WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Creating an Emotional Connection with the Reader

Script reader and story consultant, Stewart Farquhar, gives advice on how to engage a reader by creating an emotional connection with the characters and story.


Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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As a coach, analyst and lecturer, many times I’m asked the question, “Why do certain movies resonate so much that we watch them over and over again?” “How can I write one that has such a strong effect?” The simple answer is that the story connects with the reader/audience on a deep emotional level. True, in some cases it may be the opposite. The audience is turned off.

A more complicated answer deals with structure, pacing and progression of the story to a satisfying yet not immediately obvious climax. The emotionally satisfying scripts and cinematic experiences subtly adhere to a unique emotional “formula” that is flexible enough to permit the organic evolution of the story from the character’s perspective. When an underdog or disadvantaged character struggles against all odds and succeeds it is actually what we, as humans, find satisfying. If success is elusive, then we feel empathy. However, just as each of us unique, not everything touches each of us in the same way.

One of the least helpful theories promulgated over the last forty plus years is the one that posits that every story is represented by a writer’s/hero’s journey. While it’s true that some stories fit this journey paradigm (myth, fantasy, action and some combos), not all do. It is traumatic for a beginning writer to force fit to a strict formula. Selective analysis of a script or handpicked film after the fact is akin to the proverbial “three blind men describing an elephant” story–valid only from a narrow point of view. This adherence to forced structure has led to the plethora of cookie cutter product. The occasional break-out shatters the trend.


Script EXTRA: Should You Write to Formula?


What works for all types of audiences is how easy the scribe makes it for them to emotionally identify or vicariously bond with the protagonist(s) and their issues. Yes, there can be several protagonists. (More on films with more than one in a future article.) It’s also important that all challenges the hero(s) create or find themselves mired in be believable or at least identifiable.

For a new writer starting out, a 1:2/4:1 act structure, that is the 25-50-25 page or 30-60-90 page act paradigm is helpful for learning the concept of pacing and the placement of important story elements. However, only a few stories match this “formula” of page count. First and third act equal, second act split but twice as long. I understand the concept of breaking “act 2” into equal parts with the +, -, +, -, or the reverse -, +, -, +, to indicate the protagonist’s physical or emotional circumstances in each “act” or part of “act.” Professionals work to engage the audience from the first line.

As I discussed in my four part Aristotle series, He has been falsely accused of advocating a three-act structure to storytelling. The concept of acts in screenplays is a point of strong debate with many a pundit staking their entire professional career on the concepts universal validity. One would do best to review some of the stories (not acting) of silent films to see how false this approach is. Without words the “silent” emotionally engaged the audiences by action.

That said, force fitting elements to a certain page or page count is more destructive to organic storytelling than it is helpful. As a long time reader, I care ‘not one wit’ which page contains the inciting incident, where the “first act,” “second act” or “third act” break occurs or how long a script is. Just tell a story that compels me to turn the page.

Rule one: Above all, DON’T Bore Me. If you mess with the margins and font size it’s a guaranteed toss though.

The beginning writer should consider the conventions but not so exactingly that those conventions choke the life out of the story. That said, writing a script akin to War and Peace is not encouraged. Realize that editing will be necessary to accommodate production cost per minute and the number of exhibitor showings per day. Therefore, the closer a script comes to 105-115 pages, the better the chances for production. Today, in some genres, this page count is even less. A longer script with a captivating story may be optioned and/or purchased but will be re-written.

All this is of no value unless the spec script writer understands that they are forced into the untenable position of outperforming those writers who are already working. These working writers have a body of bankable work and have become the genre ‘go to’ scribes production execs have confidence in. This means the budding writer has to be 110% better just to “break the glass ceiling.”


Script EXTRA: The “Magic Trick” to Selling a Screenplay


A majority of the internet scripts don’t carry their provenance so they are of minimal value when it comes to what format or style to follow.

A few minor writing errors are not as important to the exec reading these vetted scripts as is getting the story into production to beat the competition. Just write a passionate and compelling story where it is evident you write from the heart. Do this with the understanding that a new writer is presenting a script as a resume. If it hits a homerun, so much the better.

One caveat, spelling errors, malapropisms, misuse of its, it’s; there, their, they’re; greatful, grateful etc., will create the impression that the writer doesn’t care. Then why should the reader? Move me emotionally, not bury me with poor writing skills.

A free one time ten-page script evaluation to the first reader to find grammar or style errors in this article (errors given as examples do not qualify).

Just a quick note regarding my previous article The Mercedes Test. For those in search of the missing reference, it is page 124 of Paul Chitlik’s Rewrite, 2nd edition.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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3 thoughts on “WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Creating an Emotional Connection with the Reader

  1. Paula LandryPaula Landry

    Thanks for this great article, Stewart, I found it very helpful! And your point about “Above all, DON’T Bore Me” this may seem simple, but it’s not easy. The guidance of structure, no matter where it comes from, should help add to an exciting story – not hold it back. Look forward to reading more!

  2. wryly

    1.) (As I discussed in my four part Aristotle series, He has been falsely accused) – He is capitalized after a comma and, although I’m a fan of Aristotle, isn’t “He” used for someone with a little more clout?
    2.) … (entire professional career on the concepts universal validity) – concepts should be concept’s?
    Those were the ones that made me read the line twice, in case I missed another … and I won’t get into the whole “anything over 100%” effort thing not existing in reality. Isn’t being 100% better than another writer mean you’re twice as good?
    … just a thought.

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