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
A successful spec script is one that is fully realized creatively and that motivates a producer or studio to either buy it or to hire the writer to pen other projects. Based on my observations in and around the business, I’ve identified ten things a spec must do in order to be successful:
1. It must tell a compelling story
The subject matter should be something new – something we haven’t seen before. If the subject matter is something we have seen before, then the script should provide some new twist or insight on the topic – something that makes us look at familiar material in a new or unexpected way.
If the subject matter is new, then the story should be told in as traditional a manner as possible. If the subject matter is old, then it should be told in a fresh and original manner. Producers and studios tend to like new wine in old bottles or old wine in new bottles. They don’t tend to like new wine in new bottles (because it’s too risky since there’s no track record) or old wine in old bottles (because it’s boring).
The story should have a clever premise – one that can immediately hook the reader in the first few pages of the script.
The story should be developed in a robust manner – one filled with twists, turns, surprises, and excitement that compel the reader to keep turning the pages without taking a break from the beginning of the script until the end.
If the script is a genre piece, then it must incorporate all of the traditional narrative conventions of that genre (because audiences will be dissatisfied if they are not included) but present them in a clever enough way that the piece won’t feel stale or predictable.
If the script is a personal piece (based on the writer’s life and/or experiences), then it must find some universal element in the specific subject matter that will make the material accessible and meaningful to an audience wider than just the writer.
The narrative must be satisfying – it must tell the story the premise promises (rather than veer off into an entirely new story as many specs do) and it should have an ending that is not predictable, but that still wraps things up in a logical and appropriate way.
2. It must tell a cinematic story
Cinema is primarily a visual medium and a successful spec tells its story in a visual manner — through action (both dramatic and the car chase kind) and images. Dialogue is, of course, important, but it should never be the primary vehicle through which the story is told (if you want to tell stories primarily through dialogue, then you should write a play rather than a screenplay). Cinematic stories should not be confined to one or two locations – they should get out into the world and move around a bit, to take advantage of the medium’s visual potential and freedom of movement. Cinematic stories should make use of the storytelling devices that are unique to movies: parallel action, intercutting, flashbacks, and so on.
3. It must tell a dramatic story
Cinematic storytelling is dramatic storytelling and so to be successful a spec must deliver the dramatic goods: the protagonist must have an important goal he wants to achieve; his quest to achieve that goal must bring him into conflict with a formidable antagonist; as a result of this conflict, the protagonist must suffer a terrible reversal before rallying and engaging in a final, climactic confrontation; there must be suspense, surprise, and reversals; the protagonist must undergo a significant transformation as a result of his experiences in the story. If any of these elements are absent, then the story will not be dramatic – it will lack shape, build, and momentum — and the script will not work.
4. It must tell a clear story.
It won’t matter how catchy your premise is, how clever your plotting is, or how trenchant your themes are if no one can understand your story. Many beginning writers produce narratives that lack clarity and focus – that don’t clearly set up their premises or don’t set them up early enough or that set up too many premises; whose narrative progression is fuzzy, convoluted, or illogical; that fail to explain causes and motivations; that fail to introduce their protagonists in a timely manner or that introduce too many characters too early in the piece making it hard to tell who the protagonist even is; that fail to provide the exposition the audience needs to understand the story’s situations and developments; that bring in characters and plot twists out of nowhere; and whose endings don’t resolve the narrative threads and situations. My feeling on this has always been if I have to put more energy into comprehending your story rather than experiencing it, then I am most likely going to pass.
5. It must present a protagonist we can care about
The protagonist is the script’s main character – the person the story is about. The audience follows the protagonist from the beginning of the script to the end so in order for a script to be successful, the audience must want to follow its protagonist – be willing to emotionally invest themselves in the protagonist’s journey and his transformative arc. In general, viewers invest in characters they like – who have qualities they find engaging or admirable and goals with which they can identify. However, this doesn’t mean that all protagonists have to be “likable” in the traditional Hollywood studio definition of the term (perfect and idealized, with no flaws or blemishes of any kind). Audiences will invest in “unlikable” protagonists – flawed, imperfect folks struggling with problems and demons – as long as there’s something about such characters they can sympathize with. One hundred ten pages of an off-putting persona isn’t going to cut it (even if that persona is redeemed in the end), but if you can imbue your lead with at least one element we can care about, then we will follow him (and you) anywhere.
6. It must be entertaining
Many spec script writers fail to remember that the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain an audience. These writers spend so much time setting things up, introducing characters and situations, delivering exposition, and heaping on the mood and the attitude that they forget to include the elements that give the audience a good time: humor, romance, thrills, and emotion. In the end, a spec will only be successful if it delivers on its primary purpose: a comedy needs to be funny; a thriller must be tense and suspenseful; a horror movie should be scary; a romance must make you swoon; a drama must be moving; and so on. And it needs to deliver on those things in spades: comedy specs can’t just be mildly amusing in a few spots, they must be laugh-out-loud funny all the way through; horror movies can’t just make viewers jump once or twice – they have to scare the living daylights out of them on a constant basis; and so on. Otherwise, what’s the point?
7. It must be commercial
Studios, independent companies, and producers all make movies to make money (for personal profit and so they can make more movies). At the very least, they don’t want to lose money. So a successful spec is one that buyers feel has the potential to sell a decent amount of tickets. Just what does and does not constitute “commercial” is a matter of frequent debate, but there are certain elements that can give a script a decent advantage in the marketplace:
- “Hot” subject matter – story material that is relevant in the current zeitgeist and that will still be relevant two years hence when the movie is finally released.
- A “high concept” premise – you know, one of those one-line ideas that will make a great poster.
- A well-crafted genre story that hits all of the expected beats of that genre in clever and unexpected ways.
- A story with a great “twist” – a surprise ending, an unexpected reveal, a mind-blowing secret identity, and so on.
- A story that contains generous helpings of humor, sex, and/or action.
- A colorful protagonist that can attract a big name star to play the part (and thus sell the film).
You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) pile all of these things into a single script, but including one of two of them wouldn’t hurt.
8. It must be producible
A producible spec is one that can be produced on a realistic schedule and budget – one that doesn’t contain an excessive number of characters, sets, and effects (physical and visual). Obviously, the definition of realistic depends on the kind of movie it is meant to be – a small indie film is going to have a modest budget and so a script for this sort of movie should only contain a limited number of people, places, and gags (you can’t have a cast of thousands and fly all over the world to film your story about a quirky teen who hates his parents and can’t get laid). Action-adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi films have a bigger scope and scale and will obviously have bigger budgets, so you’re writing can be more expansive. However, even tentpole movies have budget and schedule limitations and a smart spec author keeps that in mind as she/he is writing. Period movies always cost a lot more to make than those set in the present, so before you write ask yourself if your story absolutely needs to be set in past or if can play just as well in the here and now. Also, the longer a script is, the more time and money it will cost to make, so give some serious thought to chopping that 159-page masterwork of yours down to a more practical length (110 pages is ideal, but certainly never any longer than 120. Never. Ever.) before you submit it to the marketplace.
9. It must present something fresh
Readers, producers, and studio execs read hundreds of scripts a year. There’s a sameness to most of them that can become numbing after a while. If you want to break through that ennui, your script must present something new and original — something development folks haven’t seen a million times before. That doesn’t mean you should write something “unconventional” (which is usually amateur writer speak for incomprehensible, self-indulgent, artsy-fartsy nonsense) – the mainstream film industry likes conventional, but they like it with a bit of a twist: a new spin on a traditional character or plot; an unconventional setting; a clever approach to the storytelling; an unexpected (but logically motivated) plot or character turn; and so on. Vivid characters and sparkling dialogue can also attract positive attention, as can a unique point of view or sensibility. Something fresh does not mean writing a lot of snarky or smartass stage directions. First of all, it’s not fresh – a lot of writers do it and most of them are terrible at it. Also, that stuff quickly become tiresome because it has no on-screen payoff (because audiences can’t read stage directions).
10. It must move the reader
I’ve said this many times before, but nobody recommends or buys your script because it perfectly follows some screenwriting guru’s paradigm or because certain things happen on certain pages or because all of the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are perfect or because they think it will sell. People recommend or buy your script because it generates some sort of feeling in them – because it makes them laugh or it makes them cry or it scares them to death or it makes their heart race with excitement or because it makes them think about things they have never thought about before or because it simply makes them feel good about being alive. These are the things people go to the movies for and they are the things people who make movies want to experience as well. If your spec can provoke such feelings in the people who read your script, then success is pretty much guaranteed.
Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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