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.

Exercise: When you’re stuck on your story, try telling it in a different setting.

I’m a big fan of exercises , they drill fundamentals and unlock creativity when we get stuck. This is one of my favorites, because it spurs creativity, helps bypass plot problems, and establishes what story truly is. Story isn’t setting, story isn’t world building, story isn’t even dialogue. Stories, at there core, can be boiled down to primal, archetypal relationships. Friends. Enemies. Lovers. Mentors. Sidekicks. Parents. The beautiful daughter of your enemy. God walking the earth in peasant clothes.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. It’s been told and retold in a variety of settings, to the point where it’s a cliché. It’s been done in space, in L.A.’s gangland (more than once), in New York’s West Side. The story specifics are so iconic that it can be moved to any other setting.

A good story can fit into any setting. The specifics of the world are of secondary import to the primary forces of character and conflict.

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Take AVATAR, which is famously analogous to Pochantas. You can change the specifics and the story remains the same:

If AVATAR is about a crippled soldier who uses his dead brother’s Avatar to infiltrate an alien culture, only to go native, you can put that in other worlds:

SAME STORY, OLD WEST: Jake Sully is a greenhorn from back East who comes to the frontier. His late brother had respect from the local Lakota tribes, so he’s able to use his brother’s reputation to join them, only to go native…

SAME STORY, FAIRY TALE: Simple Jake’s brother left home, only to die. Don’t worry, said Simple Jake, I will take my brother’s old magic boots. The boots carried Simple Jake into the clouds, where he met the elves of the sky. There, he went native and…

SAME STORY, PIRATE: Jake O’Sully is a merchant mariner who inherits his late brother’s dread pirate ship. He uses that ship to infiltrate the pirate king’s fleet, only to go native…

In these various examples, love interest Neyteri goes from a noble alien huntress to a proud Lakota Squaw, or the Giant King’s amazonian daughter, or a rare female buccanneer. Villain Miles Quartrich becomes a racist Federal Marshall, the closeminded burgomeister of a town, or a merciless Admiral of her majesty’s navy.

If you’re stuck on a story, consider writing a one page plot precis and then change the setting. Your story isn’t about worldbuilding or specific details, it’s about archetypal relationships, the primitive, primal stuff. The stuff you could pitch to a caveman . By solving the story in the one page version using, say, old western specifics, you can then go back into whatever setting you’re actually working in, and use the old west specifics to fix your actual plot.

Note: Reddit user jc2535 had a great comment on this a few months ago, and it’s worth a read.