Monthly Archives: February 2013

Asking the Right Story Questions

Question marks

Important Questions:

In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions:

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine Questions whose answers will help you write your story:

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about?

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than that?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story?

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures.

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

How to Write a One Page Proposal

Man proposing to woman

The Proposal:

Agents’, producers’, and publishers’ time is extremely limited. These professionals continuously receive requests to read new work, most of which they eventually reject. The one page proposal is designed to capture their interest in the shortest possible time.

Selling Document

Think of the one page proposal as a selling document designed to hook the reader through the power and originality of your story idea—it doesn’t necessarily have to tell the whole story. The intention of this document is to impress the reader enough to have her request the fuller treatment, or, the first draft of your story. A proposal, therefore, must not be confused with a one page synopsis in that it isn’t designed to summarise the entire story. Rather, a proposal ought to fit on a single side of A4 paper or, on a single screen, and contain a lot of white space—in other words, appear uncluttered and be easy to read.

Most importantly, the one page proposal ought to:

1. Contain a powerful log-line.

2. Propel the reader into imagining the entire project. It should set up the location, period, mood, and genre of the story. The more vivid and engaging the description contained in the proposal, the better the chance that it will hook and ignite the reader’s interest in it.

3. Identify the target audience/ reader

4. Contain the main story question—e.g. Will Neo defeat Agent Smith and thus save humanity from a life of slumbering delusion—The Matrix. In the case of a movie or television script proposal: Reveal if any production elements are already attached, such as actors, director, producer, or, are interested in the project.

Summary

The one page proposal is intended to create interest in your project without taking up too much time. A successful proposal results in the agent, publisher, or producer asking for the treatment or first draft of your story.

How to Write a Log-Line

Logs arranged in a square

Log-lines

In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham defines a log-line as a “short, pithy slogan you see on a film poster that captures, at an emotional level, what it’s about, or the kind of short description billings used in weekly TV guides.” The purpose of a log-line is to attract an audience by creating the right expectation in agents, producers, and the audience. Although usually written last, as part of the marketing strategy, your coming up with a log-line prior to starting your story will help you to focus on the main through-line of your tale. Although log-lines, also known as strap-lines, primarily refer to film projects, their functionality can be applied to stories of any format, such as the paperback or kindle novel.

Two Key Elements

Log-lines consist of two key elements: a repeating formal sentence structure and an element of contrast. The following examples, taken from successful movies, demonstrate the effective use of these elements:

‘Honour made him a man.
Courage made him a hero.
History made him a legend.’ Rob Roy

‘Imagine if you had three wishes, three hopes,
three dreams,,,and they all came true.’ Aladdin

‘Someone said “Get a life” – so they did.’ Thelma And Louise

‘This is Benjamin…He’s a little worried about his future.’ The Graduate

‘A story of Love Laughter and the Pursuit of Matrimony.’ Muriel’s Wedding

‘Don’t breathe. Don’t look back. The Dark Side of Nature.’ Twister

‘Everything is Suspect. Everyone for Sale. Nothing is what it seems.’ L.A. Confidential

Summary

Log-lines contain two key features—formal repetition and contrast. Log-lines are used for marketing purposes but they are also useful, if conceived early, as indicators of your story’s through-line.

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Simplifying the Story Question

Question Mark

The Story Question

During one of my lectures on storytelling in Sydney, Australia, I remember one student asking me if there was one single piece of information, one pithy piece of advice, I could offer novice writers, which might help them to kickstart their story?

This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?

This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).

Exploring Character

Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.

Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey

The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?

We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.

Summary

At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.