I’m going to start by giving you the secret to any good movie script: compelling characters. Does that sound vaguely familiar to you authors?
When choosing our HERO (protagonist) we want to fit one of these two molds:
- An ordinary person faced with extraordinary circumstances (Andy Dufrain in Shawshank Redemption)
- An extraordinary person faced with fitting in and adapting to the regular world (Superman)
-Whenever I’m writing a story I go through character profiles, pages of pages of a profile of every aspect of the character’s life, including secrets they’ve never told anyone, dreams, ambitions, what scares them. And what they’ve done when faced with moral conundrums. For instance, one question I ask of my characters is: If you found a wallet on the street with $100 in it what would you do? You can never have too much backstory and fleshing to your characters even though you may not use 95% of it in the movie.
-Good characters need to be REAL and RELATABLE, not perfect. People will recognize the fears, struggles, and shortcomings in your heroes. They will love that they're struggling forward to be great, not that they are great. Think about Tyler Durden in Fight Club!
Every screenplay follows a simple formula – the main character either:
1) wants something, or
2) has something taken away and then wants it back.
From there they go on a quest to get whatever it is they want. But there are many obstacles in the way, including the greatest opponent, the VILLIAN, who has an equal vested interest in them NOT getting what they want. The HERO plods forward to overcome those obstacles and wrestles with the VILLIAN and finally achieves their quest.
But they learn something along the way. There has to be an emotional and/or mental change to the HERO along the way, sometimes called the Character Arc.
Once we have an amazing, living, breathing character with a clear vision of what he wants, we just roll out the obstacles and the conflicts and watch how he deals with them. For instance, recall the wild, rapid-fire conflicts in The Hangover with the clear quest to get their friend back and get him to his wedding on time.
Every screenplay should follow the simple (yet sometimes forgotten) pattern of having a clear 1) beginning, 2) middle, and 3) end. Most stories lag in the middle for several reasons, including that you haven’t set a good foundation of character yet.
We need to establish immediately, within the first 10 pages or less, who the character is and what it is they want, and what is in their way. We need to know what the stakes are and what critical choices he will have to make.
We will start with an incident or scene that will hook readers, throwing them right into the action, and have them asking questions and begging for resolution. It’s okay to start chronologically out of sequence and then fill in parts of the story with flashback or other methods.
Every single line written in a screenplay has to do one of two things:
1) reveal and develop characters, or
2) move the action along.
There can be zero fat on the bone in a movie script - If we show a gun over the mantel in the first scene someone better fire it in by the end of the movie! When writing a screenplay remember that your book's exposition or internal monologue won't translate well to the screen.
Basically the whole middle plot follows the action lines of the hero chasing what they want and dealing with the villain and all of the obstacles. It’s essential that we build tension throughout, until it’s ready to explode and the movie watchers are begging for a resolution/conclusion.
There are several ways to do that. We need to know that the stakes are high. If the main character is just going to lose a lot of money if they are not successful, we might not be as emotionally invested as if the main character’s girlfriend will be killed if he isn’t successful. The stakes need to be very high, and clear to the viewer. In fact sometimes the character doesn’t even realize the stakes, and that keeps us on the edge of our seats!
Another great way to build tension is putting the hero’s quest up against a ticking clock. If the bomb is going to explode, the world is going to end, the missiles are going to be fired, the forest ruined, or the girlfriend killed if he doesn’t stop it within 24 hours, there’s a lot more hustle and tension to the plot!
Everyone in the theater knows the movie is going to end soon. The resolution is coming. They’re waiting for that tension to be relieved. We’ll give it to them right on time; HOWEVER there will be a twist. Whatever clues we’ve left threw them off the scent, and the story is concluded and the hero successful in a completely unanticipated way. The twist, or surprise ending, is so important to keep the viewer engaged and guessing throughout the whole third act. The ending to
Everything needs to be wrapped up cleanly, but not necessarily simply or conveniently. There will be one or two subplots (like the hero’s relationship with his love interest) which will all come together, too. It’s all about synthesis. The surprise twist at the end of The Usual Suspects still blows my mind!
Some things to keep in mind when writing a screenplay:
-Most movie scripts are around 100 pages, which will be 90 minutes +, and you definitely don't want to go over 110 pages.
-Film is all about action, movement, and contrast.
-Who is our target audience? This is SO important, and every agent and studio exec will immediately ask this question. We will write a detailed profile of our target audience, why they will want to see this move and love it, and what other movies are similar had success.
-There are Four Quadrants to the audience – young men, older men, young woman, and older woman. We want to try to capture as many as possible for a blockbuster, without spreading ourselves too thin. The all-time great movies like Titanic and Avatar appealed to all four of those quadrants.
-We need to identify whether the script is plot-driven or character-driven. Most agents will look to sell character-driven stories, but of course a good character who reacts to the action that is thrown his way is a bonus.
-We can write only what is filmable, with strong visual potential.
-Think merchandise. Action figures, video games, etc. make almost as much money as any successful movie. That is one of the key components in building a successful brand with some longevity.
-Think sequels. The studios love to give money to a sure thing, and if the movie has a certain measurable modicum of success they won’t be afraid to go for #2 and #3.
-Determine what genre of film we want this to be:
Futuristic sci-fi? Action hero movie? Fantasy?
The audience will let you do anything you want on screen and believe it and love it IF you follow the predictable patterns of the common genres. There are very specific guidelines, subplots, and milestones to stick to inherent with each genre.
I like to start with a LOGLINE, which is like our elevator commercial – the whole movie concept summarized in a few lines that an agent can read or hear in ten seconds. From there we can build a blockbuster, one well-placed brick at a time.
Drop me a line if you want to share your movie idea or if you need some help.