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.
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.
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…
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.