The Art of Effective and Saleable Screenwriting
NOTE: This article is a republishing. It has been revised to include updated links.
Writing for the film medium has become the modern version of the ancient art of storytelling. Unlike the novelist, the screenwriter cannot rely exclusively upon the written word, for the written word must be the screen’s spoken words in association with visual images that communicate, support, enhance and punctuate the story being told. In this way, the screenwriter has taken the place of the ancient storytellers. Men and women sitting in a darkened movie theater and sharing an emotional experience with a group of strangers is roughly the equivalent of the tribe hunkered down around the campfire, listening to the stories told by the “experienced ones”-- the warrior, the hunter, the traveler and the shaman.
New screenwriters tend to forget the most critical questions they must ask themselves when practicing their craft. First, “Do I want to write?” or “Do I want to write and sell?” Second, “If I write it, will they come?” Assuming the screenwriter chooses to “write and sell,” all too often their first efforts are based upon their own experiences and they forget that they are writing for a broader, mass-market audience that does not necessarily share their experience, opinions, etc. This requires a choice and attitude...that of being “objective” rather than “subjective” and, most difficult of all, setting aside one’s ego!
Screenwriters must also understand the nature and complexity of their stories. Is it extraordinarily expensive to produce in relation to the “genre” of the film? Does it require multiple and expensive locations; filming in unique weather conditions, e.g., snowstorms, night shoots; does it require unique, special or inaccessible terrain? Does it require complicated and expensive visual and/or computer-generated effects?
Very often, scripts are rejected without being given a “fair read" when the screenwriter is perceived as attempting to write a more expensive film than the story warrants; the weaknesses in the story or characters are initially evident; or the format and structure make the screenplay a chore to read.
THE SCREENWRITER'S TOOLS
1. STORY STRUCTURE
I recommend Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer's Journey and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine's Journey. They explain the common structure shared by all mythology, legend, religion, etc. Storytelling is as old as civilization itself. Our ancestors, regardless of the society, sat around their campfire and told stories that imparted knowledge; taught lessons about the society and how to act within that society; and often taught personal lessons, (e.g., the individual’s journey as it relates to their own life and society). However, all of these stories also entertained; for without that critical element, their “audience” would not absorb what was being imparted. Film, our contemporary way of telling stories around the campfire, can be mythical like Star Wars...or a personal journey such as an individual finding the person of his/her dreams. No matter what the message, it must entertain and hold the audience's attention, otherwise...who cares.
EXAMPLE - TERMINATOR 2
At its most intellectual level, this film is about people loving each other; avoiding wars and other conflicts; and not allowing technology to subvert our humanity -- a concept that is also present in Star Wars. From a “journey” perspective, it is the “search for the father” motif as described in Campbell. However, its enormous success was based upon a combination of factors. A huge audience found it entertaining, as is often the case with such action/adventure films, and enjoyed it as pure escapism. But the underlying and subconscious messages appeal to a “universal, collective consciousness” via the mythological basis upon which it was structured. This shared experience gave the film a foundation that could be understood by all people regardless of their background, nationality, language, etc. This translated into “box office/money” for the individuals and organizations involved in the production.
A universal, collective consciousness. Oh yeah, and lots of explosions and cool effects, too.
Look at films that emphasize a heavy, intellectual message, brilliant though they may be, and you will find their “audience/box office appeal” to be very low. When a producer looks at a screenplay, he is not (hopefully) just looking for a solid story, credible characters and something unique and/or different. He is also thinking: “Who is my audience?” “What is the estimated production budget, P&A costs and other expenses before we can make money?” “If I get this through the ‘studio system’ and make this movie, will I be a hero and keep my job...or get to make more movies?” OR “Will I have to worry about getting fired...or get turned down on my other projects, because I brought them a bomb!” This is the reality of the industry and the system by which it operates. And this is what the industry...and your role as a screenwriter…is all about!
This does not mean that every film must be a blockbuster with big production values, big names, big advertising, etc. Each film must seek its own level, based upon its genre,” target audience and marketing. Low-budget films, the largest category of produced films, allow for experimentation, offbeat concepts, lesser-name casting and more latitude in terms of the concepts presented to the audience. But the screenwriter must still keep in mind that concepts can go too far.
EXAMPLE - BOXING HELENA
Boxing Helena proved to be a disaster, for it attempted to stretch the open-mindedness of its “genre” audience. It was written, produced and got on the screen, but…”they did not come.” The screenwriter may sit back and say, “I wrote it, was paid and it got on the screen.” However, the Producer got burned, the Production Company got burned and the Distributor got burned. There is a ripple effect at work, for the next time, the industry’s perception of the Producer AND the Screenwriter may not be so open and/or forgiving!
Boxing Helena - Box Office Disaster
Writing a good story is only the first step in creating a marketable screenplay. Much of what we see are “compendia” of common writing mistakes: clichéd situations and solutions; unmotivated, unrecognizable or unreal characters whose actions are reflections of their written weaknesses; and numerous mistakes in continuity -- not finishing what is started in situations by the characters and/or their actions! One of the basic principles that a screenwriter must live by is: “IF IT DOESN'T MOVE THE STORY ALONG, THEN IT DOESN'T BELONG IN THE STORY!” It makes no difference how interesting, educational, intellectual or funny...If it serves no purpose to the movement of the story…get rid of it!
2. WRITING IN THREE ACTS
Early films took much of their form from the theatre: the look of the scenes, the choreography for the actors and the acting techniques of the performers. As the film medium evolved, it developed a style of its own. One of the problems, which we often run into with novice screenwriters, is a slow, dragging and undeveloped “middle" in the screenplay. Even when the screenwriter's technique and creativity are fairly strong, the “beginning” and “end” contain most of the story. Over the past few years or so, we were surprised to discover that most of the screenwriters with whom we have contact still speak in terms of three-acts, plot points or the turning points of each act.
Some of our editors have a background in theatre and saw no similarity between the defined three-act structure of the stage and the continually flowing story and action of film. And, while we could examine any film and break it down into what we thought were three- acts, it seemed that writing for the screen with that limitation would present some serious problems. After all, imposed three-acts on a film are “after the fact.” It means nothing. But if screenwriters are creating in a three-act structure, it might be contributing to that slow and unimportant “second-act.”
Recently, we came upon an article written by John Truby (Why 3 Act Will Kill Your Writing) addressing the three-act structure and its consequences. It certainly makes sense to me.
One common mistake prevalent among new screenwriters is the tendency to “editorialize.” What a character is thinking may seem important, but film is an audio/visual medium. The audience can't get into a character's thoughts unless those thoughts can be seen or heard, so if it isn’t in dialogue or action, IT DOESN’T BELONG ON THE PAGE!
For story writing and structure, there are numerous software and audio programs available. Some follow the basic parameters of Campbell’s classic motifs and will take the screenwriter through the various stages of story development and, in addition, allow the screenwriter to compare their work to existing works. We prefer and recommend John Truby’s Blockbuster program. However, none of them are not substitutes for talent, experience, research, patience and good, old-fashioned, common sense and logic.
Use a script-writing, formatting software program. It not only allows the screenwriter to present professional looking screenplays, but frees the screenwriter from the restraints of having to be constantly concerned with format, allowing for greater creative freedom and experimentation. Remember, perception is a critical factor in gaining the attention of the people to whom you submit your work. Presenting a screenplay properly formatted, structured and reproduced, is an indication of your professionalism as well as your understanding of what the industry requires. All too often, we see scripts that are filled with improper grammar and punctuation; poorly copied and of poor quality to make them unreadable; pages missing; or with a format apparently created by the screenwriter. These are distractions and will often result in a script being tossed aside with the impression that the screenwriter does not care about his/her work. There are numerous script format programs available and the majority of them provide the necessary elements for the screenwriter to create professional and accepted screenplays. We prefer the software program, Movie Magic Screenwriter. It’s comprehensive, functional; and accepted by many of the major studios.
Perhaps the most ignored aspect of the screenwriter's learning process is research. This applies to the obvious element of researching a specific subject for a story and researching the business that the screenwriter intends as his/her profession. Often, in asking screenwriters what kind of films do they watch on a regular basis, the response is: “I don’t have the time” -- or “Most of the films out there are commercial pap” -- or “The mass-market stuff doesn’t appeal to me.” As a screenwriter, it’s your job -- and your responsibility -- to know what the “market and audience” want if you intend to sell your work! Screenwriters very often forget (or take an “elitist” attitude) that they are not writing for themselves. This is a business driven by box-office dollars. Studios, distributors, producers, agents, etc., are interested in material that will sell! They will not risk their dollars (or anyone else’s) to produce something that does not have a place to go, i.e., a target market, target audience and estimated budget that makes it viable for both.
For the ‘new’ writer, one of the most difficult and frustrating tasks is getting his/her material to individuals and/or organizations for consideration. Most studios, producers, production companies, directors, etc. will not consider unsolicited material. Their response is often “Get an agent!” “So how do I get an agent when even the agents will not read unsolicited material?”
There are no easy shortcuts, so the screenwriter should not be deceived into believing that the rare situation of a first-time or unproduced screenwriter who receives a big paycheck for their first effort is the norm. These situations are the exception rather than the rule.
Your queries should be in the form of brief synopses or loglines and should be presented with the same professionalism as your script. Keep in mind that your “targets” -- studio executives, producers, directors, actors, agents or readers are deluged with material and their time is valuable. Brevity and professionalism will make a better impression and give you a better chance of having your script requested. And finally, patience and perseverance!
6. BASIC GUIDELINES FOR SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT/MARKETING
LOGLINES: Your one or two sentence logline should characterize the essence of your story, i.e., the “man bites dog” element. If you cannot capture that element in your logline, you need to re-work your story.
GENRE/STYLE: The basic genre or style of your script must be consistent throughout the entire script, whether it is drama, suspense, mystery, science fiction, horror, etc., or variations/combinations, i.e., comedy: black comedy, farce, etc.
Although the elements of various genres and styles can be mixed, all too often, films are diminished by writers (or directors) who stray from the basic genre or style of the story; or do not clearly comprehend how to effectively satisfy the requirements of that genre/style. Note that Hollywood buys scripts that follow a strict code for each genre. You may be creative and original, but should not stray too far from that code. Today, in both the major studios and mini-majors, the marketing department has an equal say with the various creative departments when it comes to optioning or purchasing properties. If “they” cannot identify it, “they” will not be able to sell it to their audience.
CHARACTERIZATIONS: Understand your protagonists and antagonists and who they are. They may not necessarily be people. They can be inanimate objects, animals, states of mind, forces, etc. Every scene must, in some way, evidence the basic conflict(s) between your protagonist and antagonist. In addition, you must also develop the weaknesses of your heroes and strengths of your villains. The strength of a character is often best evidenced in how others react to him/her, rather than seeing him/her in action.
CONFLICTS: There is no such thing as enough obstacles in your hero's path, for they thrive on conflict. This extends to your actors who also thrive on the obstacles placed in the path of the characters they portray. Each succeeding obstacle must be harder to overcome and, in successful films, the hero shows growth after each obstacle is overcome.
REAL/PERCEIVED: Imminent or implied threats are much more frightening than those which are real and active. The most frightening villain is one who is not “attacking,” but is “poised” to attack.
CONTINUITY: Try to make something unique or different occur on every page, whether it is the emergence of a strange character, bizarre plot twist, memorable line, etc.
THE PROFESSIONAL APPROACH
If you want to have your script considered by professionals, you have to present your work in a professional manner. While the following suggestions may just sound like common sense, my experience over the years has proven that a majority of new writers forget the basics:
1. PROPER SALUTATION
3. BE CONCISE
4. TARGET YOUR SCRIPT
5. WRITING IS REWRITING
6. AM I FINISHED?
7. GETTING HELP
8. LOOKING PROFESSIONAL
9. AWARDS AND CONTESTS
10. THE TURNDOWN
11. PERSERVERANCE: Continue to learn, continue to read screenplays, continue to watch films and continue to analyze. And if you truly have a driving need to write, you’ll be back at the computer
The information provided herein is based upon my experience and that of other individuals within our Company. We have no monetary, commission or other interest in any materials purchased from Screenplay Systems, Truby's Writer's Studio or any books mentioned in this article. If you have any questions, we would be happy to discuss them, given the restraints of time and the necessity for confidentiality of writers' work.
You can’t write a saleable film without mastering at least one genre for this is the way that the industry judge’s and buys projects. Five of the ten top-grossing films of all time, i.e., the blockbusters, use the myth genre or some variation of it. Ninety-five percent of scripts fail at the first step of the process, the Premise, because the screenwriter has chosen the wrong structure – or genre – for the concept. You must first determine the story form which will best play out the Premise of your concept.
3. ROMANTIC COMEDY
1. Mixed genres: Thriller/Horror? The script was named after a monster which was hinted at but not truly seen until the final pages of the story. The monster was hinted at in the protagonist’s dreams and discussed during his therapy sessions with his psychologist. We followed him as he researched dream therapy but didn’t see the first attack until page 52. The writer had attempted a horror script and it was marketed as a horror script but the thriller/mystery elements canceled out the horror genre elements so that what we really received was a watered-down monster script with too much dialogue and not enough monster.
2. Mixed genres: Romance/Comedy/Romantic Comedy? A unique concept about a young writer who has trouble meeting women. The man who can’t meet woman is a concept used much to much for our interest but the spin was very different. It should have been a screwball comedy but the woman whom he falls in love with is in the script too often for her to be the “prize.” Rather, the script teetered on the romantic comedy genre. Because the writer didn’t pick a genre and follow it, this very potential script remained just that. The studio execs looking for the next hot romantic comedy just didn’t get one and those looking for another There's Something About Mary were disappointed by the distracting love element.
3. Horror? A mythical monster script in the vein of Jurassic Park - This writer turned out intelligent characters and had developed a very engaging female protagonist whose journey took on mythic proportions as she attempted to clear her father’s reputation. The script was named after the monster we were supposed to encounter in what the writer called a horror film. Here I will make the monster a pack of dire wolves in order to protect the writer’s concept. She disliked the shallow hero of the horror script and, believing that she could do much better, produced a fascinating journey for her heroine which would not have existed except for the discovery of the dire wolves. Unfortunately, following a hint of their presence in the first three pages, then a second hint at approximately page 40, the monsters of her monster script don’t turn up again until page 85. The script called for a big production and the budget to go along with it and we were unable to convince the writer that her script had to deliver on its promise if it were ever to get a shot.
This last script was an interesting example of two problems we encounter: First, if you, as a writer, can deliver an element that you feel has been overlooked in past films, then go for it. But you don’t get to play with the genre rules because you “know better.” Be clever, be creative but stay on the path. The writer said she had seen all “similar films” but the monster flicks she watched worked for a different audience. They were all “classics” and their audience doesn’t exist anymore. Instead of studying their elements and reworking them for today’s filmgoers, she imitated their style and pacing. Spielberg said of his own film, Jaws, that if it were produced today, it wouldn’t work. There’s too much set up and character development.