Writing a first draft is in essence brainstorming plot points and writing them down in a more or less chronological order.
It sounds as if I am simplifying things, but once you have cracked the essence of drama, it really is that simple.
To understand what follows, it is useful to read the word action as what a character does to pursue its objectives / desires.
When you brainstorm plot points, all you need to come up with is the trigger events. In other words:
DON’T BRAINSTORM ACTIONS; BRAINSTORM EVENTS
A character’s actions follow necessarily from these events. The nature of the resulting action will also show whether the trigger event was strong enough or not.
When you find a particularly powerful event, it may be triggering a sequence climax. Or even an act climax (also called Turning Point). Or a mid-point reversal. The two most powerful events in your story must be the inciting incident and the reversal. The first one triggers your hero’s main objective (which will define the ‘dramatic question’) and the second will make your hero decide to change the course of the second act.
A feature film needs between 40 and 60 plot points. Unfortunately only 10% of your first draft will end up in the final draft. So be generous when brainstorming plot points. Don’t stop at 40. Try 400.
Here is a test for finding strong plot points. Ask yourself the question “Does the event complicate the previous action?”. In a well-written story, the trigger event of one plot point will ‘interrupt’ a previous plot point. In other words: while your hero is responding to one event, a next event happens, which will force him to re-direct his actions and respond to this new event.
AN EVENT MUST COMPLICATE THE PREVIOUS ACTION
Or put differently: the event must provide an obstacle to the character’s objective(s) or desire(s).
Let’s go back to my earlier statement and explain why you should not brainstorm ACTIONS but rather EVENTS.
Once you have established a character, i.e. decided what is specific, unique about this specific character, you will show this by showing the character’s response to certain events. Therefore, you have no choice about the resulting action: it will follow necessarily from the combination of event + character.
Conversely, if you want your character to take a particular action, you will need to find an event that would trigger that specific action.
Finally there is the kind of event that creates a (seeming) dilemma to the character. These are simply the very best. Robert McKee has dealt with this extensively so I won’t elaborate at this point. I put the word ‘seeming’ between brackets as I don’t believe these are REAL dilemma’s. If the function of the event is to bring out the truth of the character, there shouldn’t necessarily be two ‘irreconcilable goods’ or ‘evils’. Exactly because of the core quality of the character, there should only be one