Find the kernel: an easy way to start your screenplay


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Overwhelm is a feeling that a lot of newer writers experience.
Sometimes from the size of the learning curve they’re facing…
Sometimes from the length of the writing process…

And sometimes from the scope of their own project – even when the project they want to write is full of vivid details, characters, and scenes they love.

But you don’t have to hold the entire screenplay idea in your head at once. And, in fact, it’s good to start smaller. That’s where the kernel of the story comes in.

The kernel of your story isn’t just a summary, but a tool that can be used to vet your story and as a starting point to flesh it out so that you know the shape and structure are solid.

What is the kernel and how can it help you?

Did you know your story has a kernel at its core? It’s the essence, the crux of the bigger thing you want to create.

  • You get a big picture view of your story and a solid grasp on what it is you’re creating when you identify the kernel. If you can get clear on the kernel early in your development process, it makes all later decisions easier because you know exactly what you’re trying to create.

  • Identifying the kernel can also help you evaluate your script ideas, or different versions of an idea, when you’re deciding what to write next.
  • It’s a tool that’s useful in rewriting, too. Once you have a first draft of your screenplay you can assess what you’ve created by identifying the kernel, and then decide whether any big-picture changes are needed. It can be tough to see the story holistically once you’ve written 100+ pages, 50+ scenes… but identifying the kernel of the story helps bring it into focus.

Crafting the kernel

So what does a kernel look like? It’s what we identify in the clarity statement exercise I’ve mentioned before. Since movies tend to be about one person’s attempt to accomplish one thing, the kernel sums that up. You can also think of it as a basic description of the main conflict.

If you can sum up the essential core of your story, the story engine at its most basic, then you’re all set. That’s the kernel.

For example, I watched The Babysitter recently in preparation for the FYS planning session, and I’d say the kernel of that movie is, “a kid tries to survive a night with his murderous babysitter.”

Other examples:

  • Back to the Future: It’s about a teenager who’s accidentally sent back in time and has to find a way to get back to the future.
  • Erin Brockovich: It’s about a woman who exposes a big company poisoning a small town.
  • Taken: It’s about a guy trying to save his daughter from kidnappers.
  • Short Term 12: It’s about a formerly-abused woman who’s trying to help an abused girl.
  • The Silence of the Lambs: It’s about an FBI trainee working with a psychpath to catch a serial killer.
  • Notting Hill: It’s about an average guy trying to court the world’s biggest movie star.

Putting your kernel to the test

Because the kernel is the essence or core or crux of the story, you can vet the kernel itself and gauge the strength of the story.

A simple test is to ask: Is the kernel “simple but difficult and important”?

Why do those criteria matter?

Simplicity makes it easy for the audience to follow, and difficulty and importance give us reasons to pay attention.

So a story engine that is simple but difficult and important targets two big goals any screenwriter aims to achieve:

  1. Making sure your reader is able to track the story without confusion, and
  2. Making sure there’s some emotional hook to get the reader engaged and invested in the story (and, ideally, keep them engaged and invested all the way to the end).

When we vet the kernel, we’re aiming to make sure it meets those three criteria.

What does “simple” mean?

If a story idea is simple, that means it’s easy to understand the nature of what the character wants to accomplish, what they’re attempting to do.

A simple story generally has a single cause-and-effect pathway, also known as the spine of the story.

If you’re having a hard time encapsulating the action of your screenplay (or prospective screenplay) into one thing, try starting with the 5 different types of goals.

What does “difficult” mean?

It’s sometimes said that stories aren’t about what goes right, but about what goes wrong. Without conflict, there is no story. When the protagonist achieves his or her goal, the story is basically over – so if there’s nothing significant standing in the way then it’ll be a pretty short story.

So we want to make sure there’s conflict baked right into the core, and that means there’s a level of difficulty inherent to what the protagonist is trying to do. Either because there’s strong opposition or because the task itself is so difficult.

What does “important” mean?

Whatever the protagonist wants to achieve must be meaningful – either to him personally, to the larger group or world, or both – otherwise, your audience will wonder why they should pay attention to this story.

This comes down to something at stake for the protagonist; what he stands to gain or lose in this story. What hangs in the balance pending the outcome of the story.

Stakes tell us what’s important to the character, since whatever is at stake is what’s motivating the character to take on the big, audacious thing he’s doing in the story.

Stakes are also a big factor in making the reader or audience care enough about the story to stay with you to the end. It’s tough to stay engaged with a story if we don’t understand why someone is pursuing their goal or if we’re not emotionally invested in their pursuit.

The stakes will raise throughout your story, and new stakes will come into play. But right now, for clarity, think about what’s initially at stake. The primary thing that the protagonist is trying to protect by pursuing the story goal.

Is The Babysitter simple but difficult and important?

It’s simple: A kid trying to survive a night with his murderous babysitter has one main conflict: Cole vs. Babysitter. That’s one spine running through the story and holding it all together.

It’s difficult: Cole is a 12-year-old kid, and a naive one at that. He’s the only kid in his class who still has a babysitter. So he’s an underdog up against a taller, cooler, and more dangerous teenager.

And it’s important: Cole’s safety and survival are at stake. It’s a literal life-and-death situation.

All of this is built right into the concept, and is represented in the kernel of the story.

Growing story from the kernel

Another way to use the kernel of your story is as a starting point for development. From that essential core, you can find the organic 3-act structure for your screenplay. And from there, you can continue to get more and more granular, pulling from what you know to figure out major plot points, and then filling in the action of the plot in the sections of your script.

Here’s a chart I made for the FYS class, as part of our discussion on fleshing out screenplay ideas:

You can see the clarity statement at the top – that encapsulates the story. Below that, the kernel is expanded into its natural beginning, middle, and end – which is how the 3-act structure will play out.

Below that I’ve identified the Dramatic Question (and the way it’s answered) as a starting point for figuring out the major plot points. And from there, we can do the story math to figure out what happens at the other major plot points.

(I should point out that this is meant as a development exercise – a way to take an idea and start to figure out the shape and structure of what you’re going to write. But since this represents the early stages of developing an idea, the descriptions here read as very broad strokes.)

Next steps to write your screenplay

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a project, figuring out what’s the next, small, manageable step you can take can help you find a way forward. If you’re stuck, think about the kernel of your story. Can you identify it? Does it stand up to the “simple but difficult and important” test?

Once you have the kernel, you can use it to gauge whether your story has a strong core that will support your screenplay. And if it does, you can use that kernel as the starting point to organically flesh out the shape and structure — and then you have a solid foundation to support those vivid characters, details, and scenes you love!


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.