The 20 Script Must-Haves

Jan 28, 2017 by

The 20 Script Must-Haves

The things that make screenwriting hard to succeed at are not mysterious. They’re just not easy to achieve.

Successful scripts differ from unsuccessful ones for some pretty concrete reasons.

Below you’ll find my list of the 20 most important attributes of screenplays and teleplays.

In my work coaching and consulting with writers, one or more of these tend to be what I’m almost always commenting on, and trying to improve.

You’ll notice two important elements are conspicuously absent: (1) dialogue — which should be believable, unique to character, and have subtext — and (2) description — which needs to only tell the reader what the viewing audience would see and understand on screen, and do so vividly and concisely.

Interesting that those two wouldn’t make the list, given that they are the only things one can see on the page, and therefore, seem like they represent the fundamentals of good screenwriting. But it’s the foundational story elements that matter much more, and are the hardest to get right. It’s easy to polish dialogue and description. But it doesn’t help much to do so, if these other 20 elements aren’t there.

But if they are… you and your script will be in the 99th percentile. It will “work,” and professional readers will be impressed.

The list is divided into what I see as the three most important areas of any script — (1) the central story problem, (2) the main character, and (3) the scenes themselves. Within most of them, you’ll find a link to an article on my blog that discusses that item in more detail.

Without further ado, here is the list:

 

THE 20 MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS IN A SUCCESSFUL SCRIPT

The central story problem needs:

1. Big enough external life stakes.

2. Extreme difficulty, in solving it.

3. Intriguing originality.

4. To be believable, understandable and relatable.

5. To build and complicate throughout the script.

6. To begin about 10% in, and resolve only at the end.

 

The scenes should:

1. Be experienced through a clear main character’s perspective.

2. Consistently focus on meaningful conflict which advances the story.

3. Be entertaining, which means fun to watch in some way.

4. Show (illustrate and dramatize), instead of tell.

5. Be based on clear and believable character motivations and actions.

 

The main character of the story should:

1. Actively try to work toward their goal (to solve their problem) in every scene.

2. Be driven by feelings, desires and plans that are made clear to the audience.

3. Be punished consistently and losing their battle.

4. Be easy to identify with, care about, and even “root for.”

5. Be the one who pushes the story forward, and ultimately solves it.

 

Finally, television pilots should (in addition to the above):

1. Serve as a clear example of a typical episode, not just an introduction to the series.

2. Consist of stories that build to a huge climax and resolve in some way, in the pilot.

3. Interweave their stories so we’re always in one of them, with a clear main character to that story/scene.

4. Make clear what compelling problems will drive the series, and each important character.

 

As always, comments are welcome. If there are great successful scripts that you feel violate any of these, let me know, and we’ll discuss…

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

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11 Comments

  1. Griffin Detrick

    Erik – as always really enjoyed the article. Re # 1. “Actively try to work toward their goal (to solve their problem) in every scene.”

    How about scenes which appear to be present purely for character development/backstory?

    Take the recent Affleck film “The Accountant”. By no means a perfect film, there were flashback scenes sprinkled throughout that I thought worked very well in developing the main character and explaining his present day motivations and world outlook.

    These scenes were of the main character’s childhood life and how his overbearing father had difficulty coping with an autistic son.

    To me, they were very relatable and heightened my connection with the main character.

    However, they mostly consisted of the father doing things to the main character, so it seems to contradict the notion that EVERY SCENE needs to show the main character actively try to work toward their goal.

    I can also think of scenes that show main characters outside of the central conflict of the story (at work, with family) that add depth to characters, but again — are not necessarily them trying to solve or work towards a goal.

    Look forward to your response. Thanks!

    • Great questions Griffin!

      I think the standard teaching is that every scene needs to advance story, and/or develop/reveal character. But I see so many scripts with so many scenes that don’t seem to advance story, but don’t dramatically develop the main character either (though maybe that was their goal), that I shy away from promoting the idea that scenes can “just” be about revealing/developing character. Though if done really well, they sometimes can be.

      I also would say that “actively working toward their goal” can equate to “actively suffering from their problem,” as problem/goal are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes the opposition is attacking, and the main character is playing more “defense” than “offense.”

      For back story scenes (or “Set-up” scenes in the first ten pages), the current overall story problem might not have emerged yet, so those scenes would generally be helping the audience understand the character and how he got there.

      The most important thing in all of this, I think, is that every scene should be focused on conflict — significant and meaningful conflict which impacts the main character, which they have to deal with in some way.

    • Steven

      I think it’s dangerous to include a scene just for the sake of character development if it doesn’t relate to the protagonist’s quest. The purpose of all scenes before the climax is to maintain or increase the audience’s involvement with the protagonist’s mission, and a scene of character development doesn’t NECESSARILY do that. Sherlock Holmes’ cocaine addiction, for example, might or might not be relevant–it depends on the story.

      It seems to me that the bare minimum for a scene is to make the audience think that the protag is more likely or less likely to fulfill the quest. A scene of antagonists plotting their strategy or a flashback that shows how the protag’s previous experience will promote or stymie success would be relevant.

      • Griffin

        Good points both Erik and Steven. Both of your last sentences/points explain why I think the flashback scenes in my example were “successful”.

        1. The flashbacks showed the main character dealing with significant conflict that impacted him

        2. That conflict has relevancy to the success or failure of the protag’s current quest

  2. Hi Erik, I’ve followed you for a few years now and love your notes of wisdom. I hope you can get to see my new show “The Kettering Incident” showing on Amazon Prime in the US. It got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Hopefully you’ll see your advice paying off 🙂 x

  3. Steven

    Not so much an exception, but a broadening. Your discussion of empathy (including the two linked articles) provides plenty of wiggle room, but I think the real essence is stated in the likability article: “Do I have some strong emotional connection yet, and some reason to want to follow this character and this story?” In a few extreme cases (and these are not mainstream films), all that’s necessary is for the viewer to want to know how the protagonist fares with the quest. I’m not talking about the standard anti-hero. The protagonist can be detestable, unrelatable, a total jerk, a cipher–practically a villain–so long as the audience wants to know how the story turns out.
    Peeping Tom
    The variations of Dangerous Liaisons
    In the Company of Men
    Fellini’s Casanova
    Barry Lyndon
    Kiss Me Deadly
    Naked
    American Psycho
    The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

    These are unusual films, but they are watchable. I think the one irreducible characteristic is the audience’s desire to know whether or not the protagonist will succeed. If the audience likes / empathizes with the protagonist but doesn’t care very much what happens in the end, the story is likely to fail.

    • Good points, Steven. I do think if what the main character is trying to do REALLY grabs the audience, and things are SO intriguing or entertaining, sometimes we tend to give a “jerk” somewhat of a pass, but I do agree that it’s extremely rare in mainstream commercial films…

      • Steven

        I thought about this idea more after reading your Out of the Bottle post. In the examples I used, the audience empathizes with or roots for the victim of the jerk. They’re like monster movies with the evil protagonist (who almost always refuses to arc) as the monster.

  4. Charles DeRykus

    Hi Erik, the only thing that leaves a small lump of head scratching with me is that each scene be “experienced through a clear main character’s perspective”. Of course, as you expand on in the link, an ensemble, with interweaving character mini-stores, departs a bit because other characters need to have their own emotional arc to engage the audience and avoid seeming to be told “objectively from above”. So I guess I’m still trying to de-code what “through the main character’s perspective” actually means. Are you suggesting a common thematic element in their arcs needs to be present such as the “hidden prejudice” in “Crash”?

    • Great and important question, Charles. What I mean is that every scene is about the main character trying to get what they want and encountering conflict, and we understand, relate to and care about what they want, and we are focused on how they feel and what they want at all times, so that we feel bonded to them, and are experiencing the story almost as if we “are” them — seeing other characters and events through their perspective. You do this by making that emotional perspective the central thing you focus on and that drives the movie from scene to scene.

      The only difference in an ensemble movie like CRASH is that you have multiple stories within the movie, each with its own main character. But in every scene, you are still doing that same thing, focusing on that story’s main character, and what they think, feel, want and are trying to do.

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