Finding the essence (or heart) of your story is much harder than it sounds. For me, it is the most difficult aspect of screenwriting. It is so much more than a hero in crisis pursuing a goal and achieving or learning something along the way. It is the deepest form of story meaning and how it impacts your audience. Sometimes, it’s called a premise.
Think of finding your story analogous to a sparring couple going to counseling to determine the root of their problems. What are they really fighting about? The husband screams his wife nags him about leaving the toilet seat up, while the wife bellows her husband prefers the TV to him. Much like a counselor, a screenwriter must get to the heart of the matter. In the case of the said couple, it’s really about lack of appreciation, not about nagging wives or vertical toilet seats.
The simplest way to define the story core is by deciding what you want your audience to gain from your story in terms of a life experience. A key reason stories have become instrumental in all communities, is to provide moral guidance. Morality tales explore our internal “ugliness” and guilt. In doing so, we ultimately become better people.
Many screenwriters confuse plot or a central theme for the deepest, purest meaning of their story. In fact, this riles all writers as they churn out scene after scene, but a script still doesn’t gel. A central theme, such as exploring the evil of excessive greed in “Wall Street” is too general. You really need to nail your story with specifics. Using this example, consider how the “Greed Is Good” mantra can be fine tuned.
The underlying story lies in Bud Fox’s (ponder the true meaning of his dliberately chosen name and the contradiction of its components) relentless desire for both himself and Gekko to remove themselves from their blue-collar roots via acquisition of dizzying levels of wealth through insider trading. At it’s emotional core, “Wall Street” is really about loathing your authentic self and unsuccessfully masking it with materialism. Because only through truly accepting ourselves, do we become people of substance.
Consider “The Fantastic Mr Fox”. The deepest story is of man’s (or Fox’s) unchanging nature. Although Mrs Fox turned him into a wage slave, Mr Fox still killed chickens, because that’s what foxes do. The snappy dialogue and escaping are devices to illuminate the premise.
Having a deep awareness of your story can save you much heartache and many re-writes, because you need to find your story before you can write it.