In Part 1 of this article, I wrote: ‘. . . it’s not enough to simply keep firing obstacles into the path of your central character. You have to create tension by ensuring that the stakes keep rising, that no matter what action she takes, she faces increasing jeopardy and that each obstacle costs her more to overcome.’
What do we mean by stakes?
Stakes are anything that is important to your central character, the price she risks paying by continuing to pursue her goal. Initially, it may be losing access to information, losing her car, her income or her reputation. Later on it may be losing her lover, her family, her identity, her sanity, her life, the lives of those she loves or the destruction of her community.
As readers, we become invested in and concerned for her as she struggles to overcome more and more difficult obstacles. We want her to succeed, against the odds. When she succeeds or fails, you have answered the dramatic question you set-up at the start and the film is all but done.
Without this conflict, we won’t get emotionally engaged; the story will go flat or drift.
Now let’s move on to the essence of the story you want to write.
Going in deep: your special angle
Themes are large and intellectual. Ideally, your story has a theme that is universal and to which we can all relate. You must believe in it too so it can be useful to find out where your interest in this theme stems from. Then you can tap into the raw emotion that is driving you to write this story.
Let’s say your story is about injustice. We all understand injustice at an intellectual level, but what will make your story stand out is what lies beneath.
Let’s start with what specific injustice you’re exploring. Maybe it’s about your central character:
- spending half your life in jail for something you didn’t do.
- being the sibling who isn’t favoured by her parents.
- being passed over, time and again, for promotion.
Now let’s move closer to the core, nearer to something to which we can all relate on a personal or experiential level: What is your story really about, for your main character?
- Discovering her best friend has lied to her all her life?
- Never being good enough for her parents?
- Being unable to stand up for herself?
Now go one stage deeper: What is it about for you? What’s the core emotion driving your interest in this theme? Could it be:
- The need to know the truth, whatever the cost?
- The fear of being left alone?
- The need to be heard?
- The need to succeed at any cost?
If theme is intellectual – an idea or an issue – what you are looking for now is the emotional, personal, visceral reason you want to write this particular story. It may come from your first awareness of an emotion, of feeling personally connected to this issue or it may come from life experience.
For example, you may be writing a story about a public injustice or a thriller about a prison breakout but, deep down, what is driving you to write this story in this particular way is your experience of loss or fear or helplessness. Whatever emotion you discover driving your story will be one that you have personal and visceral experience of and bringing that to the table will make your story stronger. It means you are writing this story in a way that is unique to you.
Discovering the emotional truth that makes you want to write this story, you allow you to access a rich vein of possible images, characters, situations that nobody else has. You can raid your own imagination and memories. It can also give you a greater drive to finish.
Your readers may never be aware of this emotional truth but it will help you to write your story, to know what scenes to include and what ones don’t fit as well as what flaws and strengths to give characters and where you need the story to go.
It may also help you to choose:
- Between different options and different obstacles.
- When to start the story and when to end.
- Secondary characters and subplots that will help you to explore your theme.
Once you know where your story comes from, you can look for conflict to roll into the path of your central character, you can develop your character’s backstory, decide on your cast, on where the story begins, one the visuals, the relationships, the locations, the world… You will know what motivates your central character to go farther in pursuit of her goal than any other character in your story and that will give your story its moral backbone.
The next challenge is to find a way of communicating your story visually on the page so that it excites others in the same way it excites you but at least now you can start developing your story knowing it has the skeleton of a great screenplay.
(c) L.J. Sedgwick
See Part 1 of this article here.
About Write That Script:
Ever thought you wanted to write a script but weren’t sure where to start? Do you have a story in you that you know would be fantastic on the screen? After working as a screenwriter and teaching screenwriting for over two decades, I have written this book to help you to turn your ideas into screenplays, moving from an examination of what you need in terms of an idea that will work on screen all the way through to first draft. Screenwriting is a tight and demanding medium but it is also one of the most exciting forms in which to write. In Write That Script! I’ve brought together all the theory you need with examples to show you how the theory works – and tons of exercises to stimulate those writing muscles that will see you through to the end. After all, you can’t write your second script until you’ve written your first!
“Lindsay was my first screenwriting teacher way back in 1996 and set me on my way to becoming a professional screenwriter. It is a delight to see all her knowledge, experience and enthusiasm distilled into a book that will add richly to the education of screenwriters everywhere.” – Christian O’Reilly, screenwriter.