Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How To Write A Great Script

Everybody always says it. The one surefire way to break into the industry is to write a great script. “All you have to do is write a great script,” they say. “Ohhhh,” you reply, “That’s it? “That’s all I had to do all this time?? Was write a great script? Well why didn’t you say so? And here I was working on my 20th really bad script!” Bitter reactions aside, it’s true. Write a great script and you’re in.

What hasn’t been clarified is what “great” means. Well I got to thinking (yes, it does happen). Why don’t I post exactly what a “great script" is so there’s no more confusion? Now when we say, “Just write a great script,” people will actually have something to reference. This idea sounded brilliant when I first came up with it, but the more it marinated, the more I realized that if writing a great script could be explained in a 2500 word blog post, we'd probably all be millionaires.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer a list of 13 things I consistently see in great scripts. It may not be a step by step guide but at least it’s something. Yeah, I thought. That might work.

Now while I was hoping to provide an all-inclusive list of tips to best help you write a great script, the reality is I’ve probably forgotten a couple of things. So this is what I’m going to do. In the comments section, I want you to include what YOU think makes a great script. Over the course of today and tomorrow, I’ll update this post to include the best suggestions from you guys. Together, we’ll create *the* perfect go-to list when it comes to writing a great script. Isn’t this wonderful? Team Scriptshadow!

So here they are, in no particular order…


This is the single most important choice you will make in writing your script because it will determine whether people actually read it or not. I used to hear agents say, “90% of the scripts out there fail before I’ve even opened them.” And it’s true. If you don’t have a compelling concept, nothing else matters. This slightly circumvents the “great” argument because nobody’s saying you can’t write a “great” script about a boy who goes home to take care of his ailing mother. But the reality is, nobody’s going to get excited about reading that script. Even the kind of people who WOULD want to read that script probably won’t because they know it’s a financial pitfall. It’ll take 5 years off their life and, in the end, play in 10 theaters and make 14,286 dollars. Now obviously an “exciting” idea is objective. But it’s fairly easy to figure out if you have something special. Pitch your idea to your 10 best friends. Regardless of what they *tell* you, read their reactions. Do their eyes and voices tell you they’re into it? If you get 10 polite smiles accompanied with a “Yeah, I like it,” it’s time to move on to the next idea. So give me your Hangovers. Give me your Sixth Senses. Shit, give me your Beavers. But don’t give me three people in a room discussing how their lives suck for 2 hours. And if you do, make it French. –


Some people call it an “active protagonist.” I just call it a character who wants something. Ripley and the marines want to go in and wipe out the aliens in “Aliens.” Liam Neeson wants to find his daughter in “Taken.” The girl in “Paranormal Activity” wants to find out what’s haunting her house. The stronger your character wants to achieve his/her goal, the more compelling they’re going to be. Now I’ll be the first to admit that passive characters sometimes work. Neo is somewhat passive in The Matrix until the end. And, of course, Dustin Hoffman is the most famous passive character of all time in The Graduate. But these characters are tricky to write and require a skill set that takes years to master. In the end, they're too dangerous to mess around with. Stick with a character who wants something.


This is one of the more hotly debated topics in screenwriting because a character we “root for” is usually defined as being “likable,” and there are a whole lot of screenwriters out there who would rather bake their craniums in a pizza oven than, gasp, make their protagonist “likable.” I got good news. Your hero doesn’t have to be “likeable” for your script to work. But you DO have to give us a character we want to root for, someone we’re eager to see succeed. He *can* be likable, such as Steve Carrel’s character in “40 Year Old Virgin.” He can be defiant, like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” But he has to have some quality in him that makes us want to root for him. If your character is mopey, whiney, and an asshole, chances are we’re not going to want to root for that guy.


Oh man. Oh man oh man oh man. As far as amateur screenplay mistakes go, this is easily one of the Top 3. Even after I explain, in detail, what the mistake is, writers continue to do it. So I’m going to try and make this clear. Are you ready? “Your story is moving a lot slower than you, the writer, believe it is.” For that reason, speed it the fuck up! In other words, that ten page sequence which contains 3 separate scenes, each pointing out in its own unique way that your hero is irresponsible? Well we figured it out after the first scene. You don’t need to waste 7 more pages telling us again…and again. Remember, readers use the first 30 pages to gauge how capable a writer is. And the main thing they’re judging is how quickly and efficiently you set up your story. In The Hangover, I think they wake up from their crazy night somewhere around page 20. You don’t want it to be any later than page 25 before we know what it is your character is after (see #2).


This is a close cousin to number 2 and a huge point of contention between writers as well. But let’s move beyond my usual argument, which is that a 120 page script is going to inspire rage from a tired reader, and discuss the actual effects of a 110 page screenplay on your story. Keeping your script under 110 pages FORCES YOU TO CUT OUT ALL THE SHIT. That funny scene you like that has nothing to do with the story? You don’t need it. The fifth chase scene at the end of the second act? You don’t need it. Those 2 extra scenes I just mentioned above that tell us the exact same information we already know about your main character? You don’t need them. I know this may be hard to believe. But not everything you write is brilliant, or even necessary for that matter. Cutting your script down to 110 pages forces you to make tough decisions about what really matters. By making those cuts, you eliminate all the fat, and your script reads more like a “best of” than an “all of.” As for some of those famous names who like to pack on the extra pages, I’ll tell you what. For every script you sell or movie you make, you’re allowed 5 extra pages to play with, as your success indicates you now know what to do with those pages. Until then, keep it under 110. And bonus points if you keep it under 100.


Does everyone in your script get along? Is the outside world kind to your characters? Do your characters skip through your story with nary a worry? Yeah, then your script has no conflict. I could write a whole book on conflict but here’s one of the easiest ways to create it. Have one character want something and another character want something else. Put them in a room together and, voila, you have conflict. If your characters DO happen to be good friends, or lovers, or married, or infatuated with each other, that’s fine, but then there better be some outside conflict weighing on them (Romeo and Juliet anyone?). Let me give you the best example of the difference between how conflict and no conflict affect a movie. Remember The Matrix? How Trinity wanted Neo but she couldn’t have him yet? Remember the tension between the two? How we wanted them to be together? How we could actually feel their desire behind every conversation? The conflict there was that the two couldn’t be together. Now look at The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Trinity and Neo are together. They’re always happy. And they’re always F’ING BORING AS HELL! The conflict is gone and therefore so is our interest. If your story isn’t packed with conflict, you don’t have a story.


Your script should have plenty of obstacles your main character encounters in pursuit of his goal. A big issue I see in a lot of bad scripts is that the main character’s road is too easy. The more obstacles you throw at your hero, the more interesting a script tends to be, because that’s why we come to the movies in the first place, to see how our hero heroically overcomes the problems he’s presented. He can’t be heroic if he doesn’t run into anything that tests his heroism. Go watch any of the Bourne movies to see how obstacles are consistently thrown at a character. And a nice side effect? Each obstacle creates conflict!


A great script continually surprises you. Even if the story seems familiar, the characters’ actions and the twists and turns are consistently different from what we expected. The most boring scripts I read are ones where I have a good sense of what’s going to happen for the next 5 or 6 scenes. Remember, readers have read everrryyyyyything. So you really have to be proactive and outthink them to keep them on their toes. The Matrix is a great example of a script that continually surprises you. The first time you watched that movie (or read that script) you rarely had any idea where the story was going.


Ticking time bombs can get a bad rap because they have such an artificial quality to them, but oh how important they are. What’s so great about them? They add * immediacy* to your story. If a character doesn’t have to achieve his goals right now, if he can achieve them next week or next year, then the goal really isn’t that important, is it? We want to watch a character that has to achieve his goal RIGHT NOW or else he loses everything. Sometimes ticking time bombs are clear as day (Hangover: They need to find Doug by noon on Saturday to get him back in time for his wedding), sometimes they’re more nuanced (Star Wars Luke needs to get the details of that battle station to the Rebel Alliance before they find and destroy the planet), but they’re there. If you don’t have a ticking time bomb in your script, you better have a damn good reason why.


If your character achieves his ultimate goal, there needs to be a great reward. If your character fails to achieve his ultimate goal, there needs to be huge consequences. The best use of stakes is usually when a character’s situation is all or nothing. Rocky’s never going to get another shot at fighting the heavyweight champion of the world. This is it. Those stakes are damn high. If Wikus doesn’t get Christopher up to the mothership in District 9, he’s going to turn into a fucking alien. Those stakes are damn high. If all a character loses by not achieving his goal is a couple of days out of his life, that’s not very exciting, is it? And that’s because the stakes are too low.


We need to emotionally connect with your characters on some level for us to want to follow them for 110 minutes (NOT 120!). The best way to do this is to give your character a flaw, introduce a journey that tests that flaw, and then have him transform into a better person over the course of that journey. This is also known as having your character “arc.” When characters learn to become better people, it connects with an audience because it makes them believe that they can also change their flaws and become better people. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogan is a grade-A fuck-up, the most irresponsible person on the planet. So the journey forces him to face that head on, and learn to become responsible (so he can be a parent). You always want a little bit of heart in your script, whether it’s a drama, a comedy, or even horror.


Remember, your ending is what the reader leaves with. It is the last image they remember when they close your script. So it better leave a lasting impression. This is why specs like The Sixth Sense sell for 2 million bucks. If you go back into that script, there are actually quite a few slow areas. But you don’t remember them because the ending rocked. And I’m not saying you have to add a twist to every script you write. But make sure the ending satisfies us in some way, because if you leave us with a flat generic finale, we ain’t going to be texting our buddies saying, “Holy shit! You have to read this script right now!”


This last tip is the scariest of them all because it’s the one you have the least control over. It’s called the X-Factor. It is the unexplainable edge that great scripts have. Maybe it’s talent. Maybe the variables of your story came together in just the right way. Maybe you tap into the collective unconscious. A great script unfortunately has something unexplainable about it, and unfortunately, some of that comes down to luck. You could nail every single tip I’ve listed above and still have a script that’s missing something. The only advice I can give you to swing the dreaded X Factor in your favor is to write something you’re passionate about. Even if you’re writing Armageddon 2, create a character who’s going through the same trials and tribulations you are in life. You’ll then be able to connect with the character and, in turn, infuse your script with passion. Probably the best example of the X-factor’s influence on a script is American Beauty. A lot of people didn’t understand why they liked American Beauty. They just did. The Brigands of Rattleborge is another example. It just seeps into you for reasons unknown. I sometimes spend hours thinking about the X-Factor. How to quantify it. It’s the Holy Grail of screenwriting. Figure it out and you hold the key to writing great scripts for the rest of your life.

So there you have it. I’ve just given you the 13 keys to writing a great script. Now some of you have probably already come up with examples of great scripts that don’t contain these “rules.” And it’s true. Different stories have different requirements. So not every great script is going to contain all 13 of these elements. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a great script that doesn’t nail at least 10 of them. So now I’ll leave it up to you. What attributes do you consistently see in great scripts?

P.S. - Tomorrow I'll post a review for a recent spec sale which you can read and break down to see if it has all 13 of these elements. So make sure to sign up for my Facebook Page or my Twitter so you're updated when the post goes up. If I have to take the script link down, you'll miss out.