Exercise: If you’re stuck on a plot, write from character POV

Goldman once wrote that screenwriting is structure. A lot of people take that to mean that screenwriting is plot, which is it isn’t.

Screenwriting is about story, and story is about the immediate moments. Take James Bond. All the classic plots are pretty much the same (action scene, M tells Bond to kill a guy, sexy girl shows up, Bond kills guy), but we remember the moments – cars turning into submarines, Jaws biting through a gondola cable, the cool action.

Story exists in sequences, moments of immediacy. If you look up your favorite moments on youtube, you’ll rarely see a summation of the plot, you’ll often see a excerpt showing a cool sequence. That’s the money part of screenwriting.

Plot is abstract and thinky. If you read through my old posts, you’ll see how uncharismatic and boring thinky shit can be. If screenwriting is structure, the structure and plot exist to showcase the cool moments or sequences in a way that makes sense.

I work with a lot of thinky writers who are all about the 10,000 foot view. Elaborate plots with a lot of twists, thinky concepts, highbrow references, characters that are about their arcs more than they are about being interesting. It’s a common trap to fall into. Fortunately there’s an easy fix. Write from the character’s point of view.

Rather than write something like, “In a world where the Nazis won World War Two, a secret program exists where scientists work to use the Hadron Collider to set the timestream right,” try this:

“I am a scientist. I have grown up in an evil fascist realm, and I know something’s not right. I hate the ruler of my country, he killed my father. I am working on a project to change the past… but I’ve started to suspect that one of my colleagues might be a sabateur…”

Writing this way cuts through the thinky stuff and forces you to tie all that happens to the immediacy of the character’s emotions, which shows a more immediate way into the story and keeps things in the moment, not in the abstract.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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