Thursday, 26 March 2009


Okay, so a script needs a good set-up if it's going to stand any chance of becoming a script (see previous post).

But how do you know if you've got a good set-up?

Well, you need three things:

1) A character
2) A desire, objective or goal
3) An obstacle

When I'm leading screenwriting workshops, I'll often break the ice with a couple of games. The first requires everyone to write down, pretty quickly, five simple sentences starting with the words 'What if'. This usually provokes the 'right-brain' to throw up some story ideas. (When I'm in psycho-analytical mode, I also think of this exercise as 'Hopes and Fears', because the 'What ifs' really do offer an insight into the minds of the participants.)

The next game is a bit like the old game of 'Consequences'.

Start the page with the words: 'The story is about'.

Then invent a character. Five words are usually enough to get the idea across.

Then write 'who wants'.

Then think of a goal, a dream or an objective. Again, five words will usually do the trick.

Then write 'but'.

Now you need an obstacle, or several obstacles. No word limit, this time. What sort of thing can prevent somebody from achieving their goal?

Finally, write 'stands in the way'.

So, when you've finished, you should have a sentence which reads:

'The story is about a CHARACTER who wants SOMETHING but SOMETHING OR OTHER stands in the way.'

When there's a group of people, playing this game like 'Consequences', so that each new element is supplied by somebody who doesn't know what was written previously, usually generates some bizarre stories - so you end up with things like:

'The story is about a tall, dark, introspective librarian who wants to combat global warming but self-esteem issues and a giant six-foot rabbit stand in the way.'

The game is just a bit of fun, but the outcome is invariably a set-up. The three vital ingredients are there: there's a CHARACTER, an OBJECTIVE and one or more OBSTACLES.

Rule of thumb: the grander the OBJECTIVE and, even more so, the bigger the OBSTACLES, the better the problem.

This problem is what your protagonist (or 'hero') will spend much of the script trying to solve. The story revolves around the character's struggle to overcome or outmanoeuvre the OBSTACLES in order to achieve the OBJECTIVE.

In the first quarter or so of the script (Act One), the CHARACTER, the OBJECTIVE and the OBSTACLE/S will be clearly established.

In the middle half of the script (Act Two), the CHARACTER will pursue the OBJECTIVE in the face of OBSTACLES.

In the final quarter or so of the script (Act Three), we will discover whether or not the CHARACTER finally deals with the OBSTACLES to achieve the OBJECTIVE.

So - for your set-up, ask yourself:

1) have I got an interesting CHARACTER?
2) does that character have a good, positive OBJECTIVE * ?
3) are there sufficiently daunting OBSTACLES in the way?

(* The OBJECTIVE should always be a positive. Don't come up with something like a character who doesn't want to do his homework - give them something they actively want to do instead. And don't make it a random objective based entirely on luck, like winning the lottery. We want to see the protagonist being pro-active, so whatever the objective is, it should be something that the character can achieve if they really put their mind to it, and not just something that might happen if they cross their fingers.)

If in doubt, write down - without thinking about it too hard - some 'What ifs'. Then look at those what ifs and imagine a character in that situation.

Let's say that you wrote down: 'What if we ran out of water?'

You might then think of someone - a twelve-year old boy, for example - who wants to find a source of clean water.

What's the worst problem he could face? Is he a wheelchair user? Are brigands roaming the land, claiming all the water for themselves? Does he have a rival who will betray him at the first opportunity?

Whatever ideas you might have for scripts, this should always be your starting-point. Do you have a strong main CHARACTER? Does the character have a clear OBJECTIVE? And are there definite OBSTACLES to be overcome?

If you have all three, then you've got your set-up.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

good to have you back, man. These exercises are excellent for improving my writing, thanks.

Angela said...

Thank you for posting this, it's perfect timing for me, as I'm planning my script now for ScriptFrenzy next month! And I must admit I'm not very practiced at script planning, and never really know what I'm doing! I really hate it when I start and then stop part way through as I have no idea how it will end, or where to go next!

Thank you so much, looking forward to your next posts! :)

(Now I'm off to play Consequences, it looks so much fun!)

Angela :)