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What’s your screenplay’s simple but powerful story engine?

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In last weekend’s Script Club session, one of the points that came up was just how simple the movie Crawl is, and how that’s actually a good thing.

In the movie, a young woman and her father are trapped in the crawlspace of a Florida house with a killer alligator hunting them and a storm raging outside.

Father and daughter trying to get out alive – that IS the movie. The task is so simple, but so incredibly difficult. It’s also very, very important. And that makes for a great story engine. Why? Simplicity makes it easy for the audience to follow, and difficulty and importance make it easy to engage with.

Why “simple, but difficult and important”?

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 with the story (and, ideally, keep them engaged to the end).

If your screenplay does those two things, it’s already better than most other screenplays the reader will pick up.

Ah! But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds.

Some screenwriters over-complicate things in an effort to make their screenplays more exciting. Others might go easy on their characters, or pile on empty obstacles that don’t connect emotionally, or start strong but run out of escalations to keep us engaged.

Focusing on the clear, powerful story engine will help you avoid these pitfalls.

How to keep the story engine simple (but difficult)

When checking to make sure the engine of the story – whatever is propelling your story forward – is clear and powerful, a good place to start is with a big-picture story drive that’s easy to grasp.

Michael Hauge says that almost all movie goals fall into one of four categories:

To Win, To Stop, To Escape, or To Retrieve. I’d add one more: To Deliver.

A basic description of what a character is trying to achieve in most movies will fall into one of these categories. And in the ones that don’t, there’s a good chance the story is confusing or scattered.

But just because it’s easy to describe what the character is trying to do doesn’t mean it should be easy to achieve. That’s boring and your reader or audience will surely check out.

If it’s easy to follow what the character is trying to do, but we can also see it’s very difficult at every turn, then our interest is more likely to be piqued. We’re more likely to lean in to see what happens next.

Make it mean something

So if a movie (or screenplay) engages you, it probably has strong conflict – but that’s not all. Conflict has to mean something, otherwise it feels gratuitous or empty. That’s where stakes come in. A combination of external and internal stakes makes the conflict meaningful, and that’s what truly engages us.

Like in the screenplay for Crawl, the characters are trying desperately to survive against an alligator who is trying with all his might to kill them. That conflict elicits real, visceral fear because the situation is so seemingly impossible AND we know what’s at stake – their lives.

Conflict is vital, but there is a limit to how long an audience will watch surface conflict before they get bored even with the strongest of that. But if there’s something to engage us more deeply, too, then we’ll stay all day.

Meaningful conflict happens when the audience understands and cares about what the story means to the character. Why it matters, what are the consequences, what’s to be gained, both externally and internally.

The combination of external and internal stakes that’s most effective is different for every story. In Crawl, the external stakes feel bigger and more obvious. The internal stakes are there, but their presence is more subtle. Still, one without the other wouldn’t work as well. Both are key parts of a powerful story engine. And both can be escalated throughout the story to keep the audience invested and engaged.

Simple but powerful story engine examples

Let’s look at a few examples of movies that worked and see if we can identify the simple but powerful story engines. I’ll even categorize them into the basic drives mentioned above.

TO WIN: (500) Days of Summer

  • Simple: Tom spends the movie trying to win Summer’s heart.
  • Difficult: Summer’s feelings are not equally as strong. Ultimately she doesn’t want to be with Tom. That provides conflict.
  • Important: Externally, this goal is important to Tom because he wants to be in a romantic relationship. Tom believes Summer is the one for him, and so without her he can’t possibly be happy. That’s the internal reason it’s important, and gives meaning to the conflict that everyone can relate to.

TO STOP: Silence of the Lambs

  • Simple: As an FBI trainee, Clarice’s job is to stop serial killer Buffalo Bill.
  • Difficult: The killer’s true identity is unknown, and he’s actively evading the FBI.
  • Important: Externally the outcome of this conflict is important because people are dying at his hands. Internally it’s important because Clarice’s peace of mind and belief in herself depend on her saving the victims.

TO ESCAPE: Crawl

  • Simple: The movie is about a daughter, Haley, trying to get her injured dad out of the crawlspace alive.
  • Difficult: There’s an alligator trapped with them who wants to kill them.
  • Important: Externally it’s important because their lives are at stake. Internally it’s important because Haley has some unresolved issues with dad that will never be fixed if either of them dies now.

TO RETRIEVE: Taken

  • Simple: Bryan spends the movie trying to retrieve his daughter from her kidnappers.
  • Difficult: He’s up against a whole network of professional human traffickers, plus others who are helping the criminals stay in business.
  • Important: Externally, his daughter’s safety and freedom are at stake. Internally, Bryan has a lot of guilt over being absent from his daughter’s life, and he doesn’t want to fail her again.

TO DELIVER: Gravity

  • Simple: Ryan spends the movie trying to deliver herself back home after being stranded in space!
  • Difficult: …She’s stranded… in space.
  • Important: Externally, it’s life-and-death stakes. Internally, Ryan’s struggling with grief and whether she has enough will to live.

So a story engine that’s made up of those “simple, but difficult and important” elements can stand you in good stead and ensure there’s enough oomph to drive your story to the end – and keep the audience engaged the whole way.

And simple doesn’t mean bland or cliché! Simplicity in the engine ensures the audience knows what they’re supposed to be tracking, and can track it without getting lost. Simplicity gives you a clear framework. Your execution will make it interesting and innovative.

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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