Alfred Hitchcock once said that 90% of the effectiveness of his films was determined in preproduction, based on the decisions he made in the scripting, storyboarding, design, and casting phases. I’m of a similar mind when it comes to screenwriting – I think that the success or failure of most scripts is determined in large part by decisions the authors make prior to the actual writing. To help you make the right decisions about the right issues, here are ten questions to ask yourself before you begin writing.
1. What is the story you want to tell?
Many writers start writing their scripts with only a general idea of what they want to do (“I want to write about sharks!”) and so tend to flounder when composing their narratives. Before you can craft a successful script, you first need to turn your general idea into a specific premise (“I want to write about sharks” becomes “The lives and livelihoods of the residents of a summer beach resort are threatened when a giant great white shark makes the town’s beaches its feeding ground.”) and then work out the general narrative line (“In the first act, the shark kills a lone swimmer. The town’s police chief attempts to close the beaches in order to protect bathers, but the local government officials, worried about losing summer tourist money, talk him out of it. In the second act, the shark attacks again and again until it becomes obvious that something must be done to stop it. Joined by an ornery fisherman and an eager scientist, the police chief sails out to sea to hunt the shark. In the third act, the shark begins to hunt them.”). You don’t have to have every last detail worked out, of course, but if you know what your basic story is and where you are going with it from the get-go, then you will be able to write your script with focus, coherence, and momentum — three things missing from far too many specs.
2. Who is the protagonist?
Every dramatic story must have a protagonist – a character with a goal that he/she pursues throughout the script and who undergoes some sort of significant change at the end of the narrative. The actions that the protagonist takes in pursuit of his/her goal are the engine that drives all of the main events of the tale, so if you don’t have a clear protagonist, then you won’t have a clear story either. Despite this fact, many spec writers fail to determine who their protagonist is prior to writing. As a result, they fill their scripts with lots of characters as they go, but never focus on any one of them, so the piece ends up lacking both a center and drive.
3. What is the ending?
All dramatic storytelling is ultimately about a moment of transformation – a point in time in which everything about a particular set of characters and/or circumstance is changed forever in some fundamental, significant way. That moment comes at the climax of the story and so every beat in the script prior to the climax must lead inexorably and inevitably to it. If you don’t know what that climax is, then it will be impossible to focus the rest of the events in the piece and push them in the right direction as you write.
4. What is the theme of your story?
The theme is the point you are trying to make with your tale – the “moral,” the “message,” the idea that you want viewers to take away with them when they leave the theater. The theme gives purpose and direction to every scene, every character, and every line of dialogue in the piece. If you don’t know what the theme is, then, no matter how well executed every aspect of you script is, it will lack meaning and impact. I don’t think you always have to know what the theme is when you start on your first draft — many scribes like to discover their themes as they write and that’s fine – but you will certainly need to know what it is by the time you begin your final draft so that you will be able to infuse the piece the proper perspective.
5. What is your script’s genre?
Just about every mainstream screen story belongs to a specific genre and it’s very important that writers have a clear understanding of what genre their story belongs to so that they don’t do things like insert a dismemberment scene into a romantic comedy or a musical number into a drama about alcoholism (you may think these are imaginary examples, but, sadly, they are not). It’s also important because every genre has specific conventions that need to be addressed in some way — either by employing them directly, by twisting or subverting them, or by purposely leaving them out — as the story is being crafted. Consciously or not, audiences anticipate these conventions and will be disappointed if they are ignored.
6. If you’re going to use a gimmick to tell your story, do you have a good reason for doing so?
If you are employing narration, flashbacks, voice-over, non-linear narrative, or other storytelling devices to tell your tale, you must have a valid narrative or thematic reason for doing so – in other words, any device you use must serve and enhance the story in a meaningful way. Every element in a screen story – including devices – must have a sure, clear purpose. If they don’t – if you’re just tossing the gimmicks in because they are trendy or “cool” – then all you’re doing is that thing your mother warned you would cause you to go blind.
7. Where is the entertainment value in this story?
The primary purpose of a movie is to entertain the people that watch it. There are lots of ways to do that – by making viewers laugh; by frightening them; thrilling them; provoking them; challenging them; and serving them some nourishing food for thought. If your script is to be successful, it is vitally important that you determine how you want it to entertain audiences and then amp that particular element up as much as possible as you write. If you’re penning a comedy, then don’t just toss one or two tepid chuckles at your audience and call it a script – instead, work as hard as you can to give them three giant belly laughs on every page; if you’re writing a horror movie, then scare the beejesus out of your readers (and eventually viewers) from page one to page last; if you’re writing a thriller, ratchet the suspense up until it’s unbearable; if you’re writing an action movie, don’t settle for a routine car chase – give us some spectacular set pieces the likes of which we have never seen; if it’s meant to be a heartwarming romance or inspirational drama, then don’t settle for cheap and easy sentiment – dig deep and give us some strong, authentic emotion that will move us in real and genuine way.
8. Why would someone want to see this movie?
Is the subject matter of your script and the approach you intend to take to telling it interesting, intriguing, appealing, unusual, novel, moving, or spectacular enough to motivate people to pay for a ticket, a download, or a DVD? A script has to have some element that will make people eager to see it and you must know what this element is before you start writing so that you can make the most of it as you develop the piece.
9. Who is your audience?
If you want your script to be a success, you must know who you are aiming it at and then do your best to shape the piece so that it is appropriate for that audience. As an example of what not to do, I once read a script that was intended for a family audience about an adorable puppy that gets lost while on a camping trip with his beloved owners and then has to make its way all the way across the country from the camp grounds on the West Coast to the family home on the East Coast. All of that was fine. What wasn’t so fine was the sequence in which the adorable puppy runs afoul of a vicious drug dealer who retaliates by pumping five bullets into the doggie’s back, severing its spinal cord, rendering its hind legs useless, and causing it to finish its epic trek by dragging itself by its forepaws while leaving a long trail of blood in its wake. Obviously this script failed miserably as a blueprint for a family-friendly movie, but it wasn’t suitable for any other audience either – if it was way too horrifying for the toddler set, it was far too cutesy for the Tarantino crowd. In the end, this was a script aimed at no one and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that nothing ever happened with it.
10. Why do you want to tell this particular story?
Look, we all want to sell our scripts for lots of money. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it can’t be your only motive for writing. Scripts written solely for mercenary reasons are almost always terrible – at worse they are obvious and crass, at best they are technically proficient but soulless. The real element that enlivens a script – any script, from a grindhouse horror movie to a personal indie — is passion. If you care – really care — about what you are writing, then the readers (and potential buyers) will sense that and will be the element that makes the difference between a PASS and a CONSIDER or a RECOMMEND.
Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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- Breaking In: Top 10 Lame-O Excuses for Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay
- More Meet the Reader articles by Ray Morton
- Ask the Expert: How Do I Get My Material Seen?
Tools to Help:
- Hollywood Guide to Producers
- The Pocket Screenwriting Guide: 120 Tips for Getting to FADE OUT
- Screenplay Development Notes