Before I proceed, a fair warning: I am not a professional screenwriter, nor am I a published author. What I am, however, is a person who has too many creative ideas, and not enough time to get them out of my head. This explains my enthusiasm for writing tools that I can use to sort out whether or not a story is worth writing: if I don’t like my characters enough to build a story out of them, or if I can’t summarize my plot in three sentences or less, then why should I spend that much time writing to make you care about them, too?
This entry demonstrates a slightly modified version of the Story Premise Worksheet from the Tennessee Screenwriting Association (download it here) which I have found to be a valuable tool in working out certain kinks in my stories. The Worksheet is one of many tools that are available for writers, and not just for screenplays; in the coming entries I will also introduce the results of other devices that have been helpful for me, such as the Proust Questionnaire and the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet.
The copyright for the Story Premise Worksheet belongs to the TSA; everything else contained herein is mine.
Title: Right Here, Right Now (working title)
Who is your protagonist? Pete Driscoll (Class of 1992), a legendary high school party animal turned franchise executive for a chain of TGI Fridays-style restaurants
What is the protagonist’s goal? (plot) Pete returns to his home town to attend his 20th-year high school reunion, with the (seeming) intention of trying to re-live the happiest days of his life for one last time.
Why must the protagonist achieve this goal? (stakes) The last ten years had been tragic for Pete: not only did he lose his wife – and former high school sweetheart – in a plane crash, but he is also unsure about whether or not he is ready to return to his corporate job. He is also haunted by the memories of his wife as one of the most popular and beloved students in his graduating class, which makes his presence at the reunion a bittersweet one.
What general course of action will the protagonist pursue? (plan) Having taken time off from work to attend the reunion, Pete will reconnect with his old friends and try to relive the old glory days of practical jokes, drug experimentation, and all sorts of immature tomfoolery.
What does your protagonist want? Haunted by the nostalgia of his old high school days, Pete wants to know if he still “has it” in himself to live the same (seemingly) joyful life that he had at age 18.
What does the protagonist need (to learn)? Ultimately, Pete must realize that he needs to grow up and let go of the past – not just of high school, but also of his memories with his wife.
Who is your antagonist? Every single member of the Alumni Reunion Committee
What is the antagonist’s goal? It is the responsibility of the committee to make sure that all reunion activities continue as planned, for the benefit of the townspeople of Ashland.
What general course of action will the antagonist pursue? The committee has already organized activities that, by theory, would eliminate the need for a Pete Driscoll-scale situation: sports outings, cocktail parties, and karaoke nights. In the event that Pete Driscoll does relapse and instigate more trouble, however, the committee – headed by aspiring local politician Grant Hampton (’92) – has appointed an Event Coordinator to counteract the anarchy: Iris Garcia (’95), who also happens to be a faculty member at the school.
Why must the antagonist achieve this goal? Pete Driscoll represents the complete opposite of what the reunion is meant to celebrate: school pride and great accomplishment through education at Ashland High School. The school must put its best foot forward to ensure the continuous support of its alumni, in the face of budget cuts within the educational district.
What is the story theme? Dig up the past, live in the present, stake out the future.
Logline: Twenty years after making his mark as a hell-raising high school prankster, Pete Driscoll returns to his hometown of Ashland for his 20th-year high school reunion – and suddenly a traditional celebration of school pride into a weekend of mayhem and debauchery that threatens to wreak havoc all over town. It’s all fun and games for everybody else… but for Pete Driscoll, it’s also one more chance to find out what he’s been missing all along.
A few notes: To borrow a term from my current studies as a post-graduate researcher, the Story Premise Worksheet serves as a conceptual framework of sorts for the screenplay, which means that every single element in the story must hang together consistently from Point A to Point Z. For example, I could have just simplified Pete’s goals and motivations by not killing off the “sweetheart” and making the weekend all about winning her back… but that would turn Pete into a creepy wet blanket. (See also: Ethan Hawke singing “Add It Up” in Reality Bites.) As tragic as it is to give Pete that much existential angst by killing off his wife and sticking him in a corporate job – albeit a semi-cool corporate job by hometown standards – those circumstances could make him more likely to snap back into “angry young punk” mode as soon as he hears the first two chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Note here, too, that I decided to give Pete an entire committee of people that he could piss off during his weekend: like the uptight fraternities in movies like Animal House and Revenge of The Nerds, the establishment of this committee is vital in protecting what is perceived as the Common Good. I’ll go more into this committee – and why Iris is playing on their side – when I get into the outline proper of the script later on, but for now we have a logical setup for the story and the pitch.
Next up: Highlights from Pete Driscoll’s Proust Questionnaire.