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How do you go from film idea to story? Notes from an Expert…

Bob Tzudiker is a writer known for Newsies (1992), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Tarzan (1999) and has written for every major studio. Bob is also an Adjunct Professor of feature film writing for the John Wells Division of Writing for Film and Television at USC’s famed School of Cinematic Arts.


I used to spend endless hours on plot, filling yellow pad after yellow pad with outlines. I was trying to follow a logical chain: in this situation, what would happen next? I think much of that effort was wasted. Good stories are not plots. A good story could have many plots.

Now I start with “What is this about?” I look for fundamental conflicts that are at the root of the idea. If I can’t see two opposing forces that spring naturally from the idea, I move on. I’ll make a note about it, because the old idea might serve as an element of some other story. But I’m looking for why this story has to come into existence.

“If I can’t see two opposing forces that spring naturally from the idea, I move on”

Here’s a simple example: Is Tarzan an ape or a human?

All he knows is ape-ness, but when he sees humans he realizes that he is other, that his feelings of being an inadequate ape have their roots in biology. Where, then, do his loyalties lie when apes and humans come into conflict? The story is about identity. The plot may center on how a human came to think of himself as an ape and what happened as he matured. But now I know that every scene, every choice needs to touch on the question of his identity

“… now I know that every scene, every choice needs to touch on the question of his identity.


Once I know what the story is about, I ask myself any and every question I can think of, with the assumption that I know the answers. This stimulates the depths of the mind, so I can start to form some fixed points that can give form to both plot and character. I might ask what the protagonist eats for breakfast, or the color of the bottoms of her shoes. Say they’re red. What does that tell me about how new they are? Her socio-economic status? The period? Random questions can lead to fertile answers that allow the essential details of the story to emerge.

“I might ask what the protagonist eats for breakfast, or the color of the bottoms of her shoes.”

Any question can start to unpack the who and the what happens of the story.


We hear phrases like “Three-Act Structure” and “Midpoint.” And someone may tell us we have to have this happen by this page or our story is not working. I’m not a fan of rules. Rather, I think of the supposed rules as Tools. Three-act structure? Sure. After I’ve outlined a plot, I might use the Tool called act breaks to check my work. Can I identify three acts? If not, am I missing something?

“I’m not a fan of rules. Rather, I think of the supposed rules as Tools.”

I use the Tools as tests after the fact. They are not dictates. They spring from a retrospective analysis of the story, which will of necessity have a beginning, middle and end. So in using the Tool of act breaks, I examine where the big changes occur in my story in an effort to maintain the story’s momentum.

I’m always looking for momentum, not acts. The reader must feel compelled to turn every page.


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