WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Narrative Drive

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.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Narrative Drive by Stewart Farquhar | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Narrative drive is evidenced by how a protagonist response to moments of conflict that illustrate the dilemma(s). Any response then drives the character’s behavior in a journey. If the stakes created by these dilemma(s) are high enough we, as audience, want to see; A) will the character survive; B) will the dilemma(s) be resolved / abated and C) will the goal be achieved?

However, all is moot if the audience is not engaged from line one.

What is Narrative Drive?

Simply stated, it is words in or causing story motion.

It’s the verbal or literary equivalent to linear momentum in physics.

From the Oxford Living Dictionaries Momentum is defined as:

“The impetus gained by a moving object”.

“The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events”

Similarly, Narrative from Merriam – Webster is defined as:

“A story that is told or written”.

Various other definitions from different sources say essentially the same thing.

Regardless of form, on the page it is momentum that makes a page turner.

In this article only the screenplay application is discussed.

However, it applies to story no matter what the form.

A screenplay is just a story in a different style.

The “Moving Object” from our perspective is the effect of a series of events that lead to the actions / inactions of the protagonist. Succinctly, it is the emotional outcome that the “Moving Object” has on the audience. If the protagonist is not in the pursuit of something worthwhile the audience will not be interested in the story. They will have minimal interest in what the hero wants or needs to discover. Then the story, even if well written and correctly formatted, falls flat.

It keeps “The Eyes On The Next Page.” Then maybe, “The Butts In The Seats.”

Throughout this article the term audience is used to include reader as a reader is the first audience.

Until recently the Western approach to story in all media was verbose. It was designed to use a long first act or protracted first chapters to describe in excruciating detail the characters and their environment. The desire was to engage the audience by helping them understand each of the characters and their trials and tribulations. This fit the times when there were fewer sources of entertainment / distraction to vie for an audiences’ attention. It was not lost on a few that many writers were paid by the word.

North America, with the emergence of television in the mid-20th century, was instrumental in a gradual change. A subtle trend evolved to develop this intimate relationship. It became a gradual reveal, through the character’s behavior in a variety of situations and as questions arose. The returning audience wanted to know more.

Today the model (not formula) has further evolved to engage the reader on page one. In very short order an audience subconsciously expects to experience a blend of the goal and the stakes as they are revealed through character behavior. Sometimes subtle and some not so subtle foreshadowing is involved.


Script EXTRA: Why Spec Scripts Fail – No Hooks


For modern audiences a compelling element of the narrative drive must be evident on the first page in order to capture and keep the audience’s attention. The story must move from page one. No detailed backstory. A subtle yet clear hint or disclosure of the challenge, prize or goal that the hero must have or attain prevents the audience question “When’s the story going to start”? It is the living moving thread that binds the elements of your work together. It is the narrative drive.

It is imperative that all segments, scenes, dialogue and action demonstrate a path to a satisfactory resolution for both hero and story. Without the narrative drive, linear momentum, or a sense of going somewhere, your chapters, scenes and words will appear unrelated, unfocused and pointless.

Decision Chart for Narrative Drive

Step Action or Question YES NO Comment
 1. Is the protagonist’s want / need clear? Go to #03 Go to #02 Paramount
 2. Rephrase or restate want / need. Done? Go to #03 Go to #01 By Protagonist or others
 3. Does Protagonist have a worthy goal? Go to #05 Go to #04 Need a beer is not interesting
 4. Adjust. Protagonist and reader must care. Done? Go to #05 Go to #02 Goal must drive
 5. Are there multiple goals? Go to #06 Go to #07 Dilutes action and focus
 6. Prioritize goals. Eliminate or reduce; focus. Done? Go to #03 Go to #02 Focus Goal
 7. Is there a chance of failure? Go to #09 Go to #08 Failure MUST be an option
8. Raise the stakes. Done? Go to #09 Go to #02 Low Stakes = Low Interest
 9. Do all protagonist’s actions lead to a goal? Go to #10 Go to #05 Directed Action
 10. Are protagonist inner and outer conflict evident? Go to #11 Go to #01 Shown via Behavior
 11. Does scene make sense from character’s POV? Go to #13 Go to #12 From Character’s perspective
 12. Reduce or eliminate points of confusion. Done? Go to #13 Go to #05 Clarity in direction
 13. Does the goal tie to the theme? Go to #14 Go to #01 Divergence leads to dilution
 14. Are the stakes real? Go to #15 Go to #08 Stakes of Convenience?
 15. Melodrama and unintentional misdirection? Go to #16 Go to #17 Slows Protag’s journey
16. Kill melodrama and misdirection. Done? Go to #17 Go to #13 Unless by careful design
 17. Is there excessive exposition / backstory? Go to #18 Go to #19 Eliminate extra words
 18. Remove excess exposition / backstory. Done? Go to #19 Go to #12 Kill Your Babies
 19. All action support / enhance goal Go to #20 Go to #05 All headed in the same direction
 20. Does the scene work? Go to #21 Go to #02 Rewrite, or delete
 21. Are you emotionally affected by the scene? Go to #22 Go to #08 Not enough at risk
 22. Move to next scene CONGRATS

Are all your characters active and moving toward something vs. passive and only reacting? Worse yet, are they standing still waiting for something to happen?

Can your writing effort make a reader’s or editor’s dream come true? They all want to turn story pages while they are emotionally vested and engaged in the next blockbuster / best seller.

How do you captivate and compel an audience / editor to stay attached to your story?

As you are the “Word God”, you get to choose what, when and how much you reveal in an original way that is germane to the story at that point in the adventure.

Now the real question is: “How do you create Narrative Drive”? As a scribe it depends on your goal.

Consider these examples. What is it that keeps your attention?

General Genre Example 1 Example 2
Suspense Silence of the Lambs Psycho.
Dramatic Irony Shrek Snow White.
Mystery Sherlock Holmes Police and Medical Procedurals.
Horror (suspense plus mystery) Twilight Blair Witch

As a writer you must use dramatic irony, suspense, and mystery or some combination to create a page turner regardless of the specific genre or genre combination. In conjunction with those, you must provide information only when curiosity or a question is raised. No data dumps. Like salt or sugar a little goes along way. More in the diet to enhance / replace what has been assimilated or used up.

J.K. Rowling used these techniques in her books to provide just the right amount of information to convince and then entice the reader in to the fantasy world of wizardry she created. Her skill is why, even after multiple rejection slips, she went from abandoned welfare mother to a multi-millionaire.

You no longer have 15, 10, or even five pages. It is the first half of the first page. Narrative drive starts at the first sentence. It is the writer’s invitation to the reader for a trip into a new world. In this “Turned On and Tuned Out age” there are too many stimuli vying for our attention.

Ten Examples of opening sentences or lines.

Ref # Opening Quote Book / Screenplay Writer Character Actor
1.    It was a dark and stormy night… Paul Clifford Edward Bulwer-Litton Narrator
2.    Marley was dead to begin with… A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens Narrator / Scrooge
3.    Who am I? You sure you wanna know? Spiderman Stan Lee

Steve Ditko

David Koepp

Narrator / Peter Parker Toby Maguire
4.    As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster Goodfellas

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family

Nicholas Pileggi

Martin Scorsese

Henry Hill Ray Liotta
5.    Who Are You?

I am Death.

The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman Antonius Block;

Death

Max von Sydow; Bengt Ekerot
6.    Rosebud… Citizen Cane Herman J. Mankiewicz

Orson Wells

Charles Foster Kane Orson Welles
7.    Today is a good day to die Flatliners Peter Filardi Nelson Kiefer Sutherland
8.    I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me The Departed William Monahan

Alan Mak

Felix Chong

Frank Costello Jack Nicholson
9.    Only ever met one man I wouldn’t wanna fight. Million Dollar Baby Paul Haggis

F.X. Toole

Scrap Morgan Freeman
10. I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. Stand By Me Raynold Gideon

Stephen King

Narrator and

Gordie

Richard Dreyfuss

 


Script EXTRA: Why Spec Scripts Fail – Adapt-A-Phobia


The above are not necessarily the TOP TEN or even THE BEST. They illustrate the diverse and skillful word use to draw the audience into the writer’s depiction of a character’s journey that starts on line one on page one.

It is the character’s behavior in response to dilemmas that creates then drives the plot. If a character doesn’t have something of value to achieve, gain, or explore, why should anyone else care? The sooner that behavior is revealed the more a story develops and the more curious the audience becomes. We all want to see what happens next.

The unique ways the protagonist resolves dilemmas draws the reader deeper into the journey and develops a page turner. A page turner illustrates strong narrative drive.

Always let your lead character be on a motivated journey to discover or achieve. It is not for the writer to figure “it” out. That’s the protagonist’s journey. As audience, reader or editor we are just along for the ride. Make it “An E Ticket Ride.” (Yes, you may want to go look that up.).

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

Get Instant FREE Screenwriting Resources to Download Now!

get-my-free-download-blue

CATEGORIES
Ask Script Q&A, How to Write a Screenplay, Screenwriting How-To Articles, Why Spec Scripts Fail by Stewart Farquhar
Stewart Farquhar

About Stewart Farquhar

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. He is a produced playwright active screenwriter and an in demand lecturer. He presents as a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley, Loyola Marymount, Sherman Oaks Film School, and Cal State Long Beach. He has been a final story analyst for both Slamdance and scripts headed to Cannes for funding. He serves as Finals or Semi Finals judge for three of the major screenwriting contests. Social media links are at TheReadersCompany.com. Email: Stewart@TheReadersCompany.com

COMMENT