What is story?

When it comes to story, there are many different approaches and a lot of different terminologies:

And there are plenty of guides out there to help writers:

Screenwriting books

But all of these either are overloaded with plot points, try to rewrite the terminology, or don't explain things clearly enough. I wanted something less formulaic, more flexible for different story types, and focused more on character.


Enter Jerry Cleaver's Immediate Fiction:

Immediate Fiction, by Jerry Cleaver

After reading his book, I came to understand that story is this simple formula:

(Want/Obstacle) + (Action/Response) + Outcome = Story

What does that mean?

A character wants something, but an obstacle stands in her way. Therefore, she takes action, which gets a response, creating conflict. She will continue taking new actions, facing new responses, until she comes to an outcome that is either positive or negative.


  • It offers a balance between plot and character.
  • It creates a self-contained piece of action.
  • It reflects all human action: want, action, response all define who we are and our character.
WOARO = a self-contained piece of action


These are the goals that drive your characters, and two types occur in story:


These wants operate in the boundaries of story and push it forward. It is often what the audience expects from your story: get the treasure, find the killer, get the romantic love interest. They are external and specific and push your character to take action and propel the story forward.


The other operates outside the boundaries of your story. These are the BIG character goals that drive us through life. They could be happiness, love, wealth, power, or status. They are internal and abstract, and not defined by a concrete value. They rarely change.

  • Want is only dramatic if only the protagonist can’t imagine a world without it. The character must feel that satisfying their want is life or death.
  • Want is the flag you as a writer set in the ground to signal the end.


A story can’t exist in a vacuum. There is always something in conflict with want.

  • Obstacles can be another person that has their own wants, actions, and responses.
  • They can also be inner desires or drives or the ghosts that haunt a character’s past.
  • The resolution of an obstacle leads to an outcome.
  • Good writers (and directors) help orientate their audience by utilizing these principles.


Actions are the things a character does or says to get what they want. These are the moment-by-moment actions and dialogue that you show on the page. They occur from every character in your story.

  • Think about actions as active verbs that can be done to someone else (transitive verbs). For example, Tom hits Bill, or Sally kisses Greg.
  • They need to be on the page.


Actions need a response. It is the consequences of the hero or the villain’s actions. There are two levels:

  1. An external response, like fighting, yelling, running away.
  2. An internal response, like emotions or internal thoughts.
  3. When writing for the screen, we have to show external responses.
  4. Try to avoid writing internal responses. This is the focus of the director and actor.
  5. The actions and responses of a character define them.


This occurs when the want is either achieved or isn't (win or lose) at the end of the story.

  • It happens when our characters reach the limits of their resources and abilities, when no further responses and no further actions can be taken.
  • However, wanting never ends.
  • It must be realized and shown on the page.

When Working with WOARO, ask these questions:

  • Who wants what?
  • Where is the want on the page? Can it be stronger? Can it appear earlier?
  • Where is the obstacle? Where does it appear? Can it be earlier? Can it be stronger? Can it not be ignored?
  • What’s the action? Where is it? Can it appear earlier? Can they be more assertive or direct against the obstacle and towards the want?
  • What's the character's response?
  • What is the outcome. Does the character get what they want?

WOARO as Story

  • W/O + A/R + O defines the shape and beats of all scenes, sequences, acts, and scripts.
  • Each screenplay act (e.g. Act 1) is the fulfillment of a character’s action
  • Action and Response is the heart of the visual story.  SHOW IT!
Think of WOARO in terms of containers.

Should you always use WOARO?

No. Only when it’s not working do you need to go to the plan.

Final Thoughts

  • The rules that apply to large structures can be applied to small structures.
  • WOARO and 3 act structure is not about using a formula, but about finding your story’s form—finding its shape.
  • Use it to create complex, fresh stories.
  • WOARO = Story = Life

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Week 2 Exercise - External Want, External Obstacle

Write a 2-3 page scene that shows a character with an external want facing an external obstacle. The character must take an action that leads to a response from the obstacle. This must culminate in an outcome.

Marking Criteria:

  • Proper screenplay format (including active, present tense; sluglines; parentheticals; and ALL CAPS on character introductions).
  • Proper spelling, punctuation, grammar.
  • We as readers must be able to identify the external want and external obstacle, either visually or through dialogue—meaning, make sure it’s on the page.
  • Stay on the page count of the assignment.
  • 5 mistakes allowed per script.

Regarding Feedback:

  • Keep an eye open for the criteria. If you notice them, help your fellow writers.
  • Again, think reciprocity. Offer advice that you’d hope others would give you.

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