What Makes A Good Screenplay

Recently, I received a comment that what investors want to see is a strong, solid script. It sounds like great advice. Too bad it doesn’t actually work that way, but golly gee whiz it should. Unfortunately, one of the first things that any aspiring screenwriter needs to learn is that very few people are going to read their script. That is especially true of potential investors. They should, but they don’t.

I am not trying to be negative. But every time I have ever talked with potential investors, I have always made the mistake of asking them questions related to the script. Most often, they barely knew the title of the movie, and they acted as if they hadn’t a clue that the sucker might even have a script. Mostly, they were basing their decision on the pitch, any names attached, and some vague idea as to genre. This oddity about investors is best summed up by the current lawsuit involving the movie Transylmania.

In the ideal world, this shouldn’t be the case. But one of the first things that any aspiring screenwriter needs to learn is that a lot of people don’t want to read their script. It’s an attitude best summed up by screenwriter Josh Olson in his infamous essay “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.” A more insightful (and less hostile) piece can be found at NoFilmSchool.com. Either way, these articles are important eye openers for the beginning screenwriter.

Obviously this raises the question as to why you even want to write a screenplay. After all, if all you want is to be ignored, there are easier ways to do it, for example, attending the average family event. Unfortunately, the screenplay is the first important step in the filmmaking process. Granted, it is often the first major casualty in the process, but it is the initial step. No wonder many experienced screenwriters seem to feel like the first wave of troops landing at Normandy. The successful writers often sound as if they are still amazed they have survived.

But despite this reality, the amount of first time screenwriters lurking out there is way longer than the lines waiting for the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. They say everyone has at least one screenplay inside them. Personally, I doubt it. But almost everyone thinks they do, and lots of them are working on it.

Over the years, I have read many scripts by first time writers. OK, some I have only skipped through. There is an old rule of thumb that you can determine in the first ten pages if the writer even knows what they are doing. This rule is largely accurate. A few scripts I kept reading after page ten only because they were so uniquely gad-awful that I was glued to the text like a rubber-necker at a ten car pileup. But in most cases, the first ten pages would be so flat, boring, and utterly predictable that there was no way of staying particularly engaged. So I would mostly just flip through the rest simply to determine if my second-guessing of the story was accurate. Most times, my guess work was better than ESP.

There are a variety of articles available online that can be informative to the beginning screenwriter. Carson Reeves lists the “10 Possible Reasons Your Script is Boring” on ScriptShadow.blogspot.com. His observations are pretty general but extremely good.

Likewise, Amanda the Aspiring Writer (that is the name she uses) offers the “10 Reasons I Pass on Scripts” at the Aspiring TV Writer and Screenwriter Blog. Again, she offers some good suggestions concerning the basic rules of crafting a script.

Of course, all rules are made to be broken. For example, both articles warn against having an unfocused story. Basically, this is correct. Of course a movie like Clerks was able to turn a rambling unfocused script into a weird but funny view of slackers. In fact, almost every rule given in these articles (and they are all good rules) have major counter-examples. So the best advice I can offer is to learn the rules first, and then learn how to break them.

However, one of the most important rules is to keep the script under 120 pages. As a basic average, one page of script is equal to one minute of screen time. As a general rule, a first time screenwriter will want to offer a script for a movie with a running time of 90 to 120 minutes. No more, no less. One of the worse kept secrets of the business is that most indie producers will not even look at a script longer than 120 pages. Ideally, they want screenplays that come in at about 95 to 110 pages. Anything longer will merely get used as a paperweight (if you’re lucky).

Another bit of advice is to use only enough main characters as you can count on one hand. Preferably this does not include your thumb. Realistically, most movies can only handle about 3 to 4 main characters. Again, there are exceptions to this rule but a first time writer would be best advised to keep the focus on simply a few characters and work on their development. Otherwise, you will have a script that reads like a stampede of poorly developed bit players.

Keep in mind that you are writing for an audience. You have to engage that audience. You might even want to give them some reason to emotionally invest themselves into your story. Since you are hoping that the audience will pay good money to see the movie, the least you can do is give them something they might want to see. Emotional engagement is a very important part of that desire. Otherwise you could end up with a packed house responding like Mel Brooks in the classic cartoon The Critic.

Perhaps the single most important piece of advice is something an editor told me twenty years ago: “Show me. Don’t tell me.” At the time, I felt like slugging him. But in retrospect, it is the best advice I was ever given (and I never took the time to thank him). As a screenwriter, you are creating a visual narrative. You want people to “watch” the movie. You don’t need to have every fine point of the narrative and themes outlined in long patches of windy dialogue. You are supposed to be making a film, not a radio news interview.

So “show” them the story. Don’t bend their ears off with explanation. It is a reminder of what the great philosopher Henny Youngman once said about jokes: “If you got to explain them, don’t do them.”