To create a more active story, we can borrow a technique from the acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski, who developed a unique system for actors, so that they could achieve a truthful portrayal of a character.
The Stanislavski “Method” in part requires that actors ask and answer questions about their characters and about themselves. The Magic “If” allows actors to transcend the confines of their own current reality by asking them to consider what would happen “if” things were different. For example, try to imagine what would happen if you were suddenly a member of the opposite sex? How would things be different? In Tootsie, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) uses that scenario to land a role in a soap opera.
Using the Magic “If” allows you to imagine that you are the main character in your story, giving you a foundation for building your screenplay because you know best how you would react to the situation you are writing about. By comparing your reactions with those of your characters, you will always know what to write because you can project how things would turn out if you were actually put in that same situation.
The Magic “If” is the magic wand that connects the screenwriter to the script. Ask yourself, “What if I were my character? What if I were in the same situation? What would I do? What would my character do?”
In part one, I discussed stories that worked better as novels than screenplays, specifically because they focused on a character’s thoughts and inner turmoil. But what if you still want to present this story as a screenplay? How can you add enough on-screen action to hold the viewer’s interest for two hours? Well, what “if” the character escapes from the police and does all of that thinking while he’s on the run?
The Fugitive is a great example of a desperate man reflecting on recent events, while engaged in action on-screen. Adding the chase element to the story creates the appropriate suspense and keeps the audience wondering what’s going to happen next. But remember, when you decide to add a device like a chase to your story, don’t ignore your characters. Even though the chase in The Fugitive was a strong and captivating choice, the device worked in large part because Lt. Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) was an equally interesting character.