FIRST THINGS FIRST
First, foremost, and always — as you’re dreaming up a story, keep asking yourself these questions:
- When does the conflict start?
- How can I get there faster?
- How many characters are crucial to the conflict?
- What role do supplemental characters play? Why are they there? What do they do?
- Does one thing lead to another in some sort of plausible — though not necessarily predictable — sequence?
- Are things fundamentally different for the main character by the end?
- Is that fundamental difference represented by a tangible thing? (In a surprising number of great stories, it is.)
Also check out these Essential Elements of Fiction — they pretty much apply to all kinds of stories (print, film, etc).
One last first-thing: Aristotle.
Keep in mind his idea of “reversal.” It’s super simple and it informs all of us when we experience stories. Basically all it means is that things change for the main character. If they start out all rosy for the protagonist, we generally expect they won’t finish that way (think: Oedipus, Macbeth, etc). If things start bad, though, they’ll probably get better in the end (think: Cinderella).
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule — but almost. Consciously or not, an audience expects (and wants) this sort of change. In fact, it’s not unusual for stories to make use of several reversals throughout the course of events. So a story can start out hunky-dory for a main character and end that way too — but only if there’s been a reversal of fortune (or three…or four…) somewhere in the middle.
Character + Setting Exercise.
Using a character you’ve sketched out in class, write a story or a shard of story in which you move your character from one setting to another. The trick is this: your character behaves differently in each setting. Try not to be random. Try to be subtle. Think On the Waterfront: there’s Terry on the rooftop, tending to his pigeon coop, and then there’s a very different Terry on the waterfront, especially early in the film.
- Write a line of action that places two characters in a setting.
- Write a line of action where one of your characters does something to establish tension, either between the two characters or between the two characters and their surroundings.
- Write a line of dialogue for the other character that further escalates the tension.
- Write a line of dialogue for the first character, escalating the tension.
- Introduce another character into the scene.
- Write a line of dialogue for the third character.
- Write a line of action where one of the other characters does something to give the story a sense of closure and resolution.
Write a 300-word story with a beginning, middle, and end. You can flesh out your Seven-Sentence Scene/Story or come up with something new. Make sure your main character encounters conflict and goes through some sort of recognizable change by the end. Use whatever tense and POV you want. Don’t worry about writing in screenplay language. Just tell a story. Some possible settings:
- a specialty high school in the American South
- a space ship
- a city apartment
- a theme park
- a road trip
- a barn
You don’t have to pick one of those. They’re just there to spark your imagination.
FULL STORY TREATMENT
The most important thing to remember about setting is this simple equation: Setting = Place + Time. A story set in the Birmingham of 1963 is a very different story from one set here in 2011. Why is that important to remember? Because Setting and Character are inextricably linked. Who ≈ Where + When. And stories are about characters.
- Macro-setting: A meaty paragraph or two describing the overarching time/place of your story. For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you would describe the suburbs of Chicago in the mid-1980s. For To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be a small town in the Black Belt of Alabama in the mid-1930s. Be as detailed as possible. Think about — and convey — how this setting influences the story’s events and characters.
- Micro-setting: Describe at least three important locations within the Macro-setting, explaining why they’re important to the characters and events. Example: Because of Mama — the apartment, the skating rink, the recital hall, the bus. Give a detailed, meaty paragraph or two for each one.
There are several essential elements in good stories, but all roads lead to character. Characters are the essentialest elements of stories.
- Major Character(s): Describe the most important character(s) — in a short film, this might be one character or it could be two or three (probably no more than that) — providing background material and context as necessary. End each individual sketch with a “motivation statement” that expresses the character’s most important desire: “[Character X] wants…”
- Minor Characters: Include a list of minor characters with brief (one or two sentence) descriptions. No need to provide a motivation statement for these folks.
Seven-Sentence Plot Sketch.
Sketch out a preliminary story treatment in seven sentences. You’re just trying to map out the beginning, middle, and end of your story at this point, and it’s not set in stone. Try to focus on what I call The Four C’s: Conflict, Cause-and-Effect, Climax, and Change. Here’s a general sense of how you might approach this task:
- Introduce the main character(s) and the setting.
- Introduce the central conflict (the “inciting incident”).
- Cause-and-effect = Rising Tension.
- Cause-and-effect = Rising Tension.
- Cause-and-effect = Rising Tension.
- What’s the climax?
- Give the story a sense of closure and resolution. How does the main character change?
The Dartmouth (Because of Mama) site is invaluable, and don’t you forget it. The penultimate stage, according to those folks, is something called a Step Outline. It’s ostensibly a big list of all the scenes that will be in your screenplay. You don’t have to spell out every single detail — that’s what the screenplay itself is for. A sentence or two for each scene will suffice. One way to think of it is to have an item in your list for every time the micro-setting shifts.
So here’s an example of what such a list might start out like for the film Children of Heaven:
- Ali watches a shoemaker repair Zahra’s shoes. [Micro-setting: shoe repair shop.]
- Ali walks through the streets of Tehran. [Micro-setting: streets of Tehran.]
- He stops to get fresh bread for dinner that night. [Micro-setting: outdoor hearth/bakery.]
- He then arrives at a small grocery, putting his packages — including the shoes — outside the store, near the garbage. [Micro-setting: exterior grocery store.]
- Ali in the store, selecting potatoes for dinner that night. [Micro-setting: interior grocery store.]
- A man arrives to take the garbage away; he mistakes Ali’s packages for trash and takes them. [Micro-setting: exterior grocery store.]
- The shopkeeper tells Ali his mother needs to come in to pay down some of their debt. [Micro-setting: interior grocery store.]
- Ali leaves the store and when he goes to retrieve his packages, he discovers they’re missing. He looks high and low, knocking over a tray of vegetables in his frantic search. The irate shopkeeper storms out to shoo him off. [Micro-setting: exterior grocery store.]
Note: You don’t have to include the bracketed location material in your list (though you can if you want). I only include it here to give you a sense of what I’m looking for.