Asking Questions of Your Work

Sep 12, 2016 | Writing

How well do you know your own screenplay? Do you know what your story is really about? What is your central idea? Can you condense these answers into a short and concise logline?

Screenwriter and WGAW Secretary-Treasurer Aaron Mendelsohn challenges you to ask yourself these (and many more) questions in his new e-book, The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay. Mendelsohn is best known for the Air Bud franchise and for his time serving on the Board of Directors for the Writers Guild of America, West. In his new book, he shares his successful story-breaking method in order to help writers hone ideas into better, more well-rounded screenplays.

Using classic and relatable examples like When Harry Met Sally, Mendelsohn drives writers to examine the backbone of their story-telling. He outlines the basics of story and writing craft while showing how these principles relate to their own work. The engaging format and the instructive tone of his book set the stage perfectly to help writers move forward through their stories.

“Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way?” Mendelsohn notes this as the central idea of When Harry Met Sally. And when stated like this, one can certainly see it. This question – Question #3 in his book – not only drives the classic romantic comedy forward but it is obvious in every scene, every interaction between Harry and Sally. Harry even asks the question early in the movie, setting the stage for the overarching conflict (Question #9) and critical test (Question #11).

What is your story’s central idea? When you look at your ideas and characters on this larger level, you enhance even the smallest details, getting down to the very marrow of your stories. When you understand your story’s grander purpose – its thesis, if you will – you can more easily see ways to convey this through every line of dialogue, every character’s action or reaction. Not only does this improve the craft of your writing but it takes you beyond your own ideas and helps you imagine how someone outside of yourself will perceive and understand your words. And in doing so, helps you strengthen those words.

The benefits of answering simple questions, such as these, about our work are endless. Because the answers all connect. The central idea leads into a character’s unconscious desire which feeds right into his or her fatal flaw and ultimately their critical test. Your answers create a web connecting all the important aspects of your story.

Through the process of answering Mendelsohn’s questions you may find you have too many characters. Or that your characters don’t say exactly the lines they should. You might find that your central character’s fatal flaw doesn’t align with their conscious desire, or that your stakes are too weak. Maybe you start to see the places your writing veers away from the central idea and the times your characters actions stop being about their real desires.

By asking these questions as you work, you keep your writing focused on what’s important: your characters, your world, your story. Your imagination is so full it’s easy to get off track without knowing it. What feels important while you’re writing, on second glance, may not serve the story as you originally thought. It’s an easy fix, easily found with a little critical thinking. Asking some fundamental questions as you go helps you hone all that great material into a cohesive path your audience can follow you down as well.

The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay is available for a 20% discount for a limited time only!


Eva Gross

Director of The Big Break Screenwriting Contest

Eva Gross is the Director of the Big Break℠ Screenwriting Contest. She studied writing at Emerson College in Boston and has enjoyed time as a journalist, a book buyer, a script reader and a Collections Processor with the Writers Guild Foundation Library and Archive.