by Aaron Mendelsohn
I don’t love the story-breaking process. It’s like putting on sunscreen when all I really want to do is get outside and play with my kids. It’s like doing push-ups before breakfast. I whine about it, I put it off, I dread it every time. And every time, I’m really, really glad I did it.
Being a stickler about my story-breaking is one of the key reasons I’ve managed to sustain a 20+ year successful writing career. My method is simply this: I ask myself a series of eleven story-related questions that prompt ideas about key character and story points. Once I answer the questions to my satisfaction, I start filling in the story until I have a detailed outline.
Many of my questions are intuitive, like “Do I know what my story is about?” and “What is the Call to Action?” “Do I know what my story is about?” is particularly important because the answer ends up being the cornerstone of my screenplay (or pilot or series pitch). If I can’t distill my concept into a simple, clear, one-sentence logline, I may be sitting on a story that’s weak, broken or over-complicated.
Here’s an example of a good logline: “A good-hearted but insecure king who suffers from a debilitating stutter is forced to work with an eccentric speech therapist to deliver the speech that will unify his kingdom.” In that one sentence I summed up the Central Character (the king), his Fatal Flaw (insecurity), the main antagonistic force (his stutter), the Journey (working with a speech therapist), the Climax (the speech) and the stakes (unifying his kingdom).
Other questions are more challenging and require more thought. “Who is my Central Character(s) and what is their Conscious and Unconscious Desire?” is an important one because it prompts me to write a character bio and spell out the dilemma and conflict that will drive the central character’s journey. Story-related questions like “What is the Overarching Conflict?” and “What is the Central Character’s Lowest Point?” are good because they help me stake out the bewildering badlands of the Second Act.
Asking yourself the tough questions – whether they’re my 11 or your magic number – is a great way to stimulate ideas and make sure your story-breaking is on track. You’ll end up with stronger story bones and, ultimately, a better screenplay.
Aaron Mendelsohn is a working screenwriter, a professor of screenwriting at Loyola-Marymount University, a friend of Larry Brody’s and. oh yeah, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Writers Guild of America West. He is best known for Disney’s AIR BUD, which spawned eleven sequels. Current projects include a Warner Bros feature, a Spike TV drama series and a Hallmark movie.
Aaron’s story-breaking method is now available as an ebook: THE 11 FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS: A GUIDE TO A BETTER SCREENPLAY. For a limited time he’s offering a 20% discount to TVWriter™ readers. Go towww.11questionsbook.com for more information.