Updated: Apr 24, 2022
Guest column by Paul W. Cooper.
Paul has been working as a television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one motion picture, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the 2019 Kairos Prize. Paul was also hired through Screenwriting Staffing's Job Board as a script editor on the TV mini-series 500 YEARS OF HEROES.
You’ve got an idea for a movie, right?
Maybe you have a beginning and an end but what comes in between? How do you get from that jaw dropping powerful opening scene to that heart-soaring, tear-filled climax?
Here’s how. You play the What If Game. This is a technique every successful writer uses and is in use in every writers’ room in every production company. It’s a form of brainstorming and it goes like this.
You begin by asking, What if… and fill in the blank. What if a flying saucer crashes into New York City? What if a porpoise beaches itself on a California beach? What if a clown is a serial killer? What if you discover the old man living next door was once an Olympic Champion? What if the woman you love announces she’s marrying someone else?
You can see that the possibilities are endless and works in any genre. So after you asked the first question, What if… you continue to ask questions. What happens next? What could happen next? And once you’ve answered that question, you keep asking, Then what happens?
Okay. Let’s go through the process and you’ll see exactly how it works. What if a man is hiking through the woods and discovers a wolf caught in a leg trap? What does he do?
1. Well, he could just keep on hiking and leave the wolf to its fate.
2. He could shoot the wolf and put it out of its misery.
3. He could release the wolf and save its life.
There now, we have three choices. Maybe you can come up with others. But let’s look at these three. Of these three, which has the most potential for a story? I hope you said #3. Clearly, if the man leaves the wolf or shoots it, then there’s no place else to go. But the idea that he wants to “save” the wolf creates all kinds of complications in our minds, right? So let’s go with that premise.
The hiker WANTS to save the wolf.
Now we continue to ask questions.
How does he save the wolf? It seems logical that the only way to save the wolf is to release it from the snare trap. But obviously, the man would be mangled any time he comes near the wolf.
So we have given the hero a real problem here, haven’t we? But story problems, plot holes, obstacles, complications, etc are good. Why? They create conflict, dramatic tension and once the problems are overcome, we are led to a satisfying conclusion.
We’ve decided the only way the man can save the wolf is to release it from the snare trap. But we also know that to attempt such a rescue would be next to impossible. So let’s look at it logically. The only way for the man to be able to get close enough to release the wolf is – if he can win the confidence of this wild, unpredictable, ferocious animal.
So we ask, how does he gain the confidence of the wolf? The answer is he must convince the wolf he is no danger to it and has only the well-being of the wolf in mind. But this is a process that’s going to take some time. Probably days. Maybe a week. Maybe longer. And this means the man must make a commitment to remain here for as long as it takes to win over the wolf’s confidence.
The wolf needs food and water. So the man must supply those things. He’ll have to fill some container with water and push it close to the wolf with a stick. Same with food. So that’s how he will keep the wolf alive until the wolf becomes accustomed to him and accepts his assistance.
Now let’s determine just who our hero is. I began by calling him a hiker in the woods. Why is he in the woods? Well, what if he’s not simply a hiker but a rancher. Now it’s well known that cattle ranchers despise wolves. Why? Because they attack and kill their cattle. So the rancher and the wolf are natural enemies. Wow, that’s great. Here we are putting two enemies together which means there will be lots and lots of conflict. And what does conflict produce? Drama!
Okay, so we’ve determined the hiker is a rancher. But does the rancher have to be a man? What if the rancher is a woman? Hmmm, I like that. Women are perceived as more vulnerable in the wilderness. So let’s make our hero a woman rancher.
Now we ask, what is her normal life like? Is she married, does she have kids? Well, if she’s married, then her husband is going to wonder why she has been gone so long and will come looking for her. So what if she’s divorced or widowed? Then she would be alone. Unless she has kids. What if she has a son? How old is he? Ten, twelve, twenty? Let’s make him 16-years-old. That makes him old enough to be capable but still young enough he might be dangerously impetuous. Plus it will attract a wider age demographic (teens).
Let’s step back now and see where we are. A lady rancher who has a 16-year-old son finds a wolf in a trap and decides to attempt to save it.
Let’s give the hero a name. A story takes on a life of its own when you name the characters. So let’s call her Claire. And her son will be Jesse.
And now our premise becomes Claire WANTS to save the wolf.
Now we must ask, what is Claire doing in the woods and how can she take the time to spend tending to the wolf? Well, what if Claire is riding her horse through the mountainside on her way to a cabin where she plans to spend time alone from the frantic life of a rancher. She expects to be gone for several days. But now let’s add some conflict and drama to the story. What if Claire is riding along a peaceful mountain trail when a wolf lurches out and spooks her horse, causing Claire to fall hard on a rocky streambed and break her ankle. The horse bucks off her supply pack and gallops away leaving Claire staring at a ravenous wolf. But then she quickly realizes the wolf is tethered to the ground by a snare trap holding tight to its leg.
Okay, that’s good. Claire is bucked off her horse and breaks her ankle when she falls. And the horse runs away leaving Claire alone on a stream bank with a wild animal. This is a great set up. Woman and wolf, natural enemies, stranded on a creek bank in the mountains. See how far we’ve come since we asked, what if a hiker finds a wolf in a trap? And we got to this point simply by asking questions and answering them.
Let’s move on. Why is the wolf in a trap? Because someone set the trap. Who? Trappers. But what if it’s illegal to trap on this mountain? Then the trappers would be poachers which is against the law. That makes them criminals who might be dangerous. What will happen when they return to their trap? They aren’t intentionally trapping wolves so they will probably shoot it. But what will they do to Claire? We don’t know. But the suspense keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Will Claire be able to release the wolf before the poachers return?
Let’s step back again and take another look at what we have. Claire is stranded on a creek bank with a broken ankle and a trapped wolf. Then what happens?
What if Claire’s horse is found and returned to the ranch? Then Jesse will know something’s wrong, he’ll alert authorities and a search will be underway. But what if Jesse impulsively strikes out alone in search of his mother? What dangers await him?
Meanwhile, Claire is feeding the wolf with her own food. Her supply pack was fortuitously thrown from the horse when Claire was bucked off. Days elapse and she and the wolf gradually grow accustomed to each other.
What if Claire hears some mewing and discovers a litter of young wolf cubs nearby? And she reunites them with their mother.
And what if the male wolf shows up to find his mate trapped and the litter running
loose around a human being? What does he do?
What happens to Jesse when he flies headlong into the mountain wilderness alone in a frantic search for his mother? What if he crosses paths with the poachers? What happens?
And finally, what happens when Claire is awakened one morning by distant gunfire and realizes it’s the poachers coming to tend their traps?
The time has come. It’s now or never. After five days of gaining the confidence of the wolf, will she let Claire near enough to release her from the trap? What will happen when Claire risks serious injury to approach the wolf? And what will happen when the poachers arrive and find her?
Okay, there it is. All one has to do is answer the questions and you’ll have a story.
This, in fact, is the basis for a screenplay I wrote titled Night of the Wolf that aired on the Animal Planet.
If you would like to read the synopsis and treatment of the story, write and ask me for it. There are excellent samples of a synopsis and a treatment that will help you write your own.
PAUL W. COOPER
WRITER, FILM, TELEVISION
Guest column for Screenwriting Staffing.
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