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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.