When you get down to the very heart of it, constructing a screenplay comes down to asking a lot of questions, and providing the answers.
And the result of each answer is that another question is generated.
This, then, is the chain of cause and effect which underlies all mainstream screenplays and teleplays.
At the most fundamental, atomic level, every question used to construct - with the exception of the main dramatic question, which needs yes or no as an answer - comes down to this :
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Answer that, and ask the question again. Keep repeating until you hit the end of your story.
Let's face it, that's what any screenwriter does day in, day out...
Of course, it's not quite that simple, or literally anyone could do it. And we all know that's definitely NOT the case.
There are several levels of questions at play here:
- the main dramatic question which forms the spine of the entire story (e.g. Will Luke Skywalker be able to defeat the Empire by blowing up the Death Star?)
- the questions governing each act (generally three)
- the questions governing each sequence (generally between eight and fifteen)
- the questions behind each scene
- the questions inside each scene
To illustrate the difference between the latter two levels, let's take a look at the scene in The Apartment where Jack Lemmon is summoned to the office of Fred MacMurray for the first time. The question behind the scene is: Will Lemmon get a promotion from his boss, who's been hearing nothing but good things about him from all his superiors?
The way the scene plays out, however, plays upon our expectations. MacMurray first acts friendly in a non-commital way to Lemmon, then confronts him with the fact he's been 'renting out' his apartment to his superiors so they can take their mistresses there. The tone becomes accusatory, Lemmon gets the impression he's overplayed his hand and promises not continue his 'immoral' practices. Then MacMurray hits him with the kicker - he wants to be the only one with access to Lemmon's apartment, in exchange for a serious promotion.
So within this scene, the questions raised and answered include - will MacMurray believe the positive reports he's had about Lemmon? NO.
Why is he so hostile towards Lemmon? BECAUSE HE KNOWS ABOUT THE APARTMENT AND WHAT GOES ON THERE.
What is Lemmon going to do now? HE APOLOGIZES AND PROMISES TO QUIT RENTING OUT HIS APARTMENT IMMEDIATELY.
Is MacMurray going to fire Lemmon over the business with the apartment? NO
Why not? BECAUSE HE WANTS TO HAVE SOLE RIGHTS TO IT
What's in it for Lemmon? A BIG PROMOTION
Does he agree to the deal? YOU BETCHA
So you can see how this system operates. It's all about action/reaction, and the strong causality which is part and parcel of mainstream screenwriting is a direct consequence of this approach. A logical, sense-making answer is desired to each question. A nonsensical answer would take things into a completely surreal direction (for instance, if the answer to What's in it for Lemmon would be HE BECOMES A TRANSSEXUAL WEREWOLF IN THE LATE ROMAN EMPIRE, that would be completely jarring on just about every level for the audience).
However, if you are deliberately trying to be non-conventional, using this question/answer technique and coming up with weird or shocking answers may be a way to help you conceive and write your script, given that there are no other structural models you can follow.
Now, where things get more complicated is that there are several levels of storytelling going on simultaneously throughout every script.
You have an external plot (the story of the film, e.g. Die Hard: will McClane be able to defeat the terrorists and save his wife - oh, and the other hostages as well?) and an internal plot (will McClane be able to change enough so he can mend his relationship with his wife), as well as several subplots.
And in each one of these plots, many of which run concurrently, you have this system of question and answer going on. Often, both the external and the internal plot will develop at the same time during the storytelling (i.e. an event will impact both the external plot, moving our protagonist closer to his goal, and the internal plot, charting his personal evolution).
And in order for the script to work on every level, the questions-and-answers on each of them have to maintain the string of causality. Which is just a fancy way of saying that the events (answers) must be believable and logical all the way through on each level. So the steps the protagonist has to go through in order to achieve his/her goal have to make sense. And the steps in their personal, psychological evolution have to make sense as well.
And, finally and most importantly, the interaction between both levels needs to - guess what - make sense. Sorry I couldn't be more creative in how I worded that phrase. Yet it's true - if there's no causal connection between your outer and your inner plot, the script (and the resulting movie or episode) will feel artificial and dishonest.
As a sidenote, in movies where the lead character doesn't evolve at all, and has no flaws, there's really no question-and-answer on the psychological level. Our guy or gal is (nearly) perfect and the events in the external plot do nothing to influence his/her inner self. This can be found in many science fiction movies from the '50s and '60s, and a very recent example is Shia LeBoeuf's main character in Michael Bay's Transformers movie. A more boring hero has rarely graced the screen.
So, to recapitulate:
- your screenplay is a succession of questions and answers
- these questions and answers are active on different levels, both separately and simultaneously
- keeping the chain of causality between these questions and answers is of primary importance.
Frankly, it all does boil down to 'What happens next?' But your answer has to keep your audience - script reader/editor, producer, director, actors, and the viewers - emotionally and logically satisfied all the way through.
Of course, there's another aspect to this question & answer-mechanism - and that's how they relate to the audience. But that's a topic for a future post.