Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
In order to be successful – both creatively and commercially – a screenplay must be many things: it must be well-written; it must be compelling in its premise and in its narrative development; and it must be full of interesting characters and effective dialogue. But most importantly, for a screenplay to be successful, it must be a movie – the material in the script and the manner in which it is presented must be such that it is plausible that a motion picture could be made from it. This sounds like an absolute no brainer but you’d be surprised at how many spec scripts out there are not even remotely a movie.
So what must a screenplay need to have in order to be a movie?
- It must have a story.
If you are writing a spec (as opposed to a personal script that you intend to finance and make yourself), then it is your intention to submit that spec to the industry with the hope that it will be acquired and produced by a production company or a studio. That’s a fine goal, but if this is your aim, then you must accept the fact that the industry makes narrative films. It does not make experimental films or cinematic tone poems or Avant garde flicks that meditate on the unreality of reality – it makes movies that tell stories.
Ninety-nine percent of those stories are genre stories (single genre stories, not mixed genre stories – mixed genre tales are hard to execute well and so mixed genre specs rarely sell or get made).
These stories must be based on a strong and interesting premise and must have a solid beginning and middle, followed by a powerful, memorable ending.
The narrative must be clear so that the audience can understand what the solid beginning and middle and especially the powerful, memorable ending are.
Far too many of the specs that I read have no story or a thin story or a confusing story, with weak premises and lackluster development of indifferent narratives that peter out rather than come to a rollicking climax. These scripts are a chore to read and stand no chance whatsoever of being made into a film.
- It must have a cinematic approach.
Cinema is a visual/audio medium – it tells its stories through images on the screen and through sound (dialogue, music, and effects) coming out of the speakers and of the two the images should always take precedence (dialogue is important in a movie but it should never be the primary way the story is told).
The images used to tell a cinematic tale must be images of something happening. Cinematic storytelling is also dramatic storytelling and dramatic storytelling is achieved through action – big action (battles, car chases, fist fights) and small action (looks, gestures, behavior). Endless shots of fields, streams, and trees are no substitute for robust dramatic action.
When watching a movie, viewers can only know the things that they see and hear. Therefore, all aspects of a screen story — including the backstory, any necessary exposition, and the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings — must be dramatized, rather than simply written into the text. If we can’t see it or we can’t hear about it, then we will not know it.
Cinema does not tell its tales through prose – too many spec writers put far too much energy and effort into the literary style they employ in their action lines and stage directions. All of that work is wasted because a poetic turn of phrase in the text can’t be photographed and can’t be recorded, so no matter what its quality, it’s value is nil.
- It must have parts for stars.
Your script is not going to get made into a movie unless someone is willing to finance it. And although industry norms have changed quite a bit in recent years, most of the folks who finance movies still want at least one star (or at least one high profile actor) in a picture, on the theory that stars attract audiences and so offer at least some hope that the film will make its money back and perhaps even a profit. And stars like meaty roles, so the script has to provide them if it’s to have even a shot at getting made. At the very least a screenwriter must create a compelling, sympathetic, and very active protagonist for his piece. Ideally he should also craft a powerful antagonist, a strong love interest, and a few distinctively quirky supporting roles (stars will often agree cameo in a small part if it’s colorful enough). Some aspiring screenwriters push back against the suggestion that they craft parts for name actors as if doing so makes them a sellout of some sort, but to me that’s always been an odd stance to take – when we talk about creating parts for stars what we are really talking about is creating strong, vibrant, noticeable characters and that’s something writers should be doing anyway, no matter who eventually plays the roles.
- It must have a story that is told in the way that movies tell stories.
- Movies tell stories by showing the characters doing things and saying things.
- Movies tell stories about a single set of characters who are consistent from the beginning of the story to the end.
- Movie plots are constructed in a cause-and-effect fashion – something happens, which prompts something else to happen, which leads to something else happening, and so on.
- Movies employ storytelling devices (narration, flashbacks, dream sequences, etc.) consistently (for example, if a movie has narration, it has it throughout the movie from start to finish).
- Movies present exposition through dialogue (by having characters tell each other important information) or by showing events happening on screen (in either present tense or flashbacks) or by using single shots to highlight specific clues.
- Movies have a consistent tone.
- Movies have a consistent reality (no matter what that reality is).
These are the basic precepts of screen storytelling, they have been for at least a century, and if you have watched even a few movies you should know them. You should especially know them if you want to write screenplays. Once again, you would think this is a no-brainer, but despite this apparent obvious, I receive lots of specs in which:
- The characters are passive – they do and say nothing of consequence. I read one script once in which the leader character just walked around a city looking in shop windows. That’s it – nothing else. For 142 pages.
- The script begins with one set of characters, then drops them and moves on to a completely different set of characters that have absolutely nothing to do with the first; the script spends the first 25 pages setting up a character in great detail only to then have that character disappear, never to be seen again; a character we’ve never met before pops up in the middle of the script, hangs around for a scene or two and then disappears, (again) never to be seen again; a character we’ve never met before shows up out of nowhere in Act III to resolve the story’s central conflict and run off with the love interest as if had been their story all along.
- There is no cause-and-effect. Important story points happen by coincidence or for convenience or for no discernable reason at all.
- Storytelling devices are used inconsistently – not as a purposeful part of the script’s narrative style but rather in a totally random, slapdash, no-apparent-rhyme-or-reason fashion. I read a lot of specs that begin with a bit of narration intended to either set the scene or the tone and then the narrator doesn’t speak again for the rest of the piece; or that use no narration at all until a bit suddenly pops up in the middle to deliver some piece of information the writer clearly couldn’t figure out how to get across in any less awkward way; or that do the exact same thing with flashbacks and/or dream sequences.
- Exposition is delivered in the most awkward and clunky ways possible: by having characters give 3 or 5 or 15-page monologues; by having characters tell each other things they would already know just for our benefit; through flashbacks that take up more pages than the main storyline; by having characters read newspapers or books or computer screens and then indicating that the text to be put up on screen for the audience to read as well (and there’s no better way to engage an audience then stopping the story and asking them to read for 5 or 10 minutes); by having TV or radio announcers drone on for 1 or 2 or 10 pages delivering the exact information that the characters need to know at the exact moment they need to know it with a level of relevant detail that no TV or radio news report would ever have; by having scrolls at the beginning and/or ending that run on for pages at a time.
- The tone is all over the place. Movies can be seriously dramatic, melodramatic, broadly comedic, sophisticatedly comic, thrilling, and scary. They just can’t be more than one of these things at a time. This does not stop many spec script writers from trying.
- The reality fluctuates. Like tone, a film’s reality can be anything you want it to be. You can do a realistic drama or a broad farce or a magical fantasy or a musical in which the characters burst into song and start dancing at the drop of a hat. But you can’t do all of these things in the same screenplay. I once read a script that began as a realistic detective story and stayed that way for twenty or thirty pages. But then the detective ran into a talking alligator who smoked cigars and had a sarcastic sense of humor and before long there were musical numbers, slips on banana peels, time travel, encounters with animated critters, and also aliens. There are way more of those scripts out there than you might imagine.
Although they are not common, I have read a number of scripts over the years that contain all of these problems that I have just listed in the same piece. You can only imagine how much fun these 120 or so page train wrecks are to read. You will have to imagine, because I guarantee you they will never appear on screen.
- It must only have things in it that movies can actually show.
How many times have you seen sex in a movie? I’m not talking about nudity or two actors writhing under the covers – I’m talking about full on, graphic sex: visibly engorged body parts, visible…um…congress, and so on? How many times have you seen someone defecate on screen? I’m not talking about people making strained facial expressions while we hear rude noises on the soundtrack – I’m talking about something coming out of somewhere in full view on camera. How many times have you seen someone’s head explode when they get shot and brain matter splat against the wall while what’s left oozes out of the shattered skull onto the floor in a pool of congealed ick? If we’re talking about mainstream movies, the answer to all of these questions is NEVER! NEVER EVER! Yes, I know there’s porn and fake snuff films and all sorts of weird stuff floating around out there on the fringes, but that’s not what I am talking about – I’m talking about professional, industry-produced (either by studios or independent companies) motion pictures released first to theaters and then to home video. You have never seen such material in mainstream movies and you never will.
Beyond what one can hope is just basic good taste on the part of the filmmakers, the reason is simple – such material will be offensive enough to a large enough percentage of the audience that if it was made into a movie the result could only be screened under such restricted circumstance that it would significantly limit or completely eliminate any potential proceeds and/or profits.
This is another one that you think would be a no-brainer and yet time and time again I receive specs that are filled with the most incredibly graphic depictions of bodily functions and ultra-violence you can possible imagine (and perhaps beyond what you can imagine). If you are writing a spec, then you are writing for the mainstream industry so it makes no sense to build your script around material the mainstream industry wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I imagine some aspiring authors include this sort of extremely explicit material thinking it will be an attention-getter. And it probably will be, but the attention it gets you is probably not the kind you are hoping for. If a reader or development exec or producer reads this stuff in your script they’re not going to jump up and down and say “Yay! We’ve just discovered a bold new writer who is daring enough to go places no one else will and we want to hire that person to enliven our projects with their edgy, know-no-boundaries approach to storytelling.” Instead, they will probably just yawn, say “This person has no idea what they are doing,” toss your script aside, and then go find one they can actually make.
- It must have a reasonable budget.
Movies – even small ones — cost a lot of money to make, but even in this era in which budgets of several hundred million dollars are commonplace, no backer in the world is going to give any filmmakers (even if their last name rhymes with “Zielberg”) a blank check to make any movie. There is no such thing as an unlimited budget and therefore you cannot write a script that requires one. If you pen a 250-page screenplay with dozens of speaking parts and thousands of extras, hundreds of sets and locations, wall-to-wall action, and endless stunts, special effects, and visual effects, then you are writing a script that can never, ever be made because it will simply cost too damn much to do so. Some might argue that it’s not a writer’s job to worry about budgets and costs – it’s the writer’s job to simply write the best story she or he can. And I agree with that up to a point. But the truth is that a script is not a finished product in and of itself. To use a familiar analogy, it is a blueprint for a finished product. And if your blueprint isn’t practical, then your product will never be made.
- It must have entertainment value.
Whatever else mainstream movies are or can be, at their core they are entertainments – their core function is give audiences a good time. Movies can do this in many different ways – they can make viewers laugh or cry; they can frighten people or cause them to grip the edges of their seats in tension and suspense; they can thrill watchers with spectacle and beauty; they can make viewers think about new ideas and unexpected points of view; they can disturb people – shake them to their core with challenging upsetting ideas and concepts. They must do some of these things or all of them in order to be successful. And therefore a screenplay must as well. If a potential buyer or maker can’t discern any entertainment value in a screenplay, then it doesn’t matter what other qualities it has – they will give it a pass.
Does your script have all of these qualities? If it does, then you are in good shape. If it does not, then get back to work and do your best to incorporate them. If you do, you stand a much better chance of having your script receive a positive response. And of being bought. And of being made.
On Saturday, December 10, Ray will be appearing at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California for a special 40th anniversary screening of the 1976 version of KING KONG. The film will be screened at 7.30 p.m. and will be followed by a panel discussion about the making of the film. The panel will be moderated by writer/director Don Mancini, creator of the Child’s Play series and guests will include Academy Award-winning make-up artist and creature creator Rick Baker (who played Kong in the movie), Oscar-nominated cinematographer Richard H. Kline, producers Martha De Laurentiis and Rafaella De Laurentiis, and Ray (author of KING KONG; THE HISTORY OF A MOVIE ICON).
Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
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