Sunday, June 7, 2009

How far do you need to go to be good?

Writing a screenplay is damn complicated. No revelation there. But just how complicated does it have to get to be good? I don't mean the obvious things, the 3 acts, the inciting incident, the turning point, blah blah. That's the skeleton. I'm talking about the subtleties, the layers of juicy meat. The stuff that makes a story go from good to can’t-put-it-down-except-to-grab-a-tissue great.

I find the more I learn about screen writing, the more impossible it seems to be able to pull it off. There's so much to orchestrate. At times I feel like a tone deaf composer of a symphony orchestra hoping my music won’t make ears bleed. Each time I think I’ve got something that works, I realize I haven’t done as much as I could or should.

So what do I always do when I'm overwhelmed? I make a list.

Here's my new list of 10 things a screenplay must do if it’s to have a chance at being great. It's a compilation of tips I’ve gotten from various books, blogs, sites and feedback over the past six months, when I actually started to try to sell a script. I realize that this is when I started to learn the finer points of screenwriting, and just how far you need to go to be good.

1) Write a good logline, preferably before you write your script. If the logline isn’t clear and compelling, chances are the script won't be either. Irony and opposing forces are key to a good logline, and a good story.

2) Make sure the story tells the hero's story. The hero must ultimately resolve the conflict. The hero must have a flaw(s) that prevents him from getting what he wants. The hero should be far from perfect, but incredibly engaging/endearing.

3) Do a Beat Sheet. It will show a multitude of sins. There are a lot of templates out there. Any one will do. It’s a tedious task, but well worth the pain.

4) Make sure the supporting characters have interesting, full stories with conflicts of their own. Intertwine these with the hero's story as much as possible.

5)Each character must have a unique voice. If the character’s names can be swapped for another with the same dialogue, it’s not unique.

6) No cookie cutter bad guys. Make them interesting (even likeable, or sympathetic?). Make them evoke emotions. (Side note: I recently saw a movie where the antagonist was more likeable than the protagonist! He was in the wrong, but he was very endearing!)

7) The subplots (gotta have em!) should have the same story structure as the main plot. Beginning, middle and end with all the bells and whistles in between.

8) Build the conflict over the course of the story. Chart a graph of the conflict level of each scene (I discovered colour coded scene tags in Final Draft 8!). It should be a steady rise with several big peeks. Make the audience care enough to hold their breath. Every scene must have conflict or at least move the story forward with something not seen before. If not, get rid of it. There's no story without drama, and no drama without conflict.*

9) Write one line of dialogue for the hero that shows who they are; sums them up.* (Famous one liners from movies are often this line of dialogue! Eg. “I’ll be back.”; “Make my day.”; “Yippie Kayay Mother-F***er”.)

10) Cut, cut and then cut some more. It’s amazing how much useless, self-indulgent drivel can creep into a good story. This means reading your script many, many times.

And if that’s not enough… just when you think "Right, I’ve got it. I’m good." check out this “reader’s checklist” written by Terry Rossio. Brace yourself. It's long.

I might always feel that I could do more fine-tuning, but at some point, I’ll have to feel I’ve gone far enough to be able to move onto the next one, taking all my hard earned experience with me. Hopefully I’ll do a lot less learning from my mistakes. One thing’s for sure, the first draft is allowed to be total crap. In fact, it’s supposed to be. It’s in the re-writes that a story truly comes together. That’s when the double trouble fun really begins.

Obviously, none of these concepts are actually mine, so I felt the need to note the more recent references for my list. Some things I've adopted for my list almost verbatim from "rewrite", indicated with a *.

“rewrite” by Paul Chitlik (it's a bit campy, but man, it's worth the read, and doing the exercises.)
“Breakfast with Sharks” by Michael Lent (about selling a script, but it's so much more.)
“Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (my current enjoyable bedtime reading. Got the irony note about loglines from this book.) (just for his general awesomeness! Nothing here was actually from his site, but his site is an inspiration and a wealth of insights.) (because it’s so damn funny!)

And all the ever so appreciated feedback I’ve gotten from writers, producers and directors. They shall remain nameless to protect the innocent (me!).


  1. Yeah, your number 7 jumps out at me. Subplots! I always forget the subplots! Sheesh...

  2. Ya, I had a bit of a shock when I went through this list, and realized I had problems with ALL of these things!! Damn! haha!