Thursday, May 3, 2012

Screenwriting Article - The Key To Making Your Script Unforgettable

One thing I believe I've done a fairly good job of on the site is reinforce the value of structure. You guys understand the inciting incident. You understand where the first act turn needs to be. You understand goals, stakes, and urgency. Some of the more advanced writers understand obstacles and conflict. All of these things are going to give you, at the very least, a solid screenplay.

But lately, I've been running into a lot of screenplays that do all of these things, yet are still boring.

You’d think that if somebody executed my precious GSU, I’d be preparing a 5 course meal of praise for them. But as wonderful as my darling little GSU is, it can’t make up for a crater-sized emotional void in a screenplay. And there are more craters in these scripts than there are on a full moon. They leave me feeling…empty. They don’t connect in some way.

A while back I wrote an article about the 13 things that every screenplay should have. At the end of that article, I talked about something called the “X-Factor.” The X factor is that indefinable thing that elevates a script above the pile. It’s that special sauce that makes all the pieces melt together. I call it the X-Factor because it’s hard to quantify. Something feels exciting and fresh and charged about the screenplay, but you can’t put your finger on what it is.

I believe I've finally figured out what it is.


These well-executed but boring screenplays don't have any soul. All of the elements are where they're supposed to be. But it’s the difference between a human being and a robot. You can feel a human being’s presence, the life beating out of them. The robot may look human, may even act human, but he emits no emotion, no love, no SOUL. So as neat as a human-looking robot is, you’ll never be able to connect with him.

So I set about trying to figure out the impossible: How to quantify SOUL. I realized I couldn’t do it in real life. But maybe I could figure it out in the screenplay world. After looking back through some of my favorite movies, I was able to identify a few things. These probably aren’t the only things that add soul to your script. But they’re the big ones. Naturally, most of them revolve around character.

RELATABLE CHARACTERS – Try to make your characters relatable in some way. There has to be something in them that’s identifiable so an audience can say, “Hey, that’s just like me,” Or “Hey, I have a friend going through the exact same thing!” This familiarity creates a connection between you and your audience that you can then use to extract emotion out of them. Because they now have a personal investment in your character, they’re more likely to care about what happens to them. It might be that your character loses someone close to them (Spider-Man), which is something a lot of people can relate to: loss. Or it might be that your character’s underestimated (Avatar), which is something a lot of us have felt in our lives. But make no mistake, if we don’t relate to the character in SOME WAY, chances are we won’t feel the power of your story.

CHARACTER HISTORY – Every day I believe more and more in character history (or character “biography”) and let me tell you why. The most boring characters I read are the most general ones. The characters I’m attracted to, the ones I want to know the most about, are unique in some way. And you can’t find the uniqueness in a person unless you know their history. Oh sure, you can give your character a quirky little habit to set them apart, like being a master harmonica player or something, but if you don’t know how or why he’s a harmonica master, it’ll just feel like a gimmick. The more work you do – the more you find out about who your character is - the more specific you can make them. If you know your character’s sister died in a car accident, for example, you can make them a cautious driver. If you know your character used to be fat, you can give him low self-esteem. If you know your character used to be a football star, he’ll probably always be bragging about the glory days. The more you know about your character, the more specific you can be. So take the time to write out those big character biographies and GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS.

CHARACTER FLAW - Creating a character flaw is a key part of giving your screenplay soul because it represents the thing about your character that most needs to change. We all have that, that monkey on our backs that won’t go away, that won’t allow us to reach our full potential. For some of us it's that we're not aggressive enough. For others it's that we let ourselves be taken advantage of. For others still it's that we don't allow people to get close to us. By giving your character something to struggle with, you invite the audience to participate in whether they’ll overcome that struggle or not. And since we all have flaws ourselves, it’s something we want to see rectified. We believe that if our hero changes, WE CAN CHANGE TOO! It inspires us. It gives us hope. And for that reason, we *feel* something.

RELATIONSHIPS - In addition to addressing your characters individually, you want to address who they are with others. Remember that our entire lives are dictated by our relationships. The people we connect with on a daily basis are our world. So you want to spend a big chunk of your screenplay exploring those relationships. Start by finding relatable issues your characters are going through. Maybe a marriage is in trouble because the husband is a workaholic. Maybe two soul mates meet but it turns out one of them is engaged. You then want to explore the conflict and the issues in those relationships in a way that’s unique to your story. And really *think* about what your characters are going through. Treat them like real people with real problems. Lester Burnham in American Beauty had to come to terms with his wife no longer loving him. It resulted in a very real exploration of a dissolving relationship. Even the most famous action movie of all time, Die Hard, has a strong core relationship at its center - John and his wife. If you're not exploring relationships as deeply and as obsessively as you can, you’re probably not writing very good screenplays.

THEME - The way I see it - Anybody can write a film with “stuff happening.” Those films can even do well at the box office if they’re targeted to the right demo. We've all seen (and quickly forgotten) Transformers. But the screenplays that are trying to say something, that are trying to leave you with something to think about, those are the screenplays readers put down and say, “Man, I have to tell somebody about this.” One of the most effective ways of doing this is to establish a theme in your movie, a “message.” Take a step back and look at your script as a whole. What is it about? What are the things that come up over and over again? Once you figure that out, you can subtly integrate that theme into the rest of your script. The Graduate, for example, is about feeling lost and directionless when you take your first steps into the world. Saving Mr. Banks is about learning how to let go. Screenplays without a theme, without a deeper message, will likely be forgotten hours after they’re finished.

I don’t care if you’re writing a character piece, an action-thriller, a horror film or a coming-of-age movie, your script has to have soul. And it ain’t going to have it with a bunch of set-pieces and snappy dialogue. Those things help, but they mean nothing unless we’re attached to the characters, care about what happens in their relationships, and feel like there’s something deeper being said here. Plot is great. A great plot can take a script a long way. But if you want your script to hit the reader on an emotional level, if you want them to remember your script past tomorrow, you’ll need to inject soul. Hopefully these tips help you do it. Good luck!