Author: Jurgen Wolff

Why Your Screenplay’s Tone Matters

Setting the tone for your screenplay

by Jurgen Wolff, instructor, the Script Coach Series workshops

When you’re pitching your screenplay or series you have to be prepared for the question,  “What’s the tone?”

It can be challenging to answer that question, because there’s exact definition of tone as it relates to movies, and no standard set of tones to refer to.

Tone is the feeling the movie creates—creepy, light-hearted, cynical, darkly mysterious,  the savouring of brutal violence.

One way to get across the tone of the story is to reference the names of directors noted for films with a feel similar to that of your script. Not so useful for this purpose are directors whose work is too diverse. For instance, Ron Howard is a good director, but we don’t associate him with one particular tone.

Directors whose movies have a strong tone

If you say your script has a Coen brothers feel, we know it’s a cynically violent story with flashes of quirky black comedy.

If you reference Christopher Nolan, you’re making the listener think of cerebral, often non-linear stories with a very strong visual element. The tone is intellectual wonder and doubt.

If you cite Wes Anderson, you’re indicating that your script is quirky, probably with surreal elements. The tone is playful amusement at life’s follies.

The films of Quentin Tarantino revel in over-the-top violence, action, lots of dialogue (and maybe a flame-thrower).

Greta Gerwig has not directed as many movies as the others on this list, but her handling of Ladybird and Little Women establishes an emotionally authentic tone, especially for female protagonists.

Alfred Hitchcock was the go-to director for character-based stories of suspense and often-justified paranoia.

Saying your story is reminiscent of the work of David Lynch suggests a tone of dark, quirky mystery.

You can refer to specific films

You can also reference specific movies that have a distinctive tone, as long as you’re pretty sure that the person to whom you’re pitching will be familiar with them.

If you do reference a particular film, be sure that your story is strong enough to stand up to the comparison. For example, if you say that your script is reminiscent of “Sixth Sense,” as well as having a spooky paranormal feel, you’d better have a fantastic twist ending.

When to decide on the tone of your script

Decide on the tone of your picture early on, ideally before you start writing.

Check whether your tone is consistent with your theme. For example, if your theme is that good is rewarded, a Coen brothers type black comedy may not be the best choice of tone. Probably you’d want more of a Forrest Gump feel.

Establish the tone early

The first couple of minutes of a movie tell the audience what to expect. If your script builds slowly to a more extreme tone, consider foreshadowing that in your first or second scene.

“Get Out!” is a good example. It starts with the harrowing pursuit and violent capture of an unidentified man. Then it cuts to the pleasant couple who are the main characters and sets up their the easy-going relationship. It takes a good amount of time before the horror of their situation becomes apparent, but that first scene tips us off that this is the direction in which the film will be going.

Keep the tone in mind as you write the rest of the script

As you’re about to write each scene, take a moment to think about the effect you want it to have on the audience.

For instance, if you want a scene to be both scary and funny, what are the elements that can deliver each of these? How can you orchestrate the scene so that the humour helps build the suspense?

An example is the typical horror movie scene in which the protagonist is scared of something that turns out to be harmless, even amusing, like a mouse or a kitten. Of course this moment of relaxation will soon give way to a moment of true menace when the next sound actually is caused by the monster.

Look for fresh ways to express the tone

The horror scene above has become a cliché because we’ve seen versions of it so often. How to give it a twist? Maybe the noise is caused by a mouse, but instead of relaxing, the protagonist totally freaks out because she’s petrified of mice. She half-destroys the cellar until finally she succeeds in smashing the mouse. Exhausted, she turns—and there’s the monster!

Consider tone when you get ready to do the next draft

When you return to your first draft after putting it aside for a while, check the tone of each scene and also how it develops over the course of the screenplay. A few questions to ask:

  • If the story builds slowly to a more extreme tone, have you foreshadowed that in one of your early scene?

  • Have you connected the tone to the character arc? For instance, if your story is about how a normal person is gradually driven mad, is that reflected in how the tone shifts?

  • For each scene, consider how visuals might strengthen the tone. Yes, ultimately a lot of this will come from the contributions of the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, the wardrobe people, and others, but in the first instance it’s up to you.

The bottom line

The tone of a film is hugely important in creating an experience the audience will remember. By being conscious of it right from the start you will make every stage of the writing and marketing of your screenplay easier.

Jurgen Wolff’s dynamic Script Coach Series returns to London starting on Monday March 7th from 6:30 – 9pm. Take all five weeks or book individual nights:

All five Script Coach Series Here

Week 1 – Monday, March 9: Generate An Endless Flow of Ideas
Week 2 – Monday, March 16: Create Screenplay Characters that Come Alive
Week 3: – Monday, March 23: Go Beyond the Templates to Write a Breakthrough Screenplay
Week 4: – Monday, March 30: Find the Time and the Confidence to Write a Great Screenplay
Week 5:- Monday, April 6: Guerrilla Warfare For The Writer

Filed under: Filmmaking

The Four Elements of a Powerful Log Line

Jurgen Wolff, instructor, The Script Coach workshops

You know that composing a powerful logline (a sentence that conveys the concept of your script) is useful in pitching and it can also be a good way to helping you stay on track as you work out the plot. These four elements can help you compose a strong logline:

  1. Who
  2. Wants what?
  3. But is opposed by whom or what?
  4. And risks what?

The Who is your protagonist, the Wants is their goal, and the opposition consists of the main people or forces that get in the way.  The risk is what’s at stake—what’s the terrible thing that might happen if your protagonist fails?

Note that loglines don’t reveal the ending, they exist in order to make the listener and later the viewer want to find out what happens.

Example 1: Revenge

Who: the teenage son of a murdered man

Wants what: to avenge his father’s killing

But is opposed by: the murderer and the suspicion that his beloved mother is the murderer.

Risks: his determination to get revenge may be destroyed, and his life is in danger at the hands of whoever killed his father. The people who committed the murder and don’t want the son to find out are the external opposition.

More interesting is his internal conflict when he suspects his mother. In many cases, the character arc (the transformation of the protagonist) is driven by both an external and internal conflict. Often, it’s the internal conflict that is the emotional heart of the story.

The basic logline would read, “The teenage son of a murdered man vows to avenge his father’s killing but when he begins to suspect that his mother was the murderer, he doesn’t know whether he will be willing to carry out his vow—and whether she may be trying to kill him, too.”

Adding meat to the bones

This construction gives you the bare bones of the story, but it’s good to add some details to help the listener get a strong sense of the characters and the drama.

“A teen-age son vows to avenge the murder of the father he worshipped—but when he begins to suspect that the murderer is his beloved mother he’s not sure he’ll be able to fulfill his vow—nor whether she may be trying to kill him, too.”

The detail that your protagonist worshipped his father and is close to his mother add Impact to his dilemma.

Don’t add too much

It’s tempting to keep adding details in the log line. For instance, maybe the father was mortally wounded and the son made that vow on his father’s deathbed. And maybe the son has had a breakdown in the past and wonders whether his suspicion of his mother is a sign he’s having another. Those are good story elements, but there’s not enough space in a log line to include them. Just be ready to reveal them if your pitch results in someone wanting to know more.

Let’s see how this works with another example, and this time we’ll include a Ticking Clock.

Example 2: Revelation

Who: an autistic young woman working on a presidential campaign

Wants what: to expose that the candidate secretly takes orders from Russia

But is opposed by: the candidate’s campaign manager, who assigns a hit man to kill her.

And risks: that her condition will make her fail to be effective in stopping the candidate’s election—as well as the risk of being killed.

Do you have a ticking clock? Include it.

If your story has a ticking clock—a deadline for achieving the goal before something bad happens—incorporate it in your log line.

In this case, it’s the date of the election. In a different story it might be a bomb set to go off at a particular time or a meteor due to strike earth on a certain day. In a police procedural it could be the date that the suspect is released and could flee. A ticking clock can work in any genre to add urgency and suspense to your plot.

Improving the wording

The structure I’ve suggested reveals the crucial components of a log line, but doesn’t necessarily result in elegant or powerful wording. Let’s see how we can improve the basic version and incorporate the ticking clock.

“When a young autistic woman working on a presidential campaign discovers that the candidate takes orders from Russia, she must expose him before the election–and before the hit man hired by the campaign manager can kill her.”

Not bad, but trying to fit everything into one sentence often makes the log line as unwieldy as this one. When you pack a single sentence with too much information the listener may be unable to keep up.

Sometimes two are better than one

Sometimes the log line works better if you turn it into two shorter sentences. This may also give you the chance to add a word or phrase that helps get across the feel of the story.

“A young autistic woman working for a presidential campaign discovers that the candidate is secretly taking orders from Russia. Her mission to reveal the truth before the election becomes a matter of life and death when the campaign manager orders a hit man to kill her.”

When doing a verbal pitch, leave about a two or three-second pause after the first line to give the listener time to digest it. Then go on the second sentence.

Practice makes better

Like anything else, with practice you’ll get better at writing log lines. Here are three sets of basic elements. See if you can turn each one into a powerful log line of one or two sentences.

First, a romantic comedy:

Who: a young tech entrepreneur who sells her company for a hundred million dollars

Wants what: to share her good fortune and her life with a soulmate

But is opposed by: the two of her three suitors who are just after her money and her own insecurities around relationships.

And risks: choosing the wrong one and being stuck in a loveless marriage, or not having a relationship at all.

Next, a science fiction story:

Who: an alien infected with a disease deadly to humans

Wants what: to spread the disease on earth to pave the way for an invasion by his masters

But is opposed by: a retired scientist who is on to him, and by his dawning awareness that humans are not any eviler than his own masters

And risks: his life at the hands of both humans and his alien masters.

As is often a case, all these protagonists have both an external and internal struggle. Usually it’s the internal one that gives the audience something to relate to, so include it in your pitch.

Finally, a comedy:

Who: A washed-up private detective

Wants what: to get back into business by solving a the kidnapping of a famous actress

But is opposed by: the police and by the actress who initially agreed to go along with a staged kidnapping

And risks: a long prison sentence if the plot is exposed.

A successful logline can be your first step toward a successful script. In my Script Coach workshops you’ll learn more about loglines and how to use them to write and to sell your screenplay.

https://www.raindance.org/courses/script-coach-series/
Filed under: In Our Opinion, Screenwriting

How To Tell If You’ve Have A Commercial Screenplay Idea

Jurgen Wolff, Script Coach Series instructor

How do you tell if you have a commercial screenplay idea? I’ll admit it right away: you can’t.

Sure, there are some genres that have been a hard sell for a long time, namely Westerns and, more recently, romantic comedies, but a brilliant screenplay in either of these genres would have a good chance of being made, even if it took longer than it might for a brilliant sci-fi or fantasy script.

Example: The Book of Eli

One example of a script that seemed uncommercial, even to its author, Gary Whitta, is The Book of Eli. He told CreativeScreenwriting.com that he didn’t even pitch the idea to his agent and manager because he knew they’d tell him to forget it because it wasn’t commercial.

Here’s the IMDB summary: “A post-Apocalyptic tale in which a lone man fights his way across America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.”

That leaves out the fact that the protagonist is blind, which may have made it seem even less commercial.

Witta went ahead and wrote the script, in under a week and in a kind of creative daze, the kind we all wish for and that’s never repeated itself with him.

Even when they read the script, his agent and manager told him it wasn’t commercial but that they’d send it out anyway. Four months later it was bought and eventually it was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. It grossed about $157 million, and moved Whitta onto the A-list of writers.

The moral of the story

If you are really passionate about an idea, don’t let anybody—-even yourself—talk you out of writing it because it doesn’t seem commercial enough. That may turn out to be the case, but if you don’t get it out there you’ll never know. It’s possible that it will be the script that will do for you what The Book of Eli did for Gary Whitta.

But there’s a catch

The catch, of course, is that the script has to be good. In fact, if it goes against the conventional wisdom of what’s commercial, it has to be REALLY good. Passion is great but it has to be married to craft if the result is to have a chance of success.

In my Script Coach workshops you’ll discover how to achieve that union. We’ll also cover how to overcome writing fears and doubts, how to deal with rejection, and how to get your work into the marketplace.

Filed under: Filmmaking, Filmmaking Career, Screenwriting

Remember You’re Writing A Selling Script

Maybe you’ve heard the saying that a script is just a blueprint. If so, forget it!  The first goal of your script is to be a great reading experience.

Later there will be a production script annotated by the director and others involved in planning the actual production once your script has sold. That’s the blueprint.

There will never be a production script until and unless there was a great selling script–the version read by agents, script editors, producers and others you want have get excited about your work.

With that “blueprint” comment in mind, many screenwriters are afraid to write descriptions of the action and of the characters in a vivid way. Big mistake!

Chekhov’s advice

The great playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov gave this advice to a writer: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The way to make a character or a setting or an action come alive in the imagination of the reader is to provide specific details. Compare these two descriptions:

Howard is a so fat he finds it difficult to walk.

Howard wheezes with the effort of carrying his weight. Every ten steps he has stop and lean against the nearest wall.

Not only is the second description more specific, it brings in another sense–the sound of wheezing. The more you can bring in not only what things look like but also their smell, their feel, their taste, the more real they become to the reader.

Often the best specific to mention is one that is unexpected. For instance, it might be that despite his bulk Howard has dainty feet.

Later the director and the actor playing Howard may decide not to have him stop every ten steps

Different details will have different effects in terms of how the reader perceives the character or the setting. For example, if we want the reader to feel some sympathy for Howard, we might show him enduring the embarrassment of having to buy shoes in the children’s department.

One warning: don’t overdo it. Adjectives are especially dangerous! One usually is enough. “Grimy fingernails” is fine; “Grimy, misshapen, yellowed, gnawed fingernails” is too much.

Adverbs can be even worse–generally it’s better to describe the action rather than characterise it. For instance, instead of “He eats the donut greedily,” you might write, “He stuffs the entire donut into his mouth so fast that jam squirts out of his mouth.”

Checking to make sure that you have been specific in your descriptions is one of the key things to do when you go over your first draft. If you want to see how it’s done, read some of Chekhov’s short stories. They constitute a great master class.

And remember: nobody enjoys reading a blueprint.

Find out about The Script Coach Series with Jurgen Wolff 

Filed under: ScreenwritingTagged with: , , ,

The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II)

There are many ways of constructing a plot. One I find useful is to consider what I call the three C’s:

Conflict

Choice

Consequence

You can use these to develop your main plot and they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle or Act II.

The Big Picture

You can use the three C’s to come up with a log line, which also is the spine of your story. For example:

A young man obsessed with becoming a great drummer finds himself tested to the limit by a brilliant but abusive teacher. (“Whiplash”)

The three C’s don’t always occur in the same order. In this instance, it’s the young man’s choice (to become a great drummer) that leads to the conflict (the harsh demands of the teacher) that leads to the consequence (being tested to the limit).

This order is typical of stories in which the protagonist sets out to achieve some kind of goal. However, there are many stories in which the protagonist initially is reactive rather than active. For instance:

A young girl finds herself trapped in a strange  and threatening alternate reality with three companions. The four journey to see a wizard who can give each of them what they most want–in her case, a way to get home. (“The Wizard of Oz”)

Dorothy doesn’t choose to go to Oz (at least not consciously), and her story begins with conflict when she finds herself there, threatened by the Wicked Witch. Her choice is to join her three odd companions on a search for the wizard who can help them get what they want. The consequence is the adventure they experience, and her realization that there’s no place like home.

The parts of the whole

Throughout a movie, the protagonist continues to make choices, whether voluntarily or because she is forced to, and these choices have consequences which lead to further conflict.

A scene can start with either a conflict or a choice that leads to one.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a thriller in which your protagonist’s identity has been stolen. Fearful that this is leading to her being framed for a murder, she takes action to discover who is responsible.

She finds a clue that the woman impersonating her is going to be at a certain restaurant for dinner. She decides to confront her (the choice). At the restaurant, she challenges the woman (conflict). Unfortunately, the bad guys sent a ringer, and the protagonist is arrested for assault (consequence).

That leads to a new conflict, between her and the system. She has to make a new choice: insist on what seems like a crazy story, and risk being sent to a psychiatric hospital, or play along and accept the blame for something she didn’t do.

Whichever choice she makes will have further consequences that lead to more conflict, until there is some kind of final showdown.

Building the strongest scene and story

In each scene we can ask what choices the protagonist has, and which one leads to the most interesting story development. Obviously, the choice has to be consistent with the character you have created, and the character and his or her choices are influenced by the genre as well as the plot.

In action stories, we tend to give the character very few options; in each new development he finds himself faced with some seemingly impossible task he must perform in order to avoid disaster. Think James Bond.

In more sophisticated stories, there are several viable options and which one the protagonist chooses helps us to understand him better and perhaps consider what we would do in his place. In that version, James Bond might stop to consider whether the outcome of the violent tasks being demanded of him are worth the sacrifice of his humanity. Confronted with a particularly vulnerable beautiful woman, he might opt not to sleep with her just to get the information he needs.

How this helps you with the middle of your story

The middle is where many stories weaken. They cease to grow and we feel like the story has been padded. This happens even though there is all kind of conflict and action.

The reason is that the protagonist has stopped making new choices. The story has set up the basic conflict, and if the escalation of the conflict is just mechanical, the story will stall in terms of its emotional impact.

To see how this works, let’s go back to the woman whose identity has been stolen. In Act II they take all the money in her bank account, then they make it look like she’s been embezzling money at work so she loses her job, then they set up a situation in which she’s arrested for assault.

Those are all escalations, but if they are only the result of the actions of the people who are using her, they will not be as powerful as if they are at least in part the result of new choices she makes. For example, maybe she decides, ‘If I’m going to be convicted for embezzling money whether or not I’ve done it, I might as well do it.” Shortly after she’s been fired, and with her bank account already cleaned out, she takes some of the company’s money in order to be able to fight back against the people setting her up. She’s made a moral choice that feels like an emotional escalation.

Even more dramatically, if she’s going through a divorce and a custody battle, she might decide that in light of what’s happening to her, her child would be safer with her ex-husband; although it tears her up, she drops her quest for custody. (Hmm, do we think the ex-husband might be in on all this?)

In short, the middle of your story will grow in intensity if the escalation operates on several levels, rather than just the degree of physical threat to your protagonist.

Some of the big action movies that lack this try to cover for it with bigger explosions and more impressive effects, but for audiences with an attention span longer than 30 seconds, this ploy can work for only so long.

Whether you use the three C’s right from the start, or to help you strengthen your story once you’ve bashed out a first draft, giving thought to choices, conflicts, and consequences canhelp you write a more powerful screenplay.

Jurgen Wolff’s Script Coach returns to Raindance.

Filed under: ScreenwritingTagged with: , , ,

Don’t Dismiss Your Crazy Ideas

I got an email the other day from an aspiring screenwriter who had an idea for an unusual structure for her screenplay. She asked whether I thought it would be safer to stick to the traditional three-act structure and “maybe just drop in a few more unusual elements.”

Of course it’s hard to give advice on a specific project when you don’t know the story or the details of the alternative structure, but in general I agree with this advice from painter Courtney Jordan about mixed media artwork:

“Mixed media artists can’t be faint of heart. You have to be brave to try mixed media techniques that you’ve never tried before, but I’ve discovered that you won’t get anywhere–and you kind of feel let down–if you don’t push it enough to show you are actually mixing media.”

I think the same is true for screenwriters. If you have an unconventional way to tell your story–and you’re using it because it’s the best way, not just to be different for the sake of it–go for it.

Trying to stick to the rules and be just a little unconventional probably will make your novel or script just as muddy and unconvincing as a mixed media artwork by an artist who lacked the confidence to go all the way.

In the world of screenwriting, scripts that stand out often are not the first ones to be bought, but they capture the attention of those who read them. Those readers know they’re dealing with a writer who has the courage to venture out of the safe territory. Ironically, they may then hire you to write something more conventional, but at least you’ll have your foot in the door.

WANT MORE IDEAS? GET INTO FLOW

A lot has been written in the past few years about the state of “flow,” in which whatever you’re doing seems to come to you effortlessly. I had an experience with this recently, on a ten-hour plane trip to the US. Let’s see whether that experience can help you create your own flow.

THE CONDITIONS FOR FLOW

The conditions seem to be:

  • being away from your usual workspace – in this case, an airplane
  • being in a place with low external stimulus – this was an overnight flight, the cabin was dark, and most people were sleeping. When we got on the plane I thought there might be a LOT of external stimulus, since the middle row opposite was occupied by two dads, a little girl, and two very young babies. The little girl was well-behaved and, amazingly, the infants didn’t cry even once.
  • having few interruptions – there were two meal services, one of which I skipped, the rest of the time the flight attendants were rarely seen.
  • not stopping to re-read or critique the material

That’s not to say that flow happens every time those conditions are met. I’ve made that flight many times, and have been super productive on only one out of five or six.

CAN WE CREATE THE CONDITIONS?

How to create such conditions without getting on an airplane? Some writers do it by going to a hotel for a few days or weeks, not turning on the TV, not hooking up to the wi-fi, and taking at least some of their meals via room service. That’s a fairly drastic approach, though (as well as expensive).

Working in a cafe, ideally without internet access, can be a mini-version of that, although here in the centre of London it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have the distraction of people-watching and the obligation to move on after you’ve had a couple of cups of coffee. Maybe I just need to look harder for an unpopular place.

Getting on a train (obviously not during peak times) for a couple of hours might do it, although given the price of train travel it could be an expensive option.

If you want more ideas to flow, consider creating the conditions above and notice what works best for you.

Find out about The Script Coach Series Jurgen Wolff 

Filed under: Screenwriting

Getting Over Writer’s Block

Don’t stay stuck!

If you get stuck in the middle of writing your screenplay, don’t give up and don’t be tempted by the lure of starting a different story. That one will also have a difficult middle. Instead, use the first two methods below to get into a constructive state of mind, and the third to solve your story problems.

Go back to the basics

Remember what you wanted this project to be, what would make it special for readers and the audience, what you would enjoy about writing it. It’s easy to lose sight of these when you’ve been writing for a while and encountering obstacles. Reconnecting with your initial drive will revive your enthusiasm for the project and give you new energy for solving the problems.

Feed your head

Take a short break and read or re-read works by the writers you admire most. Revive your love for the written word.

Write or rewrite an outline

If you didn’t write an outline because you wanted the freedom to write the story as it occurred to you, now may be the time to re-think that. Spontaneity may have taken you as far as it can, and now it’s time for a bit of left-brain analysis.

Start with the big picture: write one sentence about the beginning, two or three about the middle, and one about the end. Then expand those to a paragraph for the start and end and two to three about the middle. Develop the outline as far as you think will help you the most.

If you did write an outline, it’s possible that writing the story to its middle has revealed some flaws or weaknesses in the structure. Rather than fiddling with the existing outline, follow the same process described in the previous paragraph.

Don’t be bound by what you’ve already written, be led by what works best.

Overcome fear of failure

The thing that stops a lot of writers from finishing writing a book or screenplay is the fear of failure: what if nobody wants it? What if I get horrible feedback? What if I’ve done all that work for nothing?

My tip is: step back.

The scenario in which you imagine getting rejections from publishers or producers is only one part of the larger picture. The more we zoom in on that, the greater our fear. Here are some questions to help you step back and put it into the context of the greater picture:

How many rejections equal failure? One? Ten ? A hundred? Here, from BubbleCow, is a list of half a dozen writers and how often their work was rejected:

  1. Madeline L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, was turned down 29 times before she found a publisher.
  2. S. Lewis received over 800 rejections before he sold a single piece of writing.
  3. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was rejected by 25 publishers.
  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times.
  5. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 40 times.
  6. Louis L’Amour was rejected over 200 times before he sold any of his writing.

Set your number at the start: how many rejections will it take for you to give up on a particular manuscript? If you say 100, for instance, rejection number 20 will not bother you all that much.

What will you learn along the way? Selling your work is not the only positive outcome of writing it. What will you learn about the subject? About yourself? About writing? Stepping back means not focusing only on the sale.

What would you have done with that time if you hadn’t been writing? The fear of wasting time suggests that if you weren’t writing you’d be doing something more worthwhile. Would you? Or would you be watching or TV or surfing the web?

If you find that a fear of failure is threatening to derail your writing, step back!

You can learn more about scriptwriting with Jurgen Wolff at The Script Coach Series.

Filed under: Screenwriting

The Two Words that Help you Come Up With Plot Ideas

The question “What if…?” is a great way to begin to build a story. You take something that’s happened to you, or something in the news, or an existing plot and you advance the story with a “what if..”

Using a news story as a starting point

A while back I spotted an article about a British teacher who bashed a kid with a dumbbell. It’s a pretty dramatic story, according to The Guardian:

“The 50-year-old hit him on the head with a 3kg (6.6lb) dumbbell while shouting: ‘”Die, die, die” at All Saints’ Roman Catholic high school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.”

And you thought your school was tough!

The article continues: “The science teacher, who was well liked by staff and students, snapped when he attempted to wrestle a Bunsen burner stand from the 14-year-old boy, who told him to ‘f*** off”. The court heard that the boy was a leading light in causing trouble, and had earlier been swordfighting with a ruler and playing volleyball with scrunched-up paper.”

The jury took less than two hours to find the teacher innocent of attempted murder, but he’d already spent eight months in prison before the trial.

With that as our starting point, here are some what-ifs:

  • What if the student’s family decides to get their revenge by pushing the mentally fragile teacher over the edge again? That could be a good psychological thriller.
  • What if someone else who is out to get the teacher kills him and makes it look like the student and his family did it? That could turn into a good thriller or mystery.
  • What if the teacher decides to make amends and he and the student become friends and both learn something from the experience? That could be an inspirational story, with or without a religious element.
  • What if the jury finds him guilty and he’s the one who plots revenge–but when he gets out he finds that the student, now an adult with a small child, has changed? (In this version, I’d make it more clearly a case of self-defense but the jury doesn’t believe him and convicts him unfairly. That would make his revenge motivation more sympathetic.)

By the way, often the best source of these kinds of stories are the newspapers and magazines you might not ordinarily read because you find them too sensationalistic and not very good sources of news about important events.

Using existing movies as starting points

You can use existing movie plots and characters as the starting point for some “what if?” brainstorming. For instance:

Green Book: What if a black man is present when a white racist kills another white man? The racist says the black man was the killer and the bigoted small-town jury believes him. Maybe the black man’s estranged son is forced to get involved to try to clear his father of the murder (in that case the son probably would be the protagonist).

A Star is Born: What if we move the story of one person on their way up and one on their way down out of the music world? It could be about two chefs, or two actors (that’s the story of David Mamet’s play, A Life in the Theater), or two people on a reality show. It could be a comedy instead of a drama, and they don’t necessarily have to fall in love. Maybe it’s more about the rivalry, and how far one will go to climb the ladder of fame and the other one not to fall off it.

Aladdin: What if somebody finds a lamp that produces an apparently friendly genie devoted to granting their every wish…but in fact the genie is evil and has to do some dastardly deed in order to be freed from the lamp? (I did a quick search to see if this has been done and found a 2012 TV movie called Aladdin and the Death Lamp. User comments on IMDb range from “worst movie I’ve ever seen,” to “Bad, but I have seen far worse from the Sci-Fi Channel.”)

You can do the same thing with existing novels, fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.

Try it yourself

When you’re brainstorming new ideas, it’s a lot easier to start from something specific than to wait for stories to pop into your head from thin air. Try the “what if” strategy and jot down every idea (don’t judge while you’re brainstorming). Later you can evaluate which ones may be worth pursuing.

In the first week of my Script Coach series you’ll discover a whole range of practical strategies for coming up with compelling plots and characters. You can sign up for just that one session or for the whole series of five evenings.

Filed under: Screenwriting