June 3, 2018

7 Basic Questions Your Screenplay Should Answer (And How 'The Last Jedi' Answers Them 3 Times)

If your story can't answer these 7 questions, then you may not actually have a story.

When it comes to screenwriting, everybody and their Aunt Ginger has a theory or philosophy. Some writers swear by Joseph Campbell's monomyth, others swear by Syd Field's three-act structure, and still others are like, "I don't have to follow any damn rules." Guess what. They're all right. Stories can sprout up out of pretty much any structural paradigm you sow them in, but there is one narrative element that is almost always essential for storytelling: conflict.

Conflict is what turns boring events into intriguing drama, and in this video essay, Sage Hyden of Just Write uses Star Wars: The Last Jedi to explain how to develop conflict within your narrative by seeing if your story can answer seven basic questions.

If you've ever taken a screenwriting class before, you're probably familiar with what Hyden talks about in the video, namely establishing the wants and needs of a character, how they conflict with each other, and how they change (or don't) once they address the conflict. However, as Hyden points out, Film Crit Hulk provides a helpful way of making sure that your story has all of the necessary narrative elements.

7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama

  • Wants vs. Needs
    • What does this character want?
    • What does this character need?
  • Conflict
    • How do those wants and needs conflict within the character?
    • How do the character's wants and needs conflict with the outside world?
    • How do they conflict with other characters?
  • Change
    • How does the character change through those conflicts/How does that resolution affect them?
    • What impact does that change have on everyone else?
'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017)

I'm not the hugest fan of The Last Jedi, nor is it a perfect screenplay, but it does provide three distinct storylines (Rey, Finn, and Poe) that can demonstrate how being able to answer these seven questions can reveal your story's strengths, and how not being able to can reveal where your story could be lacking.

I've used a similar question/answer tactic when planning out my screenplays before and it was certainly helpful to me. That may be due to it actually being a great tool or due to the fact that I studied under a screenwriting professor who drilled the whole "wants/needs, conflict, change" thing into my head for two years. Honestly, conflict is (almost?) always the driving force of a narrative. Without it, your characters don't have an impetus to change, and without their wants and needs clashing within themselves and with those around them, your characters don't have conflict. You need all three parts to form a narrative. Like Willy Wonka says, "Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted...He lived happily ever after.

If your character already has what they want or, at the very least, obtains it quickly and easily, well, there's nothing else for them to strive for, so they're living happily ever after before your audience has even scarfed down their second handful of popcorn.

Can your screenplay answer all seven questions? Try it out on your own script and see if it helps you better form the structure of your story.     

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The Last Jedi is surely the worst example to show how to develop conflict within your narrative. Yes it has answers to all of these questions that (on paper) make perfect sense for each of the three characters, but how Rian Johnson actually gets these characters to connect to each of these points is through some of the worst screenwriting I've ever seen. For me this video essay just comes across as a credulous way to quell the criticism for the film, rather than as a genuine study on character development.

June 8, 2018 at 6:47PM, Edited June 8, 6:51PM

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Derek Boyes
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