There are a lot of different answers to this question, and I plan to explore some other ways of tackling this issue in later blog posts.

Here’s a couple of initial forays into this dense thicket.

1. A story is a linked series of questions and their answers. When all questions are answered, the story is over.

2. A story is a device for establishing a hero and then making them suffer.

The first answer tells you the structure of a story. The second answer tells you about the content of a story. Between them, they give you the point of the story. If either of these two elements is missing or underdeveloped, then the story will feel pointles.

Most screenwriting manuals (and many screenwriters) talk in terms of “acts”. These are fairly arbitrary divisions, a bit like chapters in a book. They describe separate portions of the story but are rarely flagged up to the audience. So one person’s six acts might be another person’s long middle act. But you can see in, for example Star Wars, that there’s an introductory bit with the droids escaping, a bit on Tatooine, a bit on the Milennium Falcon, a bit where they rescue Princess Leia and a bit where they attack the Death Star. Each of these could be called an act.

At the beginning of a story, questions are raised. What is Leia’s message? Who is Old Ben? Will Han Solo help Luke and Ben? Can Luke become a Jedi? As some questions are answered, others are raised through the middle of the story. Who will win the lightsaber duel – Vader or Ben? Answer: Vader – but what did Ben’s last words mean? At the end of the story, all questions are answered, and that’s how we know it’s the end. Acts often end when a lot of pressing questions have all been answered. If a lot of questions are answered, and then a lot of new independent questions are raised and then these are answered in turn, and this pattern repeats, then we feel a movie is episodic.

But this is all very dry and brittle. Stories don’t feel dry and brittle, they feel emotional and engaging. Most importantly, we have to have a hero of some kind that we engage with on some level. Heroes don’t have to be likeable – although you do make your life a helluva lot easier if they are – but we have to have some kind of empathy with them or why should we care if they live or die, succeed or fail? And once we know who they are, you have to get them into trouble, you have to make them suffer.

I’m generally rather wary of  statements about stories which include the word “all” or “never”. I often find myself searching for exceptions to the rule. But I’ll stick my neck out and claim the following: all stories involve somebody suffering in some way. Try this. Think of something you wouldn’t want to have happen to you. Whatever you’re thinking of, somebody would pay to see.

Different genres of story mean different kinds of suffering. Suffering in Die Hard means being trapped at the top of an exploding skyscraper. Suffering in the books of Jane Austen means being female, unmarried and over thirty, but it is still suffering.

So, artful screenwriters use the process of raising and answering questions as a framework, within which to establish an interesting hero and make them suffer in exotic ways. When these two elements mesh, we have the exquisite anguish of Jack Lemmon realising that he has facilitated his boss’s affair with the girl that he loves in The Apartment, or the horrible spectacle of Robert de Niro’s explosion of violence at the end of Taxi Driver, or the pure excitement of Indiana Jones’s pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant by horse and by truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some of these are also set pieces which will be the subject of a future blog entry.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect
False Reincorporation