The Building Blocks of Story: Organize Your Ideas into an Effective Structure

Imagine that there was one foolproof way to come up with a story.

Well, keep dreaming. It’s all well and good to think up incredible ideas. In the end, though, a screenwriter has to turn them into something.

Workable story ideas can, though, be developed into a solid, industry-ready script—a combination of creative impulses, and the harnessing of those impulses into a structure. The following action structure sheet will give you an overview of the building blocks of story: the major actions and events, and most importantly, the “human value”—what it is that your main character discovers at the end that changes his or her life, or at least offers a recognition of the need for change.

Good Ideas You’ll Need Before You Write

The first thing to do is to think about how your story affects your main character (not the audience, not your agent, not yourself!). Avoid genre questions, like “What would make a good horror movie?” Rather, ask what kind of conflict you can put your main character into. Then come up with a workable story. Starting with the basics creates a stronger, clearer story.

The main thing to remember is your story idea must be active. That is, it must be about theactions your main character takes. It’s what your character does, one action after the other, that defines your story.

Ideas can come in so many different forms: a particular scene you imagine your character being a part of, an emotional impulse—a vision of a moment in your movie that causes you some excitement—or a more intellectual concept of a story idea, such as “You might think you can take on the forces of corruption, but those forces will win in the end.” (Sound familiar? It’s the core idea behind the classic Chinatown. It’s also the core idea in All the President’s Men.)

Whatever way your story idea comes to you, you now have the germ of it—the molecule that you can use to create a solid and workable story.

1. The Main Character

If you believe that you can create a story built around something other than a human being, screenwriting may not be for you. All good stories are built around a human being and his or her conflicts. This includes Finding Nemo, Bambi and Wall-E—stories that dress up their human conflict in some sort of “other” being, but are essentially about a person.

As you imagine this main character, you will need to decide on his or her:

2. Character Deficit

This is often called the “fatal flaw,” a vitally important human trait that your character is lacking. This is not the thing that your character wants (we’ll get to that)—it’s the thing that you want to give your character. This “deficit” might be an addiction. It might be a false goal: wealth and power are always good (see: The Wolf of Wall Street). How about popularity (Shallow Hal)? Or being in love with a person who will not love you back (Silver Linings Playbook)? In Casablanca Rick Blaine thinks he can hide from his own ideals—but he can’t bury his own heart, no matter how far he runs. As the writer, you will bring your main character face-to-face with this deep-seated problem, which will eventually lead to an all-important change at the end of your story…

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