What I look for in a script

As I read screenplays and offer script consulting and coaching, there are a few main elements I tend to look for, focus on, and try to help writers achieve.  I think these aspects tend to be present in the most successful movies and the ones most of us love – and that they form a good basic mission statement for creating commercial scripts which can advance careers and get sold and produced.

Conceptual

  • A main character whose engaging personality and “compromised life” are capable of winning over an audience’s emotional investment and becoming their subjective perspective for the story.  (In rare exceptions, there may be an ensemble of several main characters – each with their own mini-stories – who perform an identical, if abbreviated function.)
  • A big problem for that main character that will take the whole movie to solve – one that can compel an audience to care, and which feels “real” and unique in some way.
  • A plan and obstacles to their success that are entertaining to watch (i.e., will lead an  audience to feel something they want to feel – thrilled, fascinated, awed, amused, inspired, moved, etc.).
  • A comfortable and complete fit within one of the ten story types or “genres” Blake Snyder lays out in Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.
  • A worthwhile inner journey for the character to go on that will be interwoven with them trying to solve their outer problem – along with some sort of “Influence Character” who disagrees about their approach (from the Dramatica theory of story), which becomes their central relationship.

Structural

  • First act:
    • Enough setup in the opening ten pages to command sympathetic interest in the main character and their situation.
    • A clear “Catalyst” that rocks their world completely, and which demands to be resolved and dealt with, right away.
    • Believable reactions and active attempts to deal with that Catalyst which fail and leave them only one difficult choice – which will be the adventure of Act Two.
  • Second act:
    • A sense of entering a new world as the character embarks on a big adventure to resolve their problem.
    • Enjoyable to watch hellishness for them from the get-go as they try to adjust to this new world, this new situation, and take first steps to solve their problems, which fail.
    • A sense of rising stakes and difficulties as things get worse and worse, and eventually fall completely apart.
  • Third act:
    • A new hope and new plan arise, which send the main character on a big final push to solve the problem – the hardest one yet, that presses them to their limit.
    • Their inner journey and outer journey both reach a hard-won resolution, and a dramatically satisfying new status quo emerges.

Writing execution

  • Every scene has a problem/conflict which builds to some sort of turn within the scene, and changes  the status quo of the main problems of the story (and thus “advances” it).
  • We stay predominantly inside the main character’s perspective as we experience the story from inside their point-of-view.  Their thoughts, desires, and plans are clear and relatable (not mysterious), so that the audience can be “living” the story as if they were them.
  • Action and scene description is vivid, clear and concise, making for an easy and fun read.
  • Dialogue feels natural – meaning character’s real thoughts and emotions are largely left to subtext.  They don’t voice information the audience needs, if it’s not believable to the moment; rather, exposition is hidden within conflict and spectacle.
  • Formatting fits within professional norms.
     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

14 Comments

  1. michael

    Hi Erik,

    You say “We stay predominantly inside the main character’s perspective as we experience the story from inside their point-of-view.” Can you please flesh out how does one does this?

    Cheers,
    Michael

  2. You mention Dramatica, but only refer to 3 Acts in your structural breakdown. What are your thoughts on Dramatica’s proposed 4-Act structural model, and how would you revise the structural breakdown analysis for a film/story with the four acts?
    Thanks!

    • I think Dramatica talks about some movies seeming to emphasize the 3 “journeys” and thus appearing to have “3 acts”, whereas other emphasize the 4 “signposts” and thus feel like they have 4 acts. I personally don’t think the two approaches are incompatible, and that the traditional 3-act structure approach tends to be more accessible and workable for most writers. You could also say that Act 2A (of 3) is Act 2 and Act 2B (of 3) is Act 3 out of 4 acts without necessarily changing anything. One can go way deeper than this in a discussion of Dramatica (and I do love their theory and use it a lot), but as a quick answer, I would say “no real revision necessary,” and they can both work together. Dramatica just approaches story from a different perspective.

  3. Frank Davis

    How do you feel about scripts with an ambiguous ending? May a lost crusade be a satisfying ending?

    • I think ambiguous tends to be unsatisfying and less commercial, but it all comes down to whether the audience truly feels that the main story problems have been resolved, whether positively or negatively. If it feels like no real resolution, it can feel like the story is incomplete…

  4. Rich

    Just saw “Boyhood”, that is getting “99% favorable” reviews. Everybody is raving about it, yet it seemingly avoids the advice of all the screenwriting gurus: It has attractive characters that we relate too,,, yes. But beyond that, no big crisis… just a lot of very ordinary (did I say VERY ordinary) stuff going on. Couldn’t be more simple.

    Yet it is engaging. Hmmmmmm !?

    • I agree that BOYHOOD doesn’t really have a story in the traditional sense, and that the characters and scenes are appealing and engaging at times. I love the filmmaker and some of his other work, but for my money, it was also a bit long and meandering, and the “ordinariness” and lack of narrative focus ended up being a detriment. I personally believe the positive reviews and love the movie is receiving is mostly about the unique PROCESS by which it was made (which is intriguing and cool), as opposed to its content working as a movie, on its own.

  5. Chris Zhus

    Very helpful, thanks for this!
    I have a question about the third act:

    “Their inner journey and outer journey both reach a hard-won resolution, and a dramatically satisfying new status quo emerges”

    -What if the hero looses some Kind of competition, but succeeds in something personal?
    Must the hero succeed at all?

    Thanks in adavance!

  6. In the opening, must the reader always feel sympathy/empathy with the hero? My hero is a royal pain. What I hope to accomplish is curiosity.

    • I think the more unsympathetic they are, the bigger (and more relatable) problems they need to be facing, right away. Sometimes someone is a jerk because the whole point of the movie is a comeuppance that will change them, like in LIAR LIAR (though even he had good qualities, with his son). The general rule is that empathy and relatability, and usually real sympathy, is necessary to make the audience want to follow them…

  7. Patrick OToole

    Wow, this post is a screenwriting course all by itself. Thanks. This is getting posted on the wall next to my desk.

  8. Erik, I will try your advice, in my rewrites, to set up the connection with the character and emotional drive in my story. Thanks, Janet

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