Creating The Foundation For Strong Stories

Recently I tried an experiment.

For years, I have given my seminar students students a unique tool that they could use to develop their ideas during their months of mentorship with me following the seminar. Early in my teaching career, I realized that I had to find an effective way to help writers build full-fledged stories from new concepts. And thus, the Big Ideas Structure Template was born.

It is a Word document that enables writers to break stories by focusing on laying the foundation first. That means discovering the steel beams that hold up the story – defining its essential elements – and then determining the big beats. Plus, the template makes it easy to explore story possibilities, and solve problems on a couple of pieces of paper rather than ripping apart 120 pages.

My favorite part of the template is “The Header.” It pops up each and every time you begin a new page – forcing you to stay focused on it. The header covers the foundation of the story. Filling the blanks in the header helps you develop the concept and do the deep work of understanding your story that must come before you begin outlining.

It has proven itself very effective for my students. But I wanted to see if it could also help other writers – who hadn’t had the benefit of participating in on of my seminars,where I demonstrate the template while showing a film and pointing out the structure beats. We work with the template to develop their stories over the course of the seminar weekend.

I didn’t want to send the template out into the world without a support system, so I’ve included “Structure Basics: The Fundamentals,” a handout that presents a simple, yet powerful view on the common shape of structure. I also send a personal letter with each purchase that elaborates on some of the finer details and unique features of the template.

So did the experiment work?

I was eager for feedback from writers who purchased the template online and tried it on their own.

I heard from one writer after she tried the template:

Your template which I purchased from your website saved me from drowning with my latest script! Thank you so much for your helpful insight – it’s so exciting to see my ideas finally springing to life. Lastly, just to show you how much your outline means to me, here’s a photo that I took of it this morning – it’s at the bottom, next to my completed script! I couldn’t have done all this without you — thanks so much!

Foundation Essential: The Header and The Structure Template

I loved the photo and was thrilled that the writer had found the template to be so helpful to her process. But the first thing I noticed was that the header wasn’t filled in. The most important part – the foundation of the outline – was missing. I needed to do an even better job explaining the header to empower writers.

You can find my thoughts on why building a foundation is crucial in my ScriptMag article, Story Foundation – Writing From Below The Ground Up.

But I still can’t stop thinking that I should do more. So I’ve chosen an example of a classic film with a brilliant foundation: Jaws

The Foundation of Story: An Example

TITLE: JAWS – Yup, great title. Not on the nose, but supports the scary tone. Brings a scary image to mind.

GENRE: Horror

LOGLINE: When a Great White shark terrorizes a quiet beach community, the town’s police chief must overcome his crippling fear of the water and join forces with a grizzled shark hunter and a daredevil oceanographer to hunt it down and kill it to save the town.


STORY PROTOTYPEAlien – A literal monster to be defeated in an environment that is hostile to humans, many plot elements in common from the evil officials, to characters reflecting differing points of view on the threat, to incinerating the monster at the end.

THEME PROTOTYPE: Silence of the Lambs – Plays on the idea of fears that must be conquered throughout the story.

TONE PROTOTYPE: Rosemary’s Baby – A smart psychological horror story that deals with primal fears.

[NOTE: These are just my thoughts for possible successful films that are effective prototypes. You may have ideas of your own.]

CHARACTER – ESSENTIAL CONFLICTING CHARACTERISTICS/GOAL AT THE START: Chief Brody wants to keep people safe BUT he is afraid of the water.

Roy Scheider’s character is the new Chief of Police on an island where people are being gobbled up by a Great White Shark, but he’s afraid of the water.

His need and desire is to protect the people. His flaw – he’s afraid of the water – is in direct opposition to that goal. He’s the perfect hero for this horror film, which is all about fear.

The film does a beautiful job of illustrating the protagonist at the outset. Just look at this image from early in the film:

Foundation Essential: The Character At The Outset

Universal Pictures

A girl has already been eaten, and Brody wants to close the beaches, but the town’s mayor insists that they stay open. Brody and his family are at the beach. Brody is entrenched in a beach chair. But his own child is in the waterwhen a shark attacks. All the parents on the beach go running into the water to get their kids out. But Brody can’t. Look at his feet as he gets right to the water’s edge, screaming, “Get out of the water!” But his feet are planted in the sand as parents run screaming past him. But he can’t even get his feet wet. His wife goes in and grabs their kid.

Watch the whole clip here.

CHARACTER – HERO’S END POINT/WHAT THEY ARE ABLE TO DO AT THE END OF THE STORY THAT THEY COULD NOT HAVE DONE BEFORE: Brody is on a sinking boat, water rising steadily around him, but manages to keep his cool and figure out how to kill the shark.

Foundation Essential: The Character At The End

Universal Pictures

HERO’S ARC/HOW WHAT THEY THINK/BELIEVE/DESIRE HAS CHANGED: He goes from being paralyzed by his fear of the water to swimming happily toward shore with Richard Dreyfus.

Jaws - Three Points of View on Theme

Universal Pictures

THEME: If we don’t conquer our fears, our fears will conquer us.

Jaws is a great example for the power of a solid foundation. The pieces here, from title to logline, all work together beautifully to support tone, character, flaw, arc, and theme. And this movie is steeped in theme.

The film examines multiple perspectives on fear. It is illustrated not only through the protagonist, but the supporting characters. Chief Brody is paralyzed by his fear of the water. Dreyfus’ marine biologist is fearless. While crusty Quint’s experience has given him a reasonable fear of the water and respect for it as a potentially hostile environment for humans.

Every piece of the header contributes to supporting this message. That’s the power of digging deep to develop a strong foundation before you begin outlining.

Check out the Big Ideas Structure Template, and let me know if it helps you develop ideas from a solid foundation to successful story structure.

Ready to develop your Story Foundation Muscles?

Here’s a Writers’ Workout from the Screenwriting Elevated Seminar:

Option One:

If you are currently working on a project, choose your Three Prototype Films — one for Story, one for Theme, and one for Tone.

Now complete a Header for each of them. You will be surprised at how much you will learn that you can apply to your own script.

Option Two:

If you are not working on project now, choose your Three Forever Films.

Here’s how:

You have one minute to choose three movies that you could watch for the rest of your life, over and over again, forever. GO! (Okay, not forever, forever, just those that you could watch forever at this moment in time.)

List the first titles that spring to mind – no censoring!  Keep the list of your three Forever Films on hand for future exercises.

Steven Spielberg calls these Chewing-Gum films – and, like me, has The Shawshank Redemption on his list:

Steven Spielberg has called it [The Shawshank Redemption] his “chewing-gum movie,” says [writer-director Frank] Darabont. “In other words, you’ve stepped in it and can’t get it off your foot. You have to watch the rest of the movie.”

“The Little-Known Story of How The Shawshank Redemption Became One of the Most Beloved Films of All Time” by Margaret Heidenry, Vanity Fair

Another phrase for a Forever Film.  Because yes, once you’ve landed on one of your Forever Films while channel surfing, you find yourself stuck, and can’t help but watch it to the end.

Now complete a Header for each of your Forever Films. I promise it will be an enlightening experience for you. Because the secret is…

They all have something in common!

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  1. The ‘Story Must-Have’ Checklist – Jenni Wade Editing & Proofreading - June 3, 2019

    […] choice you make, each beat you create supports the big concepts of the story. Learn more about how the header works and get the template […]

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