

There are five key elements that form the foundation of every dramatic narrative. If you’re going to construct a successful story, you need to have these elements firmly in place at the start of your writing process because without them your story won’t gel. Therefore, before you begin writing, you must ask and answer the following questions:

1. What is my premise?

The premise is the core concept of your story. While the notion that you could write a script without knowing what the basic idea of it is may seem impossible, but I have read many, many screenplays over the years in which it is clear that the author doesn’t have the slightest notion of what they’re actually writing about. The result are pages of scenes and character work and dialogue that sometimes are quite interesting, but that ultimately go nowhere and add up to nothing.

There are actually three facets to a premise that you need to decide upon:

· The conceptual premise: Is this a straight story or is it a spoof or a satire? Will this story be told in realistic fashion or will it be stylized? If it is based on preexisting material, will it be a faithful or a loose adaptation?

· The narrative premise: The core story idea of the script – a shark attacks a New England beach town; an idealistic war veteran gets sucked into his family’s life in organized crime; a man from another planet comes to earth and uses his incredible abilities to become a superhero; etc.

· The thematic premise: What is the point you want to make by telling this particular tale?

[Script Extra: Where the Story Begins - The Premise]

2. What story am I telling?

A premise can be developed in many different ways. For example, if your premise is “an idealistic war veteran gets sucked into his family’s life in organized crime,” you could tell that story from the son’s point of view. Or you could tell it from his father or another family member’s or an outsider’s point of view. The son could join the family business willingly, perhaps because he becomes disillusioned with the “legitimate” world, or he could join because he is attracted to the benefits and advantages of the criminal life and allows himself to become corrupted, or he could join because he idealistically believes if he signs up he can influence the family to go straight. He could join the family business unwillingly, because his family pressures or blackmails him into it, or because his father dies or becomes incapacitated and the only way he can save the family is by taking over. He could join the family as an undercover operative for the FBI on a mission to gather evidence against the family in order to bring it down. He could do this willingly – perhaps because the family mistreated him in some way – or because the authorities threaten him or someone he loves. Or he could pretend to be working undercover for the FBI but the in the end reveal that he is a double agent and has been loyal to his family all along and has been stymieing the FBI by feeding it false information.

All of these are legitimate directions in which to develop a narrative based on that basic premise and each one has the potential to generate great scenes and great drama. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that, while these various approaches all have certain elements in common (e.g. the same basic characters and situations), they are all completely different approaches, each with completely different and narrative arcs, central conflicts, themes, protagonists, antagonists, climaxes, and resolutions. Which means that to develop a proper and coherent narrative from your premise, you must choose one of these approaches and discard the rest.

Unfortunately, many new writers have great difficulty doing this. Reluctant to let go of the potentially great scenes and drama the various approaches can generate, they will instead attempt to develop a story that incorporates several or all of different approaches into a single narrative rather than just select one. The result is a mess – an unfocused and often incoherent mishmash of arcs, conflicts, themes, protags, antags, multiple climaxes (good on a date; bad in a script), and endless resolutions.

Perhaps more than anything else, you must choose one  (and only one) story to tell before you begin writing.

3. What is the genre of the story I’m telling?

I read for several screenplay contests and one thing that always amuses me is that when asked to identify the genre of their screenplay, many writers will choose more than one. And sometimes quite a few.

Here’s a helpful tip: there is no such genre as comedy/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/romcom/thriller/ action/adventure/horror/western/musical/family.

Genre is important for two main reasons. The first is that all stories belong to a genre and all genres have specific elements that must be incorporated into a story in some way (either by employing them in traditional fashion or by employing them in some unusual way – e.g. by spoofing or subverting them). If those elements are not incorporated, then the story does not belong to that genre. You will sometimes see stories identified as being a mix of genres – e.g. a comedy/drama, a horror/comedy, an action/thriller, etc. But in reality, most of those scripts are constructed in accordance with the tenets of only one of those genres, with certain elements heightened in ways that suggest the other genre. For example, most horror/comedies are constructed like a horror movie and contain all of the traditional elements of a horror movie, except that some of those elements are addressed in humorous rather than straight-faced fashion. Likewise, most action/thrillers are really just traditional thrillers, except that either the action is written in a heightened way.

A more practical reason is that producers and studios tend to hate mixed-genre scripts because they don’t know how to market them. So, if you want your script to be looked upon favorably by potential buyers and makers, it’s important to be clear about what genre it belongs to.

Of course, a good screenplay should contain elements of drama, comedy, action, romance, and excitement no matter what genre. But just because a drama or a thriller has humor in it doesn’t mean it’s a comedy/drama or a comedy/thriller. Genre is about using certain story elements in a certain structure with a certain emphasis. A thriller with some solid comic relief in it is still a thriller. A drama in which a character cracks the occasional joke is still a drama. A comedy with a chase scene in it is still a comedy; it’s not an action movie. It’s vitally important that you choose the specific genre that your story belongs to before you start writing and make sure that it includes the required elements in the required structure or else you stand an excellent chance of going seriously awry.

[Script Extra: Meet the Reader - Trendy Thinking - Should You Follow the Movie Trends?]

Of course, some writers like to identify their script as belonging to multiple genres because they think this will help them cover all the bases (“if I don’t win this contest in the drama category, maybe I can win in the action category” or “if this producer doesn’t want to make a horror movie, maybe he’ll buy this as a comedy instead”), but it doesn’t work. All a contest reader or a potential buyer is going to think is that if you identify your script as belonging to multiple genres you seem to have trouble making up your mind. And if you can’t make up your mind, they’re sure not going to make it up for you. They’re just going to toss it in the reject pile and move on.

4. Who is the protagonist of your story?

In a dramatic narrative, the protagonist is the story’s main character. Early on in the story, the protagonist develops an important goal and then sets out to pursue it. In the course of that pursuit, the protagonist encounters an escalating series of obstacles (including opposition from a formidable antagonist) that he/she/they must overcome. The actions the protagonist takes to pursue the goal and to overcome the obstacles become the engine that advances the narrative. In the course of the story, the protagonist undergoes a transformational arc – a significant and permanent change (a crook goes straight; a coward becomes a hero; a loner falls in love; etc.) that comes about as the result of his/her/their experiences in the story. In the end, the protagonist either accomplishes his/her/their goal or doesn't (if the story is a tragedy). The narrative essentially tells the protagonist’s story and the protagonist’s story is essentially the narrative.

quick-guide

Therefore, a properly conceived and constructed dramatic narrative can only have one protagonist. Some writers pen what they call dual or multiple-protagonist stories. There is no such thing.

“But what about romcoms or buddy movies?” some will ask. “Don’t they have multiple protagonists?”

No. Romcoms and buddy movies can be structured in several ways. In most cases, one member of the buddy/romantic dyad is the protagonist and the other person is the (structural) antagonist. In many buddy movies, one of the buddies is the narrative’s protagonist and the other is simply a sidekick. In some romance and buddy movies, the relationship itself is the protagonist and the story is structured accordingly. There are some movies that tell a bunch of different stories in the same film (American Graffiti, Love, Actually, Valentine’s Day, and so on). These are sometimes called multiple-plot or multiple-storyline films. These scripts do not have multiple protagonists – instead, each plotline has its own, single main character.

5. What is the ending?

The single most important part of a dramatic narrative is the ending. The ending is where the story resolves. It’s where all of the story’s major plot strands come together, where all surprises are sprung, where all mysteries are solved, and where all plot twists pay off. It’s where the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is resolved. It’s where the protagonist either achieves her/his/their goal or doesn’t. It’s where the story makes its thematic point.

A proper dramatic narrative should be constructed so that all of the elements in the script’s first and second act will lead inevitably to its third so that the ending of the piece will work out properly and have the desired impact. This cannot be done if you don’t know what the ending you are working toward is. Therefore you have to decide where you’re going before you start out on the trip. Of course, you don’t have to know every single detail of how you’re going to get to that ending at the outset, but you do have to know if you’re headed for New York rather than Arizona.

[Script Extra: Meet the Reader - "The End" - Importance of the Right Story Ending]

Not every writer will answer all of these questions before they start writing – instead, they will opt to discover the answers as they write. This is fine – everyone has a different process – as long as they do answer them before they embark on their final draft.

When you submit your script to potential buyers and makers, you don’t want them to wonder – you want it to be clear what your story is, who it’s about, and what it’s about. If you provide the answers, then they won’t have any questions.

Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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