Peek Inside My Story-Breaking Process


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting, theme

This week I’ve been filming a new screenwriting course with the lovely people at Domestika. In this course I cover story and screenwriting basics, with the final project being a 1-2 page synopsis for your feature screenplay idea. Domestika’s courses are all very hands-on, so as part of teaching the course I’ve developed an example idea from scratch. I show the entire process of building the story and writing a synopsis that captures the concept and conveys a sense of the movie – even though I haven’t yet written the script.

So today I thought it would be fun to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the project I came up with and the process it went through.

Deciding on a story idea

Fully transparency: I didn’t realize I was going to have to write the synopsis on set, in real time – on camera! So I hadn’t decided on a story idea before I arrived.

When – on Day 1 of filming – I realized I needed to be ready to start the writing part of the process after lunch, I quickly combed through my stash of story ideas and chose one to work on.

What were the deciding factors? The one I landed on – working title My Hero – seemed like a fairly high-concept idea (so it would be relatively easy to generate scene ideas to fill out the story and my synopsis), and the scope of it seemed manageable enough to tackle on a quick timeline. (It’s a comedy with few characters, takes place in the present day, subject matter that doesn’t need a lot of research, etc.)

It’s actually an idea that was inspired by a true story, sort of. My partner told me about a bullied kid he used to stick up for on the playground. Then the kid grew up, filled out, went to an Ivy League university, made a career doing some kind of special forces stuff – basically, he became a badass.

The (imperfect) logline

With that character in mind, this is the logline I came up with at lunch:

MY HERO: An overwhelmed single dad’s life is thrown into utter chaos when the bullied kid he used to stick up for shows up as an adult, insisting on repaying the favor.

It’s not perfect (practicing what I preach – always aim for progress, not perfection) but for me it’s a good enough touchstone to the story I want to develop. I know who the protagonist is (overwhelmed single dad), and what the new problem is (old acquaintance shows up and throws his life into chaos). I think it’s implied but probably not totally clear that the friend will be the story’s antagonist (he wants to “help” but is actually causing chaos, dad wants to stop him – opposing goals to create the main conflict).

So that gives me something to work with. In the next draft of the logline (after I’ve had time to think through the story a bit more) I’d probably try to include something more specific about the story goal or what the protagonist is doing in Act 2.

But it’s a start!

[Questions about how I landed on any of these story elements? Just ask!]

Finding the 3-act structure

And with the story starting to take some shape in my mind, the next thing I want to do is break it into a general 3-act structure. Just super high-level broad strokes at this point. Only enough to indicate how the story will play out over these sections:

  • Act 1: Getting the character ready to do the main thing (context)
  • Act 2: The character doing the main thing (conflict and escalation)
  • Act 3: The character accomplishing the main thing or not (resolution)

If it’s a story about a guy trying to stop his friend from taking over his life (and spinning it out of control), then I know:

  • Act 1: The friend must enter the protagonist’s life so the protagonist (I’m calling him Ryan) can begin to want to stop what’s happening, creating the story goal.
  • Act 2: The protagonist and antagonist (I’m calling him Declan) engage in the main conflict (overwhelmed dad tries to stop friend while friend tries to “help” but causes chaos and problems in dad’s life).
  • Act 3: The protagonist must finally somehow stop the antagonist from affecting his life, or otherwise resolve the main conflict.

This may all sound very basic and silly to state so obviously, but when you’re feeling your way into a brand new story, clarity can be your best friend.

Why does the story start now?

So with the big picture and the overall shape in mind, I know I can figure out some of the major plot points. Not in much detail at this point, of course, but I can begin to sort of feel them out. I can see what I know, and put a placeholder down for the others.

While that might not seem to be much progress at the moment, you have to start somewhere. And that placeholder becomes almost like a magnet that starts to collect ideas and details and pretty soon I’ll have each of the big turning points defined more firmly.

In this story I know the thing that shakes up the protagonist’s world, introduces a new problem he must deal with, and kicks the story into motion is… the antagonist showing up in his life. That’s the formerly bullied childhood friend. So I can fill in that first major plot point:

Inciting Incident: Declan shows up (and begins disrupting Ryan’s life)

Beginning the Act 2 Adventure

I know the Break into Act 2 is where Ryan, a single dad who’s struggling to keep everything under control, begins to pursue the story goal, launches the main conflict, or otherwise embarks on the Act 2 Adventure. Basically, it’s where he starts trying to do the thing he’s trying to do in Act 2. So for this story:

Break into Act 2: Ryan begins trying to get rid of Declan and return his life to normal.

You’ll notice I’m not concerned yet with how these plot events play out. I don’t know exactly what the scene is, or what we’re seeing on screen. If I have a specific idea, I can make note of it. But I’m not forcing myself to figure out the cinematic details yet.

Right now I’m putting the parts of the engine together. Later I’ll decide what color the car is.

Midpoint and beyond

Working through the rest of the major plot points, I follow the same loose steps: think about the function of the plot point and then take an educated guess about what should happen in my story in order to fulfill that function.

And remember that you don’t have to figure them out in chronological order.

For example, the Low Point at the end of Act 2 or the Climax may be easier to sketch out in broad terms than the Midpoint. (I usually find that’s true, anyway.) Probably because those plot points have more specific functions.

My protagonist has two kids and I’ve been toying with a subplot idea involving the young teen daughter, Mia (13). So for the Low Point, I think it makes sense for Mia to run away. Ryan’s trying to keep everything under control as a single dad, so his daughter running away and putting herself in danger is his worst case scenario, which will make a good Low Point once I establish all of the proper context.

For the Climax, I know Ryan and Declan must have their final confrontation and resolve the main conflict in some way. What I have in mind is sort of a climactic sequence with two main parts:

  1. Ryan and Declan use Declan’s special ops resources to find and rescue Mia,
  2. And Ryan and Declan have a personal confrontation in which they make amends and reach the end of their respective character arcs.

For Ryan, that’s showing he now understands that he can’t control and protect his kids from everything; he has to loosen the reins a bit. And he helps Declan see that he doesn’t have to prove he’s fearless or awesome by running toward danger all the time. People will like Declan just the way he is without him always trying so hard.

I’m not sure yet in which order these will play out, but I’m pretty sure these are the two big things I need to accomplish in the Climax.

Character arc and theme

It can feel intimidating, but I find it’s very helpful to think about character arc and theme early in the process. Still in broad terms, but if you understand the general emotional arc of the story that can help you make other decisions.

How the story plays out essentially proves the theme. So if you have an idea of what the theme is, that can be your guide for figuring out the plot.

With this story, while I was thinking about major plot points, I also started thinking about how to match the protagonist’s arc to the plot. We want Act 2 to force the change he goes through, to teach him something – specifically, the thematic lesson. So I started thinking, “what could losing control of things teach him?”

  • Well, it could teach him that loosening up isn’t such a bad thing. That he doesn’t have to fear the unknown.
  • Or maybe it could teach him that he doesn’t have to do everything himself – be everyone’s “hero.” That it’s okay to accept help.
  • Or, if I think about Act 2 differently – maybe if the experience is more about re-igniting his spark, or reconnecting with his younger, bolder self – then perhaps what he learns is to stick up for himself, or go after what he wants.

There’s no one “right” answer. I’m just brainstorming the possibilities, and then I’ll think about which one feels like a strong choice or rings true to me. (At some point you just have to decide which story you’re going to write!)

About this point in the process I put everything together on a chart like this one, because I find having it all laid out together helps me double-check the choices I’ve made so far and is also a nice visual reference as I move forward:

Download a PDF version here

Next steps

I’m still in the middle of this project – I’ve written the first draft of the synopsis and now I have to complete the rewrite so the final version can be included with the course materials.

If you have any questions about how I’m navigating this process, send them my way!


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.