Script Writing Basics: Creating a Story That Stands Out
Why do the basics of great script writing matter?
Because a professional Script Reader might read eight or nine scripts in a single day. That’s nearly 50 scripts a week. Over 2,000 scripts a year. And that’s not including the “favor” scripts they agree to read for friends and friends of friends on weeknights and weekends. Managers, Agents and Development Executives have an endless pile of scripts on their desks as well.
These professionals are typically the gatekeepers through which Writers make it to earn fellowships, win contests and get meetings. So to truly stand out from the thousands of competing stories vying for the attention of these individuals, stellar script writing is key.
And for a Screenwriter to rise to the top, it’s essential that they master not just one but all of the following script writing fundamentals:
- Unique premise
- Memorable world
- Distinct, engaging characters
- Suspenseful plot
- Cathartic climax & resolution
Every great script begins with a compelling premise. A shark terrorizes an east coast community over the Fourth of July. An adventurous Archeologist searches for the lost Ark before the Nazis find it. A young boy tries to hide and protect an alien left behind on earth.
The above concepts might all belong to Steven Spielberg films, but they’re also some of the most iconic movies ever produced. Why? Because at the time, those stories had never been seen before. Spielberg — and his Screenwriter collaborators — found a hook in each story that got people to not only pay attention but also want to know more.
That can be an overwhelming challenge to an aspiring Writer. After all, what story hasn’t been told at this point? It sounds simple, but in many regards, the first step to great script writing is asking one simple question: “Would I want to see this story?” While few scripts will appeal to all demographics, by keying in on a novel concept or putting a twist on an established genre, a unique premise will invoke curiosity and interest.
Let’s go back to those concepts. Beyond hooking the audience with a unique premise, each story was brought to life through the creation of a believable, three-dimensional world — and that world begins long before a camera shoots it. It always starts on the page.
It’s important to note that a screenplay is not a novel where lengthy, and sometimes flowery, descriptions of the world are common. In a script, economy of space is vital. Which makes it all the more essential that a Writer knows how to describe and build a world with minimal words.
World-building also applies to all genres. Some Screenwriters might think it’s applicable only for fantasy or sci-fi stories, but it’s just as important to create a fully fleshed out world for an intimate, character-driven story set in Omaha, Nebraska as it is for a large, action-driven piece set on Krypton. For Writers who prefer to set their stories in a real locale — don’t be complacent about creating that world because of the assumption that the audience already knows it.
It sounds simple, but in many regards, the first step to great script writing is asking one simple question: “Would I want to see this story?”
Distinct, Engaging Characters
When deciding on characters for a story, here’s a good rule of thumb for Writers: you should know who is saying what even if you remove the character headings from the script.
Characters should not be interchangeable. Each one must have a distinct voice that is separate from every other character in that story. But how to develop those distinct voices? While not mandatory to create a memorable cast of characters, many Writers choose to write backgrounds for each of their characters. Others have a list of questions that they answer for their protagonists and antagonists. Both exercises serve to provide more specificity for their characters, which helps to make them more distinct. Again, think Quint from Jaws, Elliott from E.T. or the titular Indiana Jones. It doesn’t matter if the character seems larger than life or like the boy next door. They should all make an impression that sticks with the audience.
Script writing, as it applies to characters, also means making each character count. Some Writers like large ensemble casts, as it often translates to more opportunities for conflict and dialogue. But another question that a Screenwriter must ask themselves is whether or not every character serves the story. In short, are they helping to move the plot forward? If not, merge that character into another or remove them entirely.
Speaking of plot, a logically and thematically sound plot is crucial to any script. Writers should keep in mind, though, that logic doesn’t necessarily mean what makes sense in the real world. They can make up any rules they want for their story, but those rules need to both fit together and build upon one another. Whatever the logic, it must make sense for that particular world.
Another question to ask: what is the story really about? Is it just about an Archaeologist finding a lost piece of history or is it about the forces of good overcoming evil? While the plot should move along the action and progress of the story, it should also be continually building upon the larger themes of the story, whether that’s love, redemption, independence or any other human experience. Because while a fast-paced race to find the Ark of the Covenant can be fun to watch, it’s the larger themes of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark that make the audience care about whether or not Indy will be successful.
And when it comes down to it, that’s really what sets apart expert script writing from the rest — caring about where the story goes. The truth is that if someone doesn’t care about the story by page 10 — or sometimes earlier — they likely will not invest the time and energy to see if they change their minds by page 90. A Writer must immediately set the stage for a suspenseful plot that keeps the audience wanting to follow through until the end.
Keep in mind, though, that a suspenseful story doesn’t have to mean stakes as high as saving a community from a man-eating shark or helping an alien get back to his home planet. It can mean a reconciliation between an estranged father and son or a couple finding out that they’re going to adopt the baby they’ve always wanted. But for the audience to care about those outcomes, not only do Writers have to find a unique premise with which to draw them in, create a world that immerses the reader or viewer and draw characters that feel authentic and memorable, but also they have to build a plot that takes the audience willingly along to find out what happens.
It takes time, persistence and energy to hone the skills that will make for a great read. It’s not uncommon for Writers to get the attention of a Manager or have a script optioned only after they’ve written a dozen or more other stories that never see the light of day.
Cathartic Climax & Resolution
When the audience does find out what happens — that Brody blows up the shark or that E.T. does go home — how will they feel? Will they think the outcome was warranted? That there is satisfaction in how the final climax leads to the resolution? It’s up to the Writer to give the reader not necessarily what they want but rather what the story needs.
Some people may have been shocked and saddened that not only was Quint not the one to kill the shark, but also he was the victim of it. Sure, he could have lived, but then would it have been as compelling to see Brody — a man who is admittedly afraid of water — be the one to step up and kill the shark? Not the lifelong shark hunter, not the academic shark expert, but instead an urban Sheriff who came to find that moving his family to a sleepy little town could be more terrifying than New York City?
A Writer should always be looking for the climax and resolution that makes sense for the story and characters, and sometimes that means going against what they think the audience wants. For instance, Rhett doesn’t stay with Scarlett. R.P. McMurphy never escapes the psychiatric ward. Jack dies before he and Rose can be rescued. They’re all bittersweet yet ultimately satisfying endings precisely because they adhere to the way the final climax was executed.
Additional Script Writing Reminders
Sometimes it can feel like Writers are creating in a void, which is why it’s essential to find trusted individuals from whom to get feedback. For some Writers, that means joining a writing group. For others, it’s finding one or two objective colleagues who agree to read their material. But whatever the relationship, having someone to read drafts is critical before a Writer tries to submit to a contest, fellowship or development professional.
Having even one other person to read their script and give notes can help a Writer know if they’re adhering to all of the above tenets of good script writing. While screenwriting is a highly subjective craft, it always helps to get the opinion of a trusted individual — especially if their feedback falls short of expectations. From there, a Writer can evaluate those notes and see if it makes sense to incorporate them into their work.
Finally, Writers should remember that excellent script writing is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes time, persistence and energy to hone the skills that will make for a great read. It’s not uncommon for Writers to get the attention of a Manager or have a script optioned only after they’ve written a dozen or more other stories that never see the light of day. Just as with any other trade, practice and patience are key. But with a dedication to evolving and improving their script writing, any aspiring Screenwriter can stand out from the pack.
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