Choosing Your Story and Structuring Your Movie, by Zena Dell Lowe

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Zena Dell Lowe

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference and met many talented professionals. Zena, a writer, director, and filmmaker was among those. This week I’ll be sharing some of her awesome lectures from the conference. I hope you’ll find them helpful.

Zena graduated from Cal State University Northridge with a BA in English Literature, and Biola University in La Mirada with a Masters in Apologetics. She works as a writer, director and filmmaker in the entertainment industry, and co-owns Skirt Films, an independent film production company based in Bozeman, MT. Zena also runs the Mission Ranch Beef side of the business with her husband, Zach, a civil engineer for DOWL HKM in Bozeman. The boxed beef enterprise sells Mission Ranch Beef directly to consumers and has had a three-year growth rate of 500% per year. To find out more about Mission Ranch Beef, see our website at

If you’d like to learn more about Zena check out CLASH ENTERTAINMENT’s interview of her HERE.

Choosing Your Story and Structuring Your Movie

Session Summary: This session will cover the sources for screen projects, namely theme vs. arena vs. what-if premises.  

Getting started as a screenwriter

Everyone starts too soon.  The first step is to find your story.

What is a Story?

A story is the telling of an event that happens to a certain individual or group of individuals.

If after 10 pages a reader is still shaking his head and wondering what this story is about, your screenplay just got a pass.

A Story is a Telling – not a slice of life.  Hitchcock – “Some people want to make movies that are a slice of life. I prefer to make movies that are a slice of cake.”

They are not meant to be as close to real life as possible. Real life is slow, tedius, and boring. Movies are a heightened reality. They’re better than real.

A story is something that is deliberately and meticulously crafted. Every word, every detail in your screenplay must have something to do with that story. There is nothing unneeded or superfluous. It is a tight, unified whole.

A story is the telling of an EVENT – something has to happen for there to be a story about it. If something happens, it happens in time. The event has a moment where it begins, and where it ends.

A good story sweeps the readers in on the beginning, and carries them on the journey until the end.  It’s a ride that GOES somewhere.


At the end of the screenplay, you should be able to sum up what the story was about in a few sentences. Jaws – was about a man-eating shark, and a man who has to stop it.

But it’s about more than what it’s about. Magnolia – it’s about these characters, but it’s really about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons, and the only way to put off God’s judgment is to repent and forgive.

Most beginner screenwriters don’t know when to begin their stories. Hit the ball when it is on the rise. Jump into the action without providing all the backstory and history. Today’s audience is sophisticated. Just tell the story. They’ll figure out the rest.

GOLDMAN says, “Start as late as possible.

A story is the telling of an event that happens to a CERTAIN INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS.

All good stories are character driven. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all about who the event is happening to that makes the story interesting.

This is a story about a group of people who shipwreck on a deserted island. Now here’s the clincher – the people who are shipwrecked are a professor, a movie-star, a bumbling captain and his first mate, the girl next door, and a millionaire and his wife. What is it? Gilligan’s Island.

Story is all about point-of-view. A different POV will change the story. For instance, try telling Cinderella from the Prince’s POV. It’ll be different than Cinderella’s.

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Is Your Story Good Before Hollywood?  

A Formula that Works for Hollywood has these three elements:  Heart, Smarts, and Sparkle (Logos, Pathos, Ethos)

Heart is the emotional connection your character makes with your audience.

Smarts – two ways to get smarts: Arena and Insight

Arena – taking people into a world they haven’t seen before.

Doesn’t have to be a new planet. Can be the fish market down the street. Freshness/original.

Examples include: Perfect Storm, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Six Feet Under.

Insight – profound lines, smart themes, something clever = the smart factor. Momento, Annie Hall – Smart Factor = Structure 

Sparkle – the extra magic

Hard to quantify, but this is the most important.

The sparkle in Pirates of the Caribbean is the performance of Johnny Depp.  Otherwise, a it’s just a conventional pirate movie.

Sixth Sense – without the twist, the movie would be okay, but the twist is the sparkle (the twist is also the smart).

Originality, Good – Weirdness, Bad  – there is a subset of spec scripts from beginning writers that the writers all think are original, but which are in fact all pretty much clones of one another. New Age/Sci-Fi scripts, dealing with the future, UFO’s parallel dimensions, out of body experiences, bizarre creatures, and usually featuring beings named Zeldron, with dialogue that’s jammed with esoteric code words and arcane phrases.  

These stories may be original, but they are impossible to understand. 

From THE HOLLYWOOD NEWS:  We frequently read historical biographies about figures few people have heard of, science fiction opuses that would cost the entire gross national product of Costa Rica to produce, or “true stories” that are irrelevant to anybody except the people they are based on. The same goes for people who try to revive dead genres – westerns, musicals, sword and sandal epics, pirate stories, etc.

Better idea is to tell a normal story in an original way. Examples: Finding Nemo; As Good as it Gets

  • Is it Commercial?  We’re snotty when it comes to this – especially Christians. But commerciality means mass appeal – which we should want. Here are some ways to test whether or not your story idea is commercial.


Name recognition – is this screenplay based on anything famous like a trend or compic book hero? Something popular in pop culture?  A historical event that got a lot of air play?

What is a “Tent-pole” Movie? A movie that tends to sell because it’s got something supporting it already. It’s less of a risk.

Thrillers (small casts, lots of suspense, person-to-person violence)

Action adventures (car chases, things that blow up)

Comedies (romantic or broad) these stories tend to sell. Hollywood wants Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park – just not from you. Yet. You have to earn the right.

Previously published material – If something actually made it to book form, then Hollywood will give it a good once over. A book means that somebody actually saw some merit in the project and was willing to take a risk on it.

Holiday material – A tie to Christmas or Thanksgiving? Always looking for Holiday fare.

Young adult market – Largest demographic of movie-goers is 16-35 year olds. Remarkably undiscriminating in their tastes. A good date movie is always commercial.

Is it a true story?

Urgency of Your Story – Why does this story have to be told? Why does it have to be told now? Even with truth-based dramas, there needs to be a justification for telling it now.

Is it Visual?

What is the Budget?

Are You the Best One to Tell This Story?  Not every person can tell every story.  You may be too close to it, unfamiliar with the world, or not good at writing women and it’s a woman’s piece.  You may be the person to create the idea, but find another writer to tell it.

The Four Kinds of Stories: 

They are all about character  (Extraordinary People in Ordinary Arena…) and seem to be GENRE SPECIFIC


Most Woody Allen Movies

When Harry Met Sally – most comedies
Most Dramas – Unfaithful

Most teen movies – 16 Candles, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, etc.


Most modern Action movies and most modern Horror or Action Sci-Fi (Alien) movies

Die Hard; Fugitive; All the President’s Men; Terminator (Sarah Connor)

Friday the 13th, Jeepers Creepers, Scream, etc.


Often Historical dramas about famous people

Joan of Ark; Napoleon; Pollack

Comic Book Movies

Spiderman; Superman; The Hulk

There’s always “exceptions” to the genre rule – ie Forest Gump


Often Sci-Fi Movies such as X-Men; Star Wars; etc.

Often Asian films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Stories vs. Arenas

A setting for a movie is called an arena. Having an interesting, original, quirky arena is important for the success of your story, but it is NOT the story.

Examples of arenas:

The only POW camp for women in WWII Japan.

The international space station is spinning off into outer space.

These are settings, but they don’t give any real idea of who the characters are and what obstacle they are going to have to overcome.

They might make good ideas for movies, but they’re not movies yet. They are simply settings.

Sometimes an arena starts with a What-If Premise (What if Joseph Mengele had lived)

Others start with a Theme (In Magnolia – PT Anderson wanted to write a film about Forgiveness)

Stop back tomorrow for more from ZENA DELL LOWE.

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