Many filmmakers are hesitant to follow any pre-determined format for their creative work, as they fear it will undermine the creative process.
Personally, I think it does the very opposite.
Following a blueprint allows your creativity to flourish. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel of storytelling (which has remained the same since Aristotle’s Poetics), we can embrace those principles which have proven over time to lead to dynamic and unexpected stories.
The steps I’ve outlined below are designed to help you achieve those goals.
STEP 1: CONCEPT REDUCTION
For many creatives, the biggest challenge early on is that there are too many ideas. It’s easy to get stuck trying to figure out which story to tell, which character to explore, or which genre to work in.
This is why the most critical first step is to simply reduce your ideas. You want to focus on the one single concept that will yield the best results.
There are a few ways to do this –
For starters, focus on what’s important to you. What do you constantly think about every day? What kind of conversations do you have over and over with friends? What gets under your skin? What philosophical questions do you wrestle with?
There are so many great story ideas out there, but for your story to really thrive it has to be unique to you. It has to be the story only you can tell.
By becoming more mindful of your own psychology you can start weeding out story ideas that would be better told by someone else.
Once you’re primed, then you can start exploring concepts…
Re-visit old ideas you’ve written down. Read log lines for every movie that made the Blacklist (an annual list of the best un-produced screenplays). Or for a personal favorite, flip through the pages of a local paper for unusual news stories…
I love keeping tabs on the “bizzare & weird” sections of news outlets like this one.
And when all else fails, turn to Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations:
- Crime pursued by vengeance
- Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
- Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
- Daring enterprise
- The enigma
- Enmity of kin
- Rivalry of kin
- Murderous adultery
- Fatal imprudence
- Involuntary crimes of love
- Slaying of kin unrecognized
- Self-sacrifice for an ideal
- Self-sacrifice for kin
- All sacrificed for passion
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
- Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
- Crimes of love
- Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one
- Obstacles to love
- An enemy loved
- Conflict with a god
- Mistaken jealousy
- Erroneous judgement
- Recovery of a lost one
- Loss of loved ones
By exploring ideas like these AFTER priming yourself to see the type of story you want to tell, a more concrete idea should begin to form.
STEP 2: DETERMINE THE HOOK
Often times we believe we have a great idea for a story, but when we break it down there really is no hook – which is a make or break factor for any film project.
Your hook should be a single variable that differentiates your film from others in the same genre, and sparks intense curiosity when shared.
Think about when you’re telling a friend about a crazy story that happened to you in real life.
The story might start off very ordinarily, but at a certain point you say… “You won’t even believe this part…”
Whatever comes next is the hook.
When plotting out your screenplay, there are two huge benefits to writing with a hook in mind:
- A great hook will make your film much more specific, and will prompt you to explore your theme in a unique way that has never been done before.
- It will help audiences (or anyone you pitch the film to) get excited about the film right away, as the hook provides an easy entry point to the story.
Take as long as you need to find the right hook for your film. Once you find one that clicks and elevates your idea to the next level, you can move ahead.
STEP 3: BEGIN WITH THE RESOLUTION
There’s a saying that goes “anyone can write a great first act”, which I believe is very true.
It’s easy to set up a story, create problems for the characters, and draw the reader into a new world, but how do you pay it all off?
The resolution (the end of the third act) of a film is always the greatest challenge to write, but it becomes so much more more manageable when it’s the first thing written.
Most of us instinctively write in a linear fashion, but many writers swear by taking a non-linear approach… In other words, they start at the end.
Below is a breakdown of how writer Dan Wells likes to plot his stories, compared to the final ordering of the story itself:
- Plot turn 1
- Plot turn 2
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot turn 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Plot turn 2
You don’t have to follow this exact format of course, but it illustrates how working out of order can be super useful.
Also, notice how in Dan’s plotting order, the hook comes in at #2. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t THINK about your hook first (we’ve already gone over that), but when it comes time to actually PLOT your movie, the resolution can still come first.
STEP 4: FLIP THE MIDPOINT
There is a unique relationship between the midpoint of a story and the resolution, which we want to address in this step.
Not always, but commonly, the midpoint will serve as the most polar opposite plot point in the story to the final climax or resolution.
If for instance, the character gets exactly what they set out for in the resolution of the story, the midpoint is likely to be a false victory or false defeat.
It tees up the action to come in the remainder of the 2nd and 3rd acts, while heightening the stakes so that the resolution feels all that more powerful.
Once you have your resolution locked in it’s fairly easy to flip it on its head and ask “what’s the opposite of this?” The answer to that is often the midpoint, or at least a version of it.
In my opinion the midpoint is second only to your resolution in terms of its importance as a fundamental pillar of your plot. That’s why we want to identify it clearly early on, as it will dictate future story decisions to come.
STEP 5: PLOT OUT 15 CHRONOLOGICAL BEATS
Now that you have your hook, your midpoint, and your resolution, you’ve effectively created a beginning, middle and end to your story. Now you just need to fill in the blanks.
There are many ways to do this, but perhaps the easiest entry point is Blake Snyder’s BS2 beat sheet. Below is an abbreviated version, but you can read descriptions of each beat on this blog post.
BS2 Beat Sheet
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two)
The Promise of the Premise
Bad Guys Close In
All is Lost
Dark Night of the Soul
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three)
You should already have at least 3 of these beats covered (namely: Catalyst, Midpoint, Finale), based on the work you’ve done so far. That leaves 12 beats to be filled in, each of which should set up or pay off the story elements already laid out.
I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to take your time here.
Writing isn’t a race, and each of these beats will soon be expanded upon further. So take your time to think of as many options for each beat as you need to, and don’t move on until you can confidently see the story taking shape.
STEP 6: EXPAND TO 40 BEATS
WIth your 15 primary beats now fully realized, you can now build out each additional beat that will be needed as connective tissue for your story.
As I outline in this blog article in more depth, I like to use 40 beats as my target number. It easily divides into the 4 acts of a movie (ACT 1, ACT 2A, ACT 2B, ACT 3), so that each act in your movie has approximately 10 beats.
For a micro-budget feature, these beats may directly translate to scenes. If each beat turns into a scene of roughly 2 – 3 minutes in length, that will result in a 90 minute feature film.
For larger scale productions, these 40 beats may act more like sequence markers, with each of them containing multiple scenes.
Since you’ve already created 15 beats in the last step, you should only have 25 left to create in this step.
Again, I suggest you check out my original blog post here to view the entirety of my 40 beat sheet template. Feel free to copy and paste it as a template for your next project.
Here’s an example of what it looks like for Act 1:
1. (Opening image)
2. (Theme stated)
For each act, you’ve already written several of the beats needed (the ones in parenthesis), so filling in the gaps becomes relatively painless.
STEP 7: EXPAND THE IDEA
Each step up until this point has been focused on reducing your idea to the bare essentials, and hopefully what’s left are the beginnings of a blueprint for your movie.
But now, for the first time we can start expanding our focus, rather than narrowing it.
How can we make it bigger or better or richer or more meaningful?
Just because our idea is sound doesn’t mean there aren’t more ways to up the ante and really maximize its potential.
One of the best ways to expand your idea is to write it in different formats.
So far, all we have is a beat sheet format. But what about a log line? Or a treatment? Or a short synopsis?
Every time you have write your story in another format, it reveals itself in a different way.
Until your story can transcend any format you throw at it, it likely still needs work. So write it out in different lengths, pitch it to friends verbally over the phone, break it down on storyboards – whatever you want to do to challenge your own idea.
As part of this process, try plugging your story into this formula from Gary Provost:
“Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.”
Reducing your idea into such simple terms can be incredibly eye opening, and will immediately reveal any weak points in your concept.
If you can make it through this step with your concept still in tact, you’re ready to write your screenplay…
And that process will be 10x faster now that you’ve already put in the work.
The article above was originally published on my micro-budget weekly newsletter, where I share exclusive content to inspire and educate filmmakers & creative pros. For more articles like this every Sunday, be sure to sign up for the newsletter here, or use the form below.