Separating "What" and "How" for a Stronger Screenplay


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

There’s something that comes up often in the workshops I teach that is a really useful distinction to make, but which many screenwriters never think about: the difference between what happens in the story and how it happens on the page (or screen).

What is the “what” and the “how”?

We’re talking about what plot events occur, and how they specifically play out. And the point I really hope you’ll take away today is that they’re two separate things, and thinking about them that way will help you write stronger screenplays.

Why “what” and “how” matter in reading screenplays

Understanding the difference between the “what” and the “how” makes it easier to learn from screenplays you read, and also to plan and write your own.

Most writers agree that they should read screenplays as part of their screenwriting education. But one challenge I’ve seen writers encounter is really identifying what’s happening in the screenplays they read. Being able to look beyond the entertaining “how” in order to see the functional “what.”

This can be especially tough when reading professional screenplays because:

  1. They’re so well dramatized, entertaining, and usually not at all on-the-nose (great “how”), and
  2. The scenes multi-task so efficiently that it can be tough to parse out what the main purpose of a given scene is (the “what” it’s there to accomplish).

When reading professional-level screenplays, it’s all too easy to just consume rather than reading analytically. To take everything, all the decisions that writer made, as one lovely, elegant whole.

But when you’re reading and analyzing a screenplay, this is a key step that will help you really understand how that story works. Separate out what the scene is accomplishing in the plot vs. the entertaining way it’s being delivered.

“What” and “how” in your own story development

When you’re breaking your own story, the distinction is equally as helpful to understand.

If you don’t know what you’re aiming to accomplish in every scene, you’ll end up with extraneous scenes that dilute the story. But when you’re clear on what you need to include in order to build the story you want to tell, your screenplay feels tight and focused and reaps all the benefits of that.

And thinking about “what” and “how” separately also means you’re being deliberate about finding the most entertaining, or exciting, or cinematic version. That means not doing the obvious or cliche thing, but thinking creatively about how you can present information, accomplish the purpose of a scene, or otherwise make the point you need to make.

A simple example of “what” and “how”

Let’s start with a simple example from the Crazy Rich Asians screenplay…

(Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan.)

In a scene that starts on page 60, a character named Astrid learns her husband is having an affair. That’s the point of the scene – the what.

But how it plays out makes that plot beat dramatic and entertaining. First the couple has a nice, light moment together. They make a series of thoughtful gestures to each other. Things are seemingly good between them, which builds Astrid (and us) up… before the crash that happens when she sees a sexy message from someone on her husband’s phone.

Again, this is a simple example. But very often the two things – the what and the how – get conflated. And then the purpose gets muddy, and what might be entertaining execution loses its punch because it’s not really making a clear point or adding to the story in a vital way.

A slightly less simple example

Later in the script (page 126), protagonist Rachel meets with her boyfriend’s mom, Eleanor, the antagonist in this story. Rachel and Eleanor play a game of mah jong while Rachel tells Eleanor she’s turned down Nick’s proposal.

If you want to test your skills at parsing “what” and “how”, now’s your chance.

Check out the mah jong scene that starts on page 126 (or the whole screenplay, if you really want the full experience). When you’re done…

What is the story purpose of this scene?

This is Rachel’s victory over Eleanor. They’ve been in conflict throughout the movie, and this is the battle that wins the war. Even though Eleanor has managed to sabotage her relationship with Nick, Rachel isn’t running away with her tail between her legs, and she makes sure that Eleanor knows it.

And what choices did the writer make in crafting this scene to make it dramatic and entertaining?

They’re playing mah jong, the physical game echoing and punctuating the mental game between the women. There’s also a dash of humor because they’re playing with another twosome of ladies who don’t speak English but can read the tension between Rachel and Eleanor. But mostly it’s about letting us feel Rachel’s triumph – by this point in the story, she’s earned it – bittersweet though it might be.

Using both “what” and “how”

A strong screenplay takes into consideration both the “what” and the “how,” so let’s make sure they’re part of the conversation.

When you’re outlining or writing, making sure you’re clear on what each scene needs to accomplish will help you build a tight, efficient story. And finding creative ways for how your scenes can entertain us while information is conveyed or plot movements are achieved will help you avoid cliche or boring scenes, and make your screenplay stand out from the crowd.

Use this exercise both as you’re learning from reading screenplays and as you’re developing your own, and take time to think about:

  • What is the scene doing? What is the plot purpose it achieves?
  • How does the scene play out to entertain the audience and create an emotional impact?


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.