Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter
Your final image serves as the bullseye for your film. With every scene you write, you can ask yourself, “Am I moving my main character closer to that final image or further away?”
by Jeremy Casper • Los Angeles Film Study Center
If my students were allowed to write down and take with them only one point from my lectures, I would have them write down this simple statement:
A story is… a narrative about a single character who must overcome some sort of conflict in order to solve a very specific problem.
This statement might seem elementary, but if I had a dollar for every script I’ve read that failed to follow this basic tenant of storytelling, I’d be a rich man.
Many times my students think they’ve successfully executed the above statement, but here is where most writers fail. Most writers have a difficult time grasping the concept of “…a very specific problem.” I cannot emphasize how important it is for you as a writer to give your main character a very clearly defined, measurable problem with a cinematic solution. And, by “cinematic,” I mean a solution that is external and visual.
The solution should be revealed through images not through dialogue. This is why sports stories work so well – there is always a tangible finish line or a physical trophy to win. I can show a team winning the national tournament without ever uttering a single line of dialogue. YOUR stories should work the same way. We know Frodo accomplished his goal at the end of The Return of the King, because the solution to the problem was so clearly defined – the story isn’t over until the One Ring of Power is cast into the fiery pits of Mount Doom – can you get any more cinematic than that?
Where most writers fail is by making the central problem of their story too internal. Let’s look at a specific example. The following statement is a poor example of a central story problem:
A man wants to find true love.
There are a thousand stories I could write about a man wanting to find true love. In fact, there are so many possibilities that I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start, so I walk away from my laptop and claim I have “writer’s block.”
The above problem is a great “internal” problem for a story, but it’s not strong enough to drive the narrative. By externalizing the above problem and making it cinematic, I narrow my options and suddenly the writing process doesn’t seem so daunting. So, instead of trying to operate from a vague premise with endless possibilities, let’s tell a story about a man waiting to find true love but make our central story problem more specific and measurable:
A man must propose to a girl before his 30th birthday…
which is only two weeks away!
I don’t even fully know my story yet, but I already know what my final image is going to be…
Jeremy Casper is a writer/director/producer and recently completed Vacant House, winner of the Silver Screen Award at the Nevada Film Festival. He teaches cinematography and narrative storytelling at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (which he also attended 1996). Jeremy has worked professionally in the film industry at Warner Brothers and did his internship at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment during the production of Titanic. As a film professor, he has helped develop over 600 short films and is currently co-writing “The Inside Out Story” with filmmaker John K. Bucher, Jr. He also leads filmmaking seminars all over the world, most recently in Egypt, Ukraine, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy. He has several projects currently in development, including his next feature film, which he also plans to direct.