FIVE LAWS TO CREATE A GREAT SCREEN STORY
Wonderful Screen Stories just don’t happen. They must be flawless in concept, detailed in structure, a plot that keeps the audience in their seats and a clear, precise understanding of the story’s genre
While it is impossible to have a foolproof objective formula for a great story, I have that found over the eleven years I’ve been working with writers in all shapes and sizes that there can be certain principles that if, followed, increase the chances having a positive outcome for your story.
No consultant or screenwriting teacher can guarantee that your script will sell. Anyone who does so, should be avoided completely.
- Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script.
In Gladiator, we are immediately engaged as we are introduced to – General Maximus – and the respect he commands from the Roman army. Add an action-packed, bloody opening battle to the mix, and we are sold.
In Pulp Fiction, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If a reader is with you, that person will most likely turn to page 11.
Try this test: When you finish your script, give the first ten pages to a group of people you know and ask each of them one simple question: “Do you want to read more?”
- Write economically
Throughout my years of working with aspiring writers, two common mistakes occur:
- Giving up too easily
- Excess verbiage.
In this episode I can deal with the second – excess verbiage
It shows itself in two basic areas:
Clutter in the narrative portions of the script.
‘On the nose’ dialogue.
There is no easy remedy. Screenwriting is hard as hell. There is just no other form of creative writing in the history of the earth that is more difficult.
Try to keep the paragraphs of description and action to no more than 4 sentences, three is better, shorter is good.
Use active voice, action verbs and highly descriptive adjectives. Avoid the use of pronouns and adverbs (words ending in ‘ly’) (The boy runs quickly). Try, ‘he jogs’ ‘he races’.
I could make this whole episode about ‘Clutter’ in the narrative.
‘Too many words’ will kill you each time.
“On the Nose” Dialogue
This occurs when the dialogue is not in subtext. We know exactly what a character is thinking and feeling. The cure is found in subtext dialogue. What is the meaning underneath the dialogue?
Generally, excessive dialogue that is ‘on the nose’ will always impede a script. Let the pictures and action tell the story. The two writers who excel in this area are Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. Study the dialogue in their screenplays. Even though I’ve met neither, I owe those two more than you will ever know.
- Make sure every character has a unique voice
Movies work most effectively when they are populated with characters that are unique from one another:
- Avoid stereotypes
One of the problems seen most often with new writers is the depiction of characters who feel familiar and stereotypical. The key is to go against stereotypes. It will provide a reader and the audience with a refreshing change.
- Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits – Captain Jack Sparrow, Hell and High Water’s Texas Ranger, Hannibal Lecture
- Create someone an actor will love to play
Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in. The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Julia Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.
- Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. From cynic to patriot. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” At the end, he does exactly that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves. Rick has been on a transformational journey. This more than just a character arc.
- Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America? What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a surefire way to destroy the monster? Boring!
- Understand your audience
When you are writing a screenplay, there are various audiences you should consider:
- The readers, agents, managers, producers, and studio executives who will be reading your screenplay (aka, the buyers); and
- The demographic you believe will be most interested in seeing your movie.
If your script is a comedy, it must be funny. If you are writing a horror script, it must be scary. Sounds like common sense? It isn’t. Talk to a professional reader and ask her how many comedy and horror scripts she has to read that are actually funny and scary.
Re: demographics: Hollywood studios like to categorize the world into four simple compartments, typically referred to as quadrants:
- Male under 25
- Male over 25
- Female under 25
- Female over 25
If you ever wondered why each Pixar film seems to make a billion dollars, it is primarily because the company excels at making Four Quadrant movies – films that appeal equally to males and females under 25 and over 25.
You aren’t Disney nor Pixar. Four quadrant movies are very difficult things to conjure up. Sometimes, the Producers don’t plan on having a picture that scores in the four quadrants.
But be aware of the quadrants and the ‘demo’s’ – a radio and TV term used to describe audiences.
Try not worry too much about the ‘demo’s’. Focus on writing an amazing story.
- Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story
As Sam Goldwyn said back in 1912, “They want the same thing, only different.”
Because the average studio picture costs over $150 million to produce and market, the major studios put considerable amounts of capital and person hours into a standard film. They tend to be in the risk aversion business as much as they are in the movie business. The impact on you is that these buyers of product tend to gravitate toward the familiar – stories they think will have the best chance at attracting a global audience.
Your first script sale probably won’t be to Warner Brothers or Paramount. But study the movies they make – the good and bad – we don’t have to like a particular film to learn from it.
I tell my clients over and over. Watch movies in your genre with stories that maybe similar to yours.
This episode of ON LOCATION, is an abbreviated excerpt from Jeffrey Hirschberg’s recently published book: “Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV.”
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