Navigating Plot and Character in a Screenplay – Part 1

By Brian Ackley · March 13, 2016

In the first of this two-part feature, independent filmmaker Brian Ackley breaks down the experience of writing his latest feature, Alienated.

What shapes a screenplay?  What determines the path a story takes? To kick off my process I begin with what might be overlooked as common sense.  I begin with what interests me.  I determine what aspects of a project really fire me up, because that fire will have to provide the energy to sustain my motivation throughout the project.  That passion must invest me in the work in order for the work to have the value it deserves.

I’m going to use my recent feature as an example.  “Alienated” is a sci-fi drama that my company One Way or Another Productions (along with Fades 2 Black Media Group) cooked up and signed over to Gravitas Ventures. The story revolves around a husband who witnesses a UFO but doesn’t know how to tell his wife, fearing that she may either freak out or not believe him.

It was my producing partner, Princeton Holt, who got the ball rolling by asking me what I would do in that situation.  Over the next several days I followed this hypothetical down a rabbit hole where I found possibilities around each corner.  I contemplated various scenarios by reacting truthfully to the circumstances presented, first stepping in the role of the husband, second stepping in as the wife.

My discovery led to different points of interest, different things that fascinated me to where I would want to continue.  These spots would become bullet points of a story, or at least the first act of a story.   In junction with these storyline bullets, I allowed specific production factors to weigh in, knowing full well that our company was looking for a feasible project to film and release, the very reason Princeton had pitched the query concept in the first place.   The prime factor was budget.  We knew we wanted to make a movie at a low cost.  This led to considerations in number of locations, proximity of locations, availability of locations, the number of characters, the scope of any action and effect sequences, and the length of the story.

After tossed and tumbled in my head for several days, these thought out considerations brought me to a framework for our narrative, a structure, which also informed me of what would be our pace and sort of style.  Putting all these together, I suspected we were headed toward a “talky” picture, a filmed play.  The fun for me was to decide to narrow in on a single relationship—that between this man and his wife—and to trap them into a confrontation within a single location.  NON-SPOILER ALERT:  the results that I’m describing here only reflect the process I took to write my initial draft.  The script would be reworked, warped and rewritten into four versions before we’d go into production.

I tend to excel with self-imposed challenges.  The more extreme, the more accessible it is for me to succeed, I think, because of the deeper concentration it requires.  It’s more difficult for me to juggle tasks consistently over a period of time, lending and relieving my focus at unscheduled times.  No, no, no—I’d much rather have singular problems to concentrate my energy against, even if my time has to be divided between several scheduled jobs.  Building a framework within limitations is the best way to fire off my imagination; designing a story to fit that framework is like floating my mind down the Current River.  I’m in heaven.  I live for limitations; I am a decent filmmaker being I am a great problem solver.

The next piece of the puzzle would be character.   One question in particular has been fused into my cognition from early script writing classes at Brooklyn College: What kind of personality would best fit my story, exploiting the greatest opportunities for conflict?  Further rumination could come from expanding inquiry to include the dynamic between the main two characters.  It is here where I found my answer.  What would make a man who witnesses a UFO less reliable?  What would cause a wife not to believe her husband under such remarkable circumstances?  Well, he could either be a liar or an embellisher.  Or a conspiracy theorist.  He could be someone who has a record of relaying remarkable circumstances, most of which turn out to be improvable, at least by him.

I needn’t re-examine very long with this break though because I felt it.  Good ole’ instinct kicked in.  That part I mentioned about needing to be interested in what you’re writing came to the foreground like a freight train.  You see, at the time these ideas were flying my wife and I had begun entertaining a wild slue of conspiracy theories, some of which we were educated by Princeton, who found them amusing.  For weeks we binged on Youtube videos and Netflix shows and films that delved into treacherous, manipulative schemes equally engrossing and horrifying.  We’re still students of such intellectual, mastermind mayhem.

So the idea of making our main character a student, as well, was of great interest to me, especially to the degree in which I would graduate his involvement: he would become obsessed.  This character would be fraught with unnerving ideas, always puzzling and vaguely plausible.  And his foil would be someone who wants to believe him—out of her love for him—but simply cannot because of grounded pragmatism, because of a history of evidential shortcomings.  Herein we have a scientifically fictitious retelling of the classic fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

It’s at this point, after putting these elements together, that I am ready to construct a plot, a sequence of events that casts my main character into a series of challenges that tests his devotion to his wife while maintaining his own circumference as a human being (keeping his sanity)… and that is where the heavy-lifting begins.

Check back next week for more from Brian, including his thoughts on inspiration, story-logic, and (most importantly) rewriting!

Brian Ackley is the Head of Development at One Way or Another Productions. His second feature film ALIENATED won 13 film festival awards and was picked up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures for release in select theaters and VOD on March 31st.