Basics Matter: The 4 must-have story elements of screenwriting
Too many times, in my work as a development executive, contest judge, and script analyst, I come across scripts with great scenes or visuals or dialogue, that simply miss the 4 basic building blocks of a story.
- A clear protagonist
- The protagonist needs a clear, tangible goal
- That goal must be pursued actively, with urgency, against high conflict.
- The stakes of success or failure in that goal need be high.
We need a clear protagonist. That protagonist needs a clear, tangible goal. That goal must be pursued actively, with urgency, against high conflict. And the stakes of success or failure in that goal need to be high.
This seems obvious, right? But when you start to whittle away at each of those points, it can be easy to lose what makes them matter. Tangible goals seem easy, but a lot of times it can be easier to fall into intangible goals (“fall in love”) vs. tangible ones (“propose to my girlfriend at the top of a mountain”). Tangible really means SPECIFIC. Because intangible goals can be pursued in intangible ways, and that’s the type of “loose” storytelling that tends to be less impactful.
Here’s another example – let’s say you’re writing a conspiracy thriller. Your hero stumbles upon the microfiche, or its modern equivalent. People try to murder them, they go on the run. Great, right?
Not necessarily – here’s the tricky part. “Stay alive” is not really an active goal. It’s REACTIVE. The hero is reacting to outside stimulus. In a situation like that, the antagonist, not the protagonist, drives the story.
Urgency is another point that seems easy, but isn’t necessarily. Here’s a great test for urgency. Flip halfway through your script. Is your hero taking a nap (believe it or not, this happens in more spec scripts than screenwriters would like to admit), having a casual chat, sitting down to dinner, etc.? That’s not urgency. Urgency means there is NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT to the hero than pursuing their goal.
The stakes of success or failure need to be high. This is another instance where it’s easy to lose your way. Let’s say you’ve got a treasure hunter type of story – Bob Smith needs to find the jade obelisk and he’ll be super rich. Those are high stakes, right?
No, they’re not. The test for stakes is what happens if the hero DOES NOT achieve the goal. If Bob Smith never gets the jade obelisk, he can just keep on being Bob Smith. He’ll be alright. On the other hand, if your antagonist has Bob Smith’s brother and will kill him unless Bob Smith gets him the obelisk, now we’ve got real stakes.
Simply put, unless you are writing an avant-garde art film, which you plan to direct yourself, these 4 fundamental story elements must be there. Nail the easy stuff, and the rest will come.