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Have a Character but No Plot? 3 Questions to Fix That so You Can Actually Finish the Screenplay

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Some projects start with concept, others start with theme, others start from character. No matter where you begin, you have to figure all of that out eventually.

This week I’ve worked with two writers who are both starting from character and running into plot issues:

Writer #1 has several characters she’s fallen in love with, and the current draft of her script feels like there’s a lot of story but not enough focus. There are too many plotlines competing for attention.

Writer #2 is in early development on his project and he has an intriguing character and world, but hasn’t landed on a plot yet.

Ultimately these two writers are facing the same question: “What story do I want to tell?”

It sounds so simple. We answer that question with every project we develop. But it’s sometimes hard to answer, and can be particularly so when you’re starting with character instead of concept.

Here are the questions I posed to these writers to help them find the plot:

First, if you’re juggling many characters…

1. Can you choose one to be the protagonist?

Or think of it as whose story do you most want to tell? (At least choose one to start with. Later, if you don’t like the way the project is shaping up, you can switch. It’s all part of the process.)

For Writer #1, this was the most important question to answer. Once she decided whose story she wanted to tell, it became clear how to bring that plotline to the foreground and use it to structure the script.

Next, and with that character in mind…

2. Can you get in touch with an arc of transformation that interests you?

I say “that interests you” as a reminder. Often writers want to find the “right” answer to whatever story choice they’re facing. When actually, most of the choices you face come down to what draws your interest, what rings true to you, what story you want to tell.

Writer #2 had done some free-writing on his idea, which is always a good place to look for clues that can be jumping-off points. A character description like this, for example: “She sees herself as an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong.

If we know this about her, we can think of possible character arcs. Such as…

  • That description could be the character’s starting point. Then she could change from “outsider loner” into someone who does belong, someone who has a place amongst a group of friends or people united in some other way.
  • Or, maybe that character’s view of herself as someone who doesn’t belong means she starts the story desperate to fit in and constantly seeking approval. And then maybe she becomes a person who accepts herself and who doesn’t need anyone’s approval.

These are just two options. Take some time to brainstorm all the potential arcs you can think of based on what you know about your character. Choose one that sparks your interest and feels right, and then move forward.

Let’s say Writer #2 decides the character’s arc is, “from desperate people-pleaser to confident, independent woman.

Then you can think about…

3. What external events could cause that change?

As I mentioned, Writer #2 has another component of this story, a sort of niche community he’s interested in. He likes the idea of the character entering the world of this niche community somehow.

Knowing that, we can begin to think about how entering the niche community could cause that transformation he’s decided to explore. (That’s the character arc chosen above.)

And we could come up with some options:

  • Maybe the character does everything to try to fit in with the new group but they just keep demanding more and more, and over time she realizes how much she’s hurting herself and/or her family and she finds the strength to walk away.
  • Maybe she becomes a target of this niche community, who are all violent types (this detail is in Writer #2’s free-writing). And the protagonist has to fight them off, through which she learns she’s undeniably strong and can clearly take care of herself all by herself, so she doesn’t need anyone’s approval.
  • Maybe she’s a desperate people-pleaser in her regular life, but when she discovers this niche community, she gets an opportunity to turn the tables and demand other people please her. And maybe she loses herself more and more until finally she realizes she’s lost everything that truly mattered in order to be a part of this group. Finally she’ll have to stand up for herself, create boundaries, and extricate herself from these unhealthy relationships.

The three examples above are all different stories. The shape, the structure, the big thematic idea at the center. There may be some overlap in events or characters or moments, but they’re each a unique story that would be plotted out a different way.

If you can’t tell where these ideas are coming from, I’m simply thinking of ways that the events of the plot could force or create the transformation we decided on for the protagonist. Just the broad strokes that tell us what the story is. That’s all I’m doing at this step.

Once you generate a bunch of possible stories, you can look for that spark of inspiration or recognition again. Let your attention be drawn to what interests or inspires you. You want to identify which story you want to tell with this script. That’s the big question to guide your choices.

So brainstorm all the options you can think of and then choose just one, at least for now. Whatever it is, whatever version you like and that feels right to you, that gives you the big arc of your story.

From there, you can figure out the specifics of that story. You’ll plot out the specific sequence of external events and experiences that create the desired emotional journey and transformation. All from the character you started with.


Want some help getting through the process? Let’s get your story in shape before you write the first (or next) draft.
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ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

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