Meet Your New Swiss Army Knife: Use The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting to Structure Your Screenplay Fast

Posted by John Warner on

Most of us have read quite a few books on screenwriting, attended classes, watched videos and perhaps even had some success selling our screenplays. Somehow, the best process for structuring a screenplay or TV show remains elusive, so we continue to search for better ways to write our scripts. I have found an answer that will allow you to use what you already know, better and more efficiently.

The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

The Questions are a technique that when applied to dramatic structure makes the process of organizing a plot easy and fun. The Questions are like a Swiss Army Knife; it’s a compact tool that is all you need to finally conquer screenplay structure.

When I developed the Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting (4MQS) and began to use with them with my students, their writing expanded and grew. My students who were already writing superior first drafts using the writing method explained in my book, How To Write A Screenplay in 10 Weeks, were suddenly writing even better drafts, those who were further along in the process began using the 4MQS and their rewrites, loglines, query letters and pitches began to dramatically improve as well. The results were instantly apparent in the increased number of students who began to place well in screenplay competitions, find agents and producers, get optioned and financed. In addition, they became more prolific and excited, because they had discovered a sharp tool to help shape their stories. Below is a brief description of how the 4MQS can help you at the various stages of your writing process.

How To Structure A New Screenplay Using The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

This is often a stressful task because screenplays are such a specific form of dramatic writing. We are taught to emphasize the plot at the expense of the characters. This doesn’t work well. If your characters really come to life, they will be as uncooperative as “real” people. If you force them through the steps of a predesigned plot, your story will feel contrived. The key is to conceive plot and character together. By answering the 4MQS for your hero or heroine and your villain or obstacle, you will immediately create a character-driven, well-plotted story that can rise to a satisfying climax. Your script will also be easier to rewrite because the foundation is organically built because the main character’s dream drives the plot.

How To Revise A Screenplay Using The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

The two main problems in first draft screenplays, excluding lack of talent, are first, a hero or heroine who is passive and reacts to rather than drives the story, and second, and many times completely overlooked, a lack of urgency and consequences in the plot. With the 4MQS, it’s virtually impossible to make these mistakes. The questions guide us to the solution of these problems at the moment of conception. If you already have a draft, and you can answer the 4MQS, you will clearly see the challenges in your story and then be able to adjust it. You can look at the structure of the entire script, and remain temporarily aloof from the actual words you have used.

How To Write A Logline Using The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

When writing a logline, it’s critical that the hero or heroine’s journey is:

  1. Simply presented, 
  2. Full of promise and 
  3. Provides the suggestion of exciting possibilities.

By using the first Magic Question, you will easily be able to express your hero or heroine’s journey and the jeopardy he/she must overcome. By focusing on the Main Character’s dream, your logline will create a sympathetic protagonist and a clear obstacle that he or she must overcome.

How To Write A Query Letter Using The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

When you write a query letter, the meat of the letter is the one-paragraph description of your story. When you use the 4MQS they will help you use your hero or heroine’s dream to write a better synopsis paragraph. Many times this can feel harder than writing the script.

How To Write A Pitch Using The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting

When preparing a verbal pitch, the key is to instantly engage your listener, so that you will be asked, “What happens next?” and then, “We’d like to read the script.” A sure fire way to get these responses is to use the 4MQS to develop your pitch.

How To Use The Four Magic Questions Of Screenwriting

Having made this claim, I will now show you how this technique works.

The 4MQS are a series of questions that when answered in order, help capture the essence of the hero or heroine’s journey and the dramatic function of each part of a screenplay. A Swiss Army Knife has several blades, each with a different function. Each of the Magic Questions is a tool for cutting through the challenge in the part of the story it addresses.

If we use the 3-act structure posited to us in Aristotle’s book of fragments, “The Poetics,” as the basis for screenplay structure, the first step in understanding how to use the Magic Questions is to separate the long second act into two shorter parts of approximately thirty pages each. This changes the 3-act structure into a format that has 4 parts of roughly equal length. While this technique alone can be helpful, it is not enough to solve the problem. The key is to understand that the two parts of Act 2 are actually two separate episodes, each with its own dramatic function. The smaller chunk of story combined with the right question leads you to find the correct events that will further your hero or heroine’s quest.

Caveat Emptor

When you assign a Magic Question to each section of your screenplay, no matter where you are in the creation or marketing process, you will always be in control. There is now a way for you to evaluate your own material without getting lost in the words. Here’s the danger: if you dispense with the difficulties in the mechanics of your work, you must face the true challenge: to make your story good enough! Therefore, by answering the 4MQS you make use of four incisive questions and are now able to answer honestly to “Do I have a great idea?” If you now invest the time you used to spend struggling with structure working to make your idea fresh and original, your chances of further success will greatly improve.

What Are the Four Magic Questions Of Screenwriting? 

These are the “blades” in the Four Magic Questions Of Screenwriting Swiss Army Knife applied to Screenplay structure:

  • Act 1, ask yourself 4MQS#1: What Is The Main Character’s Dream?
  • Act 2, part 1, ask yourself 4MQS #2: What Is The Main Character’s Worst Nightmare?
  • Act 2, part 2, ask yourself 4MQS #3: Who Or What Would The Main Character “Die” For?
  • Act 3, ask yourself 4MQS#4: What Is The Resolution Of The Dream Or A New Dream?

As you can see, using these Magic Questions gives you a compact set of sharp tools that will help you improve your writing forever.

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