In my current class at New York University where I am teaching seventeen talented students to write a screenplay in 10 weeks using my book of the same name, I used three exercises to get this huge group structuring their story idea quickly and efficiently. Using these techniques, the entire class was able to clarify their idea and begin to create an outline.
I thought it might be helpful for me to share them with all of you so here goes:
Exercise #1 What Does Your Hero or Heroine Regret?
Step 1: Set a timer For 15 minutes.
Step 2: Writing as if you were your main character, tell a story about doing something “you” regret. For example, if your main character were Michael Corleone in the film, The Godfather, you might write about how you regretted having to break up with Kay so that he could help the family after Vito Corleone was shot.
Step 3: Put the exercise away for an hour and then reread.
Exploring the feelings of your character in this way will help you define the challenges your character must face, especially in Act II, part 2. For example, Michael regrets a romantic decision, and so in Act II, part 2 of the film, Michael hides out in Sicily and falls in love. He has lost Kay, and now there’s a second loss in love when his father’s enemies kill his new wife Apollonia. It’s this event that changes him into a villain who can stage a massacre while attending a christening.
Exercise #2: Create A Logline For The Story You Have Not Yet Written
One of the challenges of being a writing coach and a teacher are that you work on material that was written before being structured correctly. My approach is to begin by looking at a story from the viewpoint of the audience who will eventually see it, and the bridge between a writer’s idea and the audience’s reaction is to force the idea into being expressed as a logline. This highly restrictive discipline reveals the structural weaknesses of a story early enough so that the first draft can be very close to the final one.
Here’s the format to use for your idea using the film, The Godfather, as an example:
When Michael’s father is shot, he is forced to commit murder to save his father, and give up his dream of independence to save his family.
Step 1: Set a timer For 10 minutes.
Step 2: Using the same structure as the example, write out your story. For example, “When my main character is______________, he or she is forced_________, and give _______________________, in order to ________________________________.”
Step 3: Assess. If your story idea can be squeezed into this form, you know it’s basically working. If it doesn’t you will have to revisit the idea.
Exercise #3: Find A Model
Watch how an infant studies his or her mother constantly. We learn the same way. My experience is that while the structure of storytelling is innate, it’s not easy to access. Watching a film several times is a quick way to galvanize your natural gift.
Step 1: Find a film that is similar to the one you plan to write.
Step 2: Watch it.
Step 3: Watch it again and make an outline.
For example, one of my students is working on a same sex love story in an exotic culture. His main challenge was to contrast the two characters approach to love. After a discussion, it became clear that it would be helpful for him to watch the film, Brokeback Mountain, in order to study how the characters' reactions differed. This sounds so simple, but there is much to be learned by studying a film rather than the screenplay.
I hope these exercises will help you look at the structure of your current or new story and improve it with ease.
Good luck and happy writing!