“The King dies and then the Queen dies is story. The King dies and then the Queen dies from grief is plot.” – E.M. Forster
You have your characters; you know your story has legs. There is one school of thought that says just start writing and let it flow, unencumbered by rules. The trouble with this is that you can get to page 75 of a feature script and grind to a halt.
I’ve done this. It’s a painful process.
Rewriting is never easy but if you have plotted your storyline before you start to write, it can make it a less painful one.
If structure is the blueprint of how you intend people to react to your film, plot is how you design the ride.
So where to begin?
Find the key moments of your story.
These are the ‘beats,’ scenes or events that absolutely have to happen and now is the time to be open to possibilities, to brainstorm when, where and how these key story moments happen.
Let’s say you know that your central character’s mother will die because you want this to make her to question herself and her journey. How her mother dies, how and when your central character finds out, what happens leading up to it, the emotional impact you want the discovery to have on your central character and your readers, whether it’s a surprise or the reader knows before your central character…
All of these choices can change where you place her mother’s death in the timeline, when it is discovered and how much impact it has on your central storyline and character – but also on your subplots if you have any.
Placement, plot and impact
Since plot puts pressure on your central character to act and works through the principles of suspense and surprise, all the way through your screenplay, you pique our curiosity and subvert our expectations. You present or withhold information. You plant information that we won’t even realise the value of until further down the line.
- You write a scene in which Jane says she hasn’t seen Meg for months. As soon as she hangs up, Meg walks out from the room behind her in a bath towel.
- Your central character identifies a dead woman as her mother. Later we discover this woman wasn’t her mother at all.
In effect, you speed the ride up, slow it down or have it explode under us.
Open the story up
Let’s be creative. Wouldn’t you prefer to imagine all the fairground rides you could design before you sat down and worked out the mechanical logistics or whether they would be feasible in reality?
Let’s say your central character’s friend (Alice) slips an envelope into her pocket. We later discover it’s payment for information she gave to the antagonist about your central character.
Her reasons may be:
- She believes she is doing this in the central character’s best interest
- She hates the central character (why?) but has concealed it for monetary gain
- She’s a spy, purely doing her job – but maybe she has started to care and might be (or become) a double agent
- She’s being blackmailed or has history with the antagonist
When you’re plotting your story, you decide how much of her motivation the reader will know. This will have an effect on how the revelation of her betrayal plays for us. You also decide when we find out about the payment, whether we know before your central character, whether and when we discover Alice’s motivation.
Every decision opens up options for your story
Considering all the possibilities can be a little unsettling because, as you can see with the example above, every decision you explore could lead you and your story in a different direction. As a writer, it’s your job to choose the most interesting and useful option for your story, not necessarily the easiest.
For example, what will your central character do when she discovers Alice’s betrayal? What has Alice already revealed to the antagonist that will work against the central character achieving her goal? Is it possible that Alice could be playing both sides off against each other or that the central character will be able to play Alice off against the antagonist?
In Part 2, we’ll move on to the structural nuts & bolts of what you need to plot out your script.
(c) Lindsay J Sedgwick
Lindsay is an award-winning screenwriter who published Ireland’s first comprehensive guide to screenwriting, Write That Script in 2018. She is the creator of the ground-breaking series series Punky, which has been recognized as the first mainstream animation series in the world in which the central character has special needs (Down’s syndrome). Two series later, it is available in over 100 countries with circa 5 million hits on YouTube.
Crossing genre, searching out the best stories to tell, Lindsay has worked in live action and animation, written for kids and adult, film and TV, games and apps and had 14 plays staged in Ireland and the UK. As well as delivering masterclasses and courses throughout Ireland for two decades, she has worked with a wide range of production companies in Ireland and the UK as screenwriter, creator and creative consultant and is currently developing a children’s series.
Order your copy of Write That Script here.