Developing Your Screenplay Idea? Here’s My Favorite Tool


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When you’re working through a new idea, you end up with a lot of stuff.

As you go through the development process, you figure out which puzzle pieces you need to create the story you want to tell. You make choices that shape the new project and determine what it will be, before you ever sit down to write a page.

But as you collect those puzzle pieces, engine parts, essential elements that are going to go into the screenplay…

Where do you put them?

Do you try to keep them all in your head? Do you keep them all in one notebook or Google Doc? Does it work??

Necessity is the mother of invention

Maybe it’s just my brain, but I find that even if I keep one notebook for all of my brainstorming, exploring, and discoveries about one project, this system leaves something to be desired. My notes are scattered throughout the notebook, rather than collected in a useful, easy-to-reference spot. And even if I’ve found all of the right elements through my development exercises, I’m not looking at the connections between them in a way that makes it easy to check for alignment. I might have noted them down but I haven’t started to put them together in context so that I can productively write from them.

Filling a notebook with thoughts is great. I find I need that process to explore and clarify my thinking. But I usually get to a point where I think I have a grasp on the story and most of the big moving parts I’m going to need to build the screenplay… but it’s all spread out over 50 different pages and places.

So what I’m sharing with you today is one of my favorite things because its sole purpose is to put all of that stuff in one spot. To give it a home, and let it start to be a story.

Yes, it’s something I made. (It can still be a favorite, right?) And it might seem like a simple or even silly tool but the benefits are many:

  • Putting all of the big, vital ingredients in one place!
  • Showing you where the holes or gaps in thinking might be.
  • Reminding you what the big picture looks like and the parts that make it up. (It can be easy to lose sight of this when you’re writing, so this is an easy way to keep it all in front of you and reference it often.) And it’s one page, which means you can actually see it all at once.

One page story & structure worksheet

(The image above includes numbers to make it easier to reference and explain the various parts. Here’s a blank worksheet for you to print off and use with your projects.)

You can probably figure out much of what goes where on your own — and maybe even come up with your own adaptations that you prefer — but to get you started I’ll walk you through how I use it.

Story & structure worksheet assembly guide

1. The long box at the top is where you write your clarity statement or simple story concept. It acts sort of like a mission statement, plainly describing the story you’re going to deliver.

Below that you’ll see boxes lined up for each act. In the top row:


2. I think of this as the plot row, where you describe the organic three-act structure of the external story or main conflict.

In Act 1 the goal is created.
In Act 2 the goal is pursued.
In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not.

You can fill in these boxes simply by breaking the clarity statement into it’s three component parts. In the middle box I like to state what the main conflict is (as an X vs. Y), so that I make sure to build that conflict specifically when I start outlining.


3. In the row below that, I think of this as the character row. Each section of the screenplay also needs to accomplish it’s function in the character arc or transformation:

Act 1: Show us a protagonist who needs the transformation.
Act 2: Show the experience pressing on that need and causing the protagonist to learn the thematic lesson.
Act 3: The protagonist demonstrates his transformation.

So in these boxes, describe how the three acts of character transformation work in your story.

And then connected to the character boxes are specific elements of the character’s transformation that I want to get clear on and make sure to include as I develop the story further and work on the outline:

4. At the beginning of the story, the character demonstrates a character flaw or misbehavior or other behavior strategy that’s not serving them as well as they think. It’s a survival strategy which is about to end its usefulness to the character. And it’s usually the character’s defining quality in the story.

5. This is the thematic lesson that the whole story builds toward. It’s a realization or shift in thinking that changes the protagonist (hopefully for the better). It’s the takeaway message, or point of the story.

6. And this is how the character behaves once they’ve embraced the thematic lesson and put it into practice. It’s what’s different about them. Proof the experience was transformative and had meaning.

Building the screenplay

7. The CDQ is basically just turning the “someone wants something” of your story into a question. This is the question that’s posed by your story, and what the audience is tracking in Act 2 (& 3).

Having it here in front of you reminds you that this is the open loop in the audience’s mind. It’s what they’re waiting to have answered or satisfied. So the screenplay needs to stay pretty closely focused on what the protagonist is doing to answer the question, the progress and setbacks in relation to it, etc.

You’ll see in the Act 3 area, there’s a space to write down how the CDQ is answered, as well.

8. And finally, a timeline of your screenplay with the major plot points marked in. We’ve talked about these a lot. But one more piece of advice for figuring them out: you don’t have to do them in chronological order! Often it’s easier not to. If you’re looking for a different entry point, try this:

Taking what you already know about the story by now, it’s a short hop to figure out what needs to happen at the Break into Act 2 and the Climax. You can look at the CDQ, the main conflict, and the story goal for clues as to what should happen at the Break into Act 2. And you can think about what success looks like, and how the CDQ is answered in order to figure out what happens at the Climax.

That gives you two big milestones to then work out the rest, aka “doing the math” of the story.

And remember, at this point we’re still in the initial stages of shaping the story. So we’re just thinking in basics and ‘what’ needs to happen, rather than trying to figure out specifically ‘how’ it plays out on screen just yet.

And that’s it! What do you think of the worksheet?

An example to reference: School of Rock

I’ve referenced School of Rock quite a bit lately, and I promise that’ll change pretty soon. I’m almost done talking about it, I swear. But for today, let’s go back to it one more time just so you have an example of what an almost-completed* worksheet might look like:

*You’ll notice I didn’t fill out the major plot points here, but if you’re curious… stay tuned! They’ll be coming your way in audio form shortly.

This is a worksheet you can use to clarify and memorialize your thoughts about a screenplay or movie you’re analyzing, too. Try it and let me know if you find it helpful.


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.