A catastrophic world event can provide a historical benchmark and advance the plot of your screenplay.
Asking and answering the question, "Where were you when..." a disaster happened defines us because our answer reveals how we see our relationship to that world event. The same degree of character revelation in response to this question can also be true for our main characters.
The world event you select will also reveal the age and the period that the character is living in. Asking where you were when Lincoln was shot, or where you were when America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima adds context and relevance to your story.
In When Harry Met Sally, Harry’s asked by a friend if the new girl he’s dating isn’t a little young for him. Harry agrees, saying that when he asked his date where she was when Kennedy was shot, she was surprised and asked when Ted Kennedy had been shot. This was a cleverly indirect way of showing their too-great age gap. We don't learn the details of where Harry was when Kennedy was shot, but it’s clear that he considered it a defining moment in his life.
Using the open-ended question, “Where were you when...” can be an amazingly sharp tool when you combine it with The Three Levels of Conflict, a technique I use when teaching writers to plot better by using their characters’ emotional conflicts to generate original events. Plumbing the depths of your character can be a messy business, so an organizing principle is needed to allow the emotional depths of the characters to drive the plot in a methodical way.
The Three Levels of Conflict are:
Level I: The Inner Conflict
This covers the emotional reasons why the character has not already realized his or her dream. For example, Harry has no ability to sustain an emotional connection with a woman, but he doesn't even see it as a problem.
Level 2: The Outer Conflict
This addresses the challenges presented in the plot, so in our example, Harry is trying to avoid getting involved with a new partner by clinging to the belief that men and women can't be friends.
Level 3: The Societal Conflict
This is about the larger implications of the other two levels as they relate to the world as a whole. This level of conflict addresses the accepted belief that everyone should have a partner, and the plot revolves around Harry avoiding this issue by dating many women, including those far too young for him.
This key scene gives us a revealing insight into Harry’s situation. Kennedy being shot doesn't function as a plot event so much as a kind of divining rod to let us see Harry’s Three Levels Of Conflict in action. In another film, In The Line Of Fire, this same tragic event does function as a key part of the plot, although it's part of the backstory, so the five-step exercise can be used in various ways.
How to do the exercise:
Pick a world tragedy.
Cast yourself as an anonymous interviewer.
Ask your character the following questions, and answer them as if you were the character, using the first-person voice.
Question A: Where were you when the event occurred?
Question B: What did you do?
Question C: How did this event change your life?
Repeat the exercise for your villain or obstacle.
Write a short practice scene in which the hero/heroine and villain or obstacle tell each other where they were, and see how the characters interact.
This is a powerful exercise, because having your characters engage in a different way – that is, discussing, not fighting – will naturally improve your plot.