Planning your film's storyline

ID the main parts of your story
Ever since the dawn of mankind, stories have been told around campfires that ignited the imaginations of those that watched and listened. Next, came the printed word in books that shaped human history. Today, the world thirsts for compelling stories told on film and streaming media. But whether the story is spoken, printed, or portrayed on film, the foundational components of telling a story remain the same. So knowing how to identify and include those essential parts in your film can make it soar. Once you know these essential parts, you can include them in your storyboard and script to create a successful blueprint for making your film.

If you think about it, most of the good books or movies you’ve enjoyed contain these essential parts of telling a compelling story:

  • Setting – the place, both the big and smaller picture of where the story takes place
  • Characters – People and animals that are impacted by the storyline
  • Timeline – begins with the intro of setting/characters and ends with “the end”
  • Protagonist – This is the hero who fights the forces of evil or pursues discovery
  • Antagonist – This is the evil force/s trying to destroy or stop the protagonist
  • Conflict – This is the drama that drives the tension, which increases along the timeline.
  • Theme – This is the overriding message of your story – such as good against evil, weak against strong, transformation of character, revelations, discovery of something scientific, or mysterious.

Create a plan on paper

Okay, now that you know the parts of your story, the next step is to take your idea for a film and begin planning your story by writing down specifics about these main parts that we’ve listed. Maybe your plan could look something like this;

  • Setting – The chemical plant near the local river in your town that once teemed with fish swimming in clean water.
  • Characters – Chemical company officials, town environmentalists, impacted fish and wildlife, citizens who enjoyed the quality of the river, town officials
  • Timeline – Begins with historical perspective of the town, river, and chemical company. Possibly ends with what will maybe happen in the coming year. The ending may also be marked by some resolution of the conflict (see conflict below).
  • Protagonist – Two students who want to expose unseen pollution from the chemical plant and restore the environmental health of the river
  • Antagonist – Chemical plant or town officials who place economic gain over environmental health. Perhaps antagonist can be “the chemical company” or “the pollution” as separate entities.
  • Conflict – Two students make increasing discoveries that reveal the town and the river are being poisoned by the chemical plant. However, plant officials who are focused on profits, counter-attack the students by enlisting town officials to make things tough on the kids. With each attack and counter-attack, the stakes get higher and the timeline gets shorter…yikes, this is already getting exciting.
  • Theme – This is easy with this example…good against evil can prevail over the dark forces of corporate greed destroying the environment.

An Example: A story about Zebras

Try it yourself: Rarily if ever does a documentary film resemble the initial script. In this case, Rich had planned to do a story about zookeepers traveling to Africa and discovered a new story along the way.

Create a Script from your Plan

Now that you have a plan, begin writing your “script”. Your script can be a simple collection of scenes and story development supported by interviews, or, it can be an actual script that maps out all the parts of your story in the order that you want the story told. If can also include dialog which are the spoken words that you want your actors to say.

You can write your script in almost any word processing program or you can download free scriptwriting software to make the job easier and more professional. Below is a sample of a script that could be developed using free software available at

Opening Scene – Along the banks of the river in the shadow of the chemical plant
Action - Two students sneaking up to a pipe discharging nasty stuff into the river
Character  - ROB
Dialog – Woah, look at that. I bet those top dogs in the chemical plant wouldn’t want to fill their fancy swimming pools with that discharge.
Character - SUZ
Dialog – No kidding. They wouldn’t want their kids drinking it either. Yet they’re dumping this upstream from the town’s water supply.
Action – Rob reaches into the water and pulls out a dead fish.
Character – ROB
Dialog – I’d say by the looks of this poor fish that it won’t be long before people in town start getting green around the gills. We gotta do something, Suz. But what?
Character – SUZ
Dialog – I’ve got an idea. But it’s risky. There are a lot of people in that plant who would try just about anything to stop us. So we gotta act quickly.

Transition – Rob and Suz riding down trail along river on their mountain bikes.

Scene two – From window in chemical plant, executive lowers binoculars and shakes his head. Dials cell phone.
Character – EXECUTIVE 1
Dialog – Hello, Guido. I’ve got another mess for you to clean up. It’s a couple of kids on bikes headed back toward town. Maybe they should have an accident near the whirlpool?

And so it goes, back and forth between the forces of good and evil with rising tension as your story unfolds. Before you know it, you have your script and entire storyline mapped out. Using your script as a clear roadmap to filmmaking success, you can begin enlisting your characters, checking out scene locations to shoot your film and making other arrangements to turn your film idea into reality.

Documentary Style

Though a script is a must when working with actors and dialog, perhaps you need a little different plan if your film is more of a documentary style. In a documentary, you enlist a variety of people to interview on camera who have controversial or expert viewpoints about the issue. Based on the questions that you ask them and the order in which you use their interviews, their honest opinions carry the development of the story. Also, the host who conducts the interviews can be on camera and offers a way to make transitions between people and places. The host can also offer information or perspectives to help carry the storyline. Just decide early on if you need a host to help tell your story. Sometimes they get in the way of the story and other times they help pull it together.

Here is an example of the chemical plant at the river storyline with a documentary approach without at host.

Character 1 - Elderly fisherman sitting on bank with fishing rod to establish history.
Questions to him:

  • How long have you been fishing here and what was the river like back then?
  • How has is changed and when?
  • Why do you think it has changed?
  • Would you feed the fish you catch to your loved ones and why?
  • If you were king here, what would you do about the condition of the river?

Characters 2 – Two students from the local school sitting near the discharge pipe at the river.
Questions to ask them:

  • Why are you here today?
  • What do you think is coming out of that pipe?
  • Why do you think the chemical company is dumping this stuff?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • Why are environmental agencies letting them do this?
  • What are you afraid of and why?
  • If you we’re the boss in that plant, what would you do?

Character 3 – Chemical plant executive sitting at desk overlooking river.

  • How long has your plant been here and why?
  • What kinds of products do you make here?
  • How many town’s people work here?
  • Where does your family get its drinking water?
  • What and how much comes out of that pipe down there near the river?
  • Can we talk to your company scientist who knows what’s in that stuff?
  • Are any of your employees getting sick from working here?
  • Who issues the environmental permits for this plant?

You begin to see how actual people can be used in interviews to carry the development and content of your story. All the main essentials of the storyline remain the same. The only difference is that you’re using real people in different settings to tell your story and develop those main essentials. To carry this particular storyline to completion using the documentary interview style, you might consider this list of characters to help tell the rest of your story.

  • Town doctor
  • Town sheriff
  • Families with sick kids
  • Plant workers
  • Environmental agencies or scientists
  • Newspaper or TV reporters
  • More school kids
  • Water treatment plant workers
  • Local fish market
  • Judge or attorney
  • Congressional Representative from State government

Wow, once you get this collection of people interviewed with compelling questions, you’ve got all the tools to begin editing this baby into a riveting film. Now go get em.

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