How to write a story
Let's back away from the restrictive aspects of writing a screenplay and focus solely on how to write a story. Since the days of Plato, there have been rules on all the elements that a story would need in order to be universally interesting to people.
To put it another way, we want what we know and we like what's familiar. There is an established structure to any good story that the human brain gravitates towards. We can't help it. This is what we have to have. Have you ever wondered why certain films like Star Wars or, more recently, Avatar have become such a huge part of popular culture? It's because they follow a mythical structure that includes all the elements of how to write a story.
If you'd really like to see this concept defined in depth and bring your writing to the next level, then you absolutely need to read The Seven Moments That Will Captivate Your Audience. You really can't get a better explanation of all the things you absolutely need in your stories and screenplays to make it universally viable. This research is based on the top grossing movies and will really bring your writing to a higher level.
How to write a story: basic structure
Beginning... MIDDLE... End... Act one... Act two... Act three! Of course, this is obvious to all of us, but let's examine it on a much smaller level. A well-written story is comprised of a bunch of "scenes." Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end. We want to know what it's about and we want resolution!
What we really CRAVE is the middle!
A little kid wants a cookie. He could shuffle into the kitchen, take the lid off the cookie jar, pull out a cookie and start munching. BORING! What we really want is insurmountable odds. We want him to see the jar on the stereotypical top of the fridge. He climbs on to the stove and accidentally turning on the burner. This sets the drapes on fire. He jumps up at the fridge and knocks it over on to the cat's tail. The cat wails, jumps through the window taking the burning drapes with him. Flaming kitty bolts through the garage where dad is refueling the lawnmower. Dad leaps out of the garage as the whole thing explodes while the little kid sits on the porch munching a cookie (no pets were harmed in the imagining of this scenario).
Every scene you write should establish what it's about and should resolve in some way, but the way you get through that scene should be compelling and fresh. A great exercise is to get the "skeleton" of the scene on paper. We know that Jill has to meet the wise old man so that he can give her the magic steering wheel that turns her car into an airplane. What's the cliche way to write this?
The old guy sits on his porch in a rickety rocking chair. He hands it over and warns Jill not to mess with gravity... OK, that got us through that scene. The old guy is doing what we expect old guys to do with a bit of crotchety old guy wisdom thrown in. It plays... it gets us to the next scene... but does it satisfy? Did we get the creamy center we all desire?
How about an old guy who's obsessed with roller coasters. The only way he'll talk to her is if she rides on "The Demon," the oldest, least maintained wooden rollercoaster in the world. Boards fall off the supports as the cars pull in. AND... Jill has a fear of heights since her parents were killed in a base jumping accident!
By now, you're thinking I only love and write farcical stories where everyone is likely to lose an eye or a couple toes by the end, but these are just examples of how limitless your story telling can be! This leads us to:
How to write a story: obstacles
In the earlier example, a kid easily getting and eating a cookie is boring and should not even be put down on paper. Nothing should ever be easy for your heroes and supporting characters. Everyone needs to struggle to get to the end of your story.
No one ever cherishes something they got for free. The more something costs, the more it's worth. The absolute most important aspect of how to write a story is that it has to be truly difficult to get what you want. We have to make peace with our hated parents. We have to put our lives and limbs in grave danger to learn the secret. Sure, there is always the illusion that we could give up now and go back to the Shire, but even that road has been blocked by a whole herd of evil beasties.
In essence, your hero has no other choice than to come to terms with their "issue" in order to make it to the end. They can deny and try to skirt their problems until the very last moments, but then they have to hunker down and grow to get the prize at the end of a very dark and dangerous tunnel.
Obstacles create action, drama and suspense and lead to a better knowledge of self, glory, and a truly worthy romance (if that's your bag). If you really need advice on how to write a story, simply make sure that nothing is easy for your hero and that no one magically appears to whisk them to the end. Your heroes have to use their own wits to solve the mystery or vanquish the bad guys.
What's the point?
What's the point of your story? What is the lesson we learn at the end? How am I, the reader (or watcher), supposed to feel at the end of your story? Think about your audience. Will they get your point?
This is the biggest problem with most of the rejected scripts in Hollywood. Anyone that teaches you how to write a story should always start with a very simple question: "What the heck are you trying to say?" Stories and movies are about the hero's journey on the surface, but underneath, there are some very basic truisms that are universally appealing. Take the Harry Potter series. It's a story about a boy learning to be a wizard, but the underlying messages are timeless:
- You can't go it alone.
- You'll get by with a little help from your friends.
- Anything is possible if you only believe.
- We all have darkness inside us, but we chose to do the right thing.
How many other truisms can you come up with for Harry Potter?
Your story has to have a meaningful message underneath everything. These messages are universal and satifying whether they are something simple like "greed leads to ruin" or something a little harder to grasp like "anything is possible with a little faith in the unknown." You can even have some kind of high-concept premise like "The Matrix in the Wild West," but your hero better find out something brillant about the human condition while battling cyber-cows.
How to write a story: Start Writing!
Millions of people every single day start writing their screenplays and novels. Barely any of them ever finish. You could write the suckiest piece of trash ever put to paper, but actually finishing your story is a massive accomplishment, one that only a few people ever make it to.
I know I've said that the things above are the most important things you need to know in how to write a story, but the fact remains, there is no story unless you actually write!
It's important to set a schedule or create some kind of ritual to get yourself motivated. That is why I highly recommend Ready Steady Write by Keidi Keating "The Word Queen." It's an entire book dedicated to getting down to it. It has all the things you need to get started, how to get re-started when you get stuck and how to build momentum as you write. This is a must-read for any writer.
I will promise you one thing. There is no better feeling in the world than when you write "the end" on your first novel or "fade out" on your first screenplay. From my own experience, I finally discovered I could actually finish something I started! Within a month after finishing my first screenplay, I finished two other books I had stalled on and walked away from as well as a couple art projects that I started a decade ago!