Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 3: Plot Emerges From Character

No matter what paradigm or theory you use to craft your screenplay’s plot, the single most important thing you can do is this: Start with your characters.

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A character in the middle of a plot.

As we prepare for the 2019 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge, a five-part series on Screenwriting Back to Basics. Today: Plot emerges from Character.

Check out the observations of these professional screenwriters:

“Almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character.” — Arash Amel

“It’s the characters. That’s what I spend most of my time with. Once I’ve done that, character will speak to plot and story.” — Craig Borten

“Character is destiny. Change, growing from within and forced from without, is the mainspring of character development.” — Rita Mae Brown

“When I write a screenplay, I create an emotional map, where the characters are, where they’re going and where they’ve been.” — Ava DuVernay

“Each writer starts differently, but the only valid way is start with character. Character IS plot. Character IS story.” — Eleanor Perry

“I’ve always liked characters where it’s inevitable… what they end up becoming is what they were meant to be.” — Nicholas Winding Refn

“Plot problems are always character solutions.” — Terry Rossio

“Plot does not drive characters. Characters drive plot. Characters want, fear, need, feel, act, react. This creates plot.” — Chuck Wendig

Much of the chatter in the online screenwriting universe is about screenplay structure as Plot: 3, 4, or 5 acts, 8 sequences, 12 events, 17 plot points, 22 steps, 40 beats. There’s even one suggesting 510 stages!

While I have my particular preference with regard to plot, ultimately what is most important is this: How the writer gets to their story structure.

If they begin the story-crafting process with a plot paradigm where the ‘break into Act Two’ needs to happen on page 25… or the All Is Lost plot point should happen between 85 and 90…

That is the way of a formulaic script.

In my view, where a writer should start the process is here: The Characters.

Begin with characters. End with characters. Find the story in between. That’s my mantra. It just makes sense first and foremost to immerse ourselves in the lives of our characters and follow them into and through the story-crafting process. After all, it is their story. Their personal history and destiny. Their hope and despair. Their life and death. Who best to know their stories than the characters living them?

Moreover, you are much more likely to discover a plot with surprising twists because characters are surprising.

You are much more likely to create authentic moments because characters are authentic.

You are much more likely to craft a compelling narrative because characters are compelling.

And there’s this: If characters have come to life in your imagination, that suggests they want you to tell their story.

Characters are your allies. Reach out to them. Spend time with them. Lean into them.

Let the plot emerge from the characters.

This week, I’ll be posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious. Good to remember and especially for those writers who will be participating in the 2019 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge.

30 Days. Fade In. Fade Out.

To join the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group, go here.

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 1: Writing Scenes

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 2: The Protagonist’s Arc

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