Breakout 1: Chris Corbett – How stories work

Chris Corbett has written over forty hours of television – including episodes of MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES, STINGERS, THE DOCTOR BLAKE MYSTERIES, BLUE HEELERS, THE SECRET LIFE OF US, MCLEOD’S DAUGHTERS and ALL SAINTS. He also wrote and produced the short films FENCES and THE APPLICANT which have screened at various festivals around the world including Tropfest and the Aspen Shortsfest. He has taught screenwriting at RMIT’s Professional Screenwriting Course, AFTRS, Open Channel, Melbourne University Summer Film School and at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Chris shared with us his expertise for writing scripts (which translates well to writing stories), which he structured around asking a series of questions.  So without any further ado, here are Chris Corbett’s Questions to ask of any story:

Question 1:  What is the world of the story? 

  • Is it distinct and interesting?
  • Could the story happen somewhere else or are there reasons it can only happen there?
  • What are the things the audience needs to know about this world in order to understand the story?  Eg Monsters Inc we need to know a lot of setup in the first few minutes
  • In Romeo and Juliet we need to know that this is a world where you must have your parents’ approval for your choice of partner
  • In Breaking Bad we need to know that this is set in America which does not have universal health care – so a cancer treatment can bankrupt you and leave your surviving family destitute.  The same story wouldn’t happen in Canada, France or Australia
  • Edge of Tomorrow and About Time are set in worlds that have specific rules that the story relies on

For the rest of the baker’s dozen questions, read on.

Question 2:  Who is the protagonist? 

  • What do they want?
  • How do the audience learn what the protagonist wants?
  • What does the protagonist DO to actively pursue their goal?
  • General trend – protagonists who don’t do much are not interesting (Hamlet may be the only exception)
  • How is the protagonist introduced and how do the audience get to know them?
  • Eg Dog Day Afternoon starts in the middle of the action (a bank robbery), not a week earlier when they were planning the robbery


Question 3:  What are the opposing forces? 

  • What stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal?
  • Is there an antagonist?
  • Are all the opposing forces outside the protagonist or is there also inner conflict?
  • In JAWS there is an antagonist (the shark), other strong opposing forces (the Mayor representing the traders whose livelihoods will be endangered if tourists leave the town), and you have an inner conflict (Chief Brody’s fear of water)
  • Do the obstacles / opposing forces get harder to overcome as the story progresses?
  • Are there enough opposing forces to create dramatic tension?


 Question 4:  What is the catalyst / inciting incident? 

  • What is the event without which the story would not happen?
  • If Romeo doesn’t meet Juliet there’s not much of a story
  • If  Luke Skywalker doesn’t accidentally trigger the hologram of Princess Leia he would keep living his dull life on Tatooine
  • Does the catalyst moment happen before the start of the story?
  • Does it happen too early / too late in the story?


Question 5:  What is the theme? 

  • All stories are about something
  • What do the events of the story demonstrate?
  • The theme will often emerge as you work on it.  Don’t need to know what it is at the start


Question 6:  Is there a causal chain of events?

  • Does one event lead to the next, which in turn leads to the next?
  • Are there any breaks in the chain?
  • Does the chain of events build interest and intensity?
  • Without causality there is no story
  • Between each event of your story you should be able to writher either THEREFORE or BUT
  • The relationship between the events should never be:  AND THEN
  • Writing advice from Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) on


Question 7:  What is the climax? 

  • Does the causal chain of events build to a satisfying climax?
  • Are most of the tensions / conflicts in the story resolved by the climax?

The climax doesn’t have to be all action.  eg:

  • Die Hard (action)
  • Bridges of Madison County (tension)
  • Remains of the Day (tension)


Question 8:  What is the resolution? 

  • What is the final know that has to be untied?
  • Is everything wrapped up that needs to be?
  • Is it satisfying?
  • Is it too long (Lord of the Rings)?


Question 9:  What’s at stake? 

  • What do the characters stand to lose?
  • Are the stakes as high as they can be?

Truth:  no-one gives a shit about your story.  There are many stories in the world and most of them are dreadful, don’t work


Question 10:  Does the story make you feel anything? 

If not, is that a problem?

Yes!  We are in the emotions business.  Stories are a device for delivering emotions.


Question 11:  Is it true? 

  • Doesn’t need to be based on actual events
  • Is it true to your experience of people, of life?
  • Any moments you didn’t believe?


Question 12:  Did it hold your attention? 

  • Did the story grab your attention early and hold you for the length of the story?
  • Any bits of the story that dragged?
  • Bits of the story where you thought the events could be fleshed out more?
  • Get people to read, if one person says that there is an issue then it might be then.  If 50% or more identify the same issue, you have a problem


Question 13:  What are the turning points in the story? 

  • Are there genuine fork in the road moments where a character has to make a choice?  Does believe that the story could go in another direction if the character chooses differently?
  • If so, where do they occur?
  • Is the turning point believable?
  • If people get ahead of the story, know exactly where it is going to go, then they get bored and you lose them

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