When we think of our favorite movies, there is invariably an element that is so novel, so surprising, that it ignites our imagination. Think of the character Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. He is not the stereotypical shambling, schizophrenic serial killer but a thoughtful, erudite doctor, a psychiatrist. When paired with the character of Clarice Starling, a young, attractive FBI agent saddled with drawing crucial information from him, their relationship becomes a mesmerizing psychological seduction.
Sometimes, there are elements that we have seen before, yet, they are assembled in such a unique way that the story becomes new. In the opening of American Beauty, the narrator, Lester Burnham, tells us that in less than a year he will be dead. Although we have seen this device with the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, by setting the story in the suburbs and holding a magnifying glass to the mundanity of an all-American family, the story becomes unusual and fresh.
The insights that make our work unique often arrive as happy accidents. Our most compelling screenplay lives fully and completely within our subconscious, and our task is to continually shed our logical, linear idea of the story for its most fully realized version.
The first step in creating a screenplay involves asking “What is my story about?” I’m not talking about plot, but about theme. Your theme is explored through your protagonist’s want. What is driving him through the story? Is it a desire for freedom, connection, security, justice? Notice how EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER IN YOUR STORY wants the same thing. This might seem like a radical notion, but upon deeper investigation you will notice a uniformity of want. This is necessarily so because it is through this shared desire that your theme is explored.
Our characters are functions of our theme, and our theme is explored through a dilemma. The two ingredients to any dilemma are a powerful want and false belief. It is through reframing the false belief that the dilemma gets resolved at the end of the story.
So, what is your story about? What is the word? Don’t feel like you have to answer it, but rather be curious about what it might be. Let’s say it is revenge. Ask yourself, “What is the dilemma of revenge?” The powerful want is obvious, but what is the false belief? Perhaps it is that when I exact revenge I will feel safe again, or the world will make sense. What is the meaning that your protagonist attaches to his goal? This is the false belief. This sets up an impossible goal, i.e., dilemma. As long as he believes that revenge will make him safe, his desire for revenge moves him toward feeling increasingly unsafe.
Notice how frequently you get stuck when you try to figure out your plot. By placing your curiosity squarely on the dilemma besetting your protagonist, your plot will naturally emerge.