Ah, falling in love. There’s nothing quite like it. I’m not talking about the kind that requires a change in Facebook status. I’m talking about falling in love with great writing.
When I come across a script that is exceptionally well written, I lose track of time. It feels like being enveloped in the warm embrace of the story. And when I’m very, very lucky, I fall in love.
Like eating your all-time favorite, scrumptious dessert, you just want one more bite. And then another. You want to lick the plate.
When I read a wonderfully written script, I tend to assume that the writer is charming and delightful in person. To me, great storytellers are the most fascinating people in the world.
When I finally met Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, Behind the Candelabra), it was at a party for my former boss, Debra Hill, who produced the spectacular film The Fisher King. I walked straight up to Richard and said, “I have a huge crush on you because I love your writing, and I’m telling you this knowing full well that your wife is standing right next to you!” I then eked out a sheepish “Hi” to her. Star-struck by a screenwriter!
I believe the same qualities that float my boat in great writing turn on other industry professionals. If you want to know how to write a screenplay that impresses, instead of belaboring the “Do Not’s” – what makes us say “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!”?
A Tale of True Love
Once upon a time, a script crossed my path. If you’d told me the logline before I began reading, I would have thought “familiar and ho-hum,” but the strong storytelling and solid writing made this one of a kind and compelling. It was a character-driven drama. In a sense, an adult coming of age story where the main character must come to terms with themselves and with their past. Even though this type of plot could be predictable, I was in the moment with the hero every step of the way.
The reading experience was pleasurable and effortless. It’s as if the writer took me by the hand, quickly drawing me into their world. The characters were unique and engaging, and soon the story hooked me. It flowed smoothly from one scene to another, taking me on a literal and metaphorical journey with the main character, one I wanted to go on at this point.
This was a confident writer, a very sexy trait. They had real talent for knowing which scenes not to include, keeping the focus on the hero’s journey and not bothering with scenes that didn’t simultaneously advance the story and reveal character.
There were compelling moments ranging from awkward encounters to touches of humor. The undercurrent of emotion was visceral without being heavy-handed. The result was lean yet ultimately moving as this character gradually underwent a significant external change and an emotional arc that had meaning and resonance.
Dialogue was distinctive to each character. Even small, supporting roles were well defined, unique and served a function in the story. There was simply nothing extraneous here.
The details were delicious. The atmosphere of every location came across vividly, adding texture with a few very specific details.
The story was seemingly simple, but as it progressed the complexity was gradually revealed. It grew continually more interesting. There were twists and surprises that neither the hero nor I saw coming. There was an array of conflict from external challenges, issues between characters, and those within the hero himself. The writer always found the fine line between being significant and not hitting us over the head. The fact that the hero struggled with both external pressures and with emotional conflicts simmering beneath the surface brought a sense of authenticity to the story and gave impact to the message.
The ending was uplifting but not sentimental. The coda satisfyingly illustrated how the character had been transformed over the course of the story and hinted at their new life.
I was smitten. I had fallen in love with the great writing.
So you're thinking about how to write a screenplay that stands out. What’s the take away here?
Here’s what gets industry professionals hot and bothered about great writing:
It’s enjoyable to read. Sounds simplistic, I know, but a pleasurable reading experience is seductive. It feels like the writer and I are in it together. Some scripts are a challenge. We flip back and forth through the pages because we can’t follow the story or can’t recall a character introduced earlier amidst a slew of other characters. It’s frustrating. It’s hard work. It’s a huge turn off.
Strong characters draw us in. It’s as if the hero pulls us into their story. When their fundamental traits, needs and desires are in opposition to each other and illustrate the theme – Baby, that’s the sweet spot.
Scenes progress smoothly and logically. One leads to the next, and we follow. I can’t wait to find out what’s next.
It’s not overwritten. To me, this is a real sign of confident writing. One of the things I loved in this script is what wasn’t there. Scenes that could have been included if you were thinking literally, “What happens next?”, but weren’t necessary, so the writer left them out. Accomplishing a lot with a little lures me in every single time.
Scenes should fulfill more than one function. Sometimes scenes feel like they’re included just to provide connective tissue à la, “And then they got into the car and drove there.” Trust that we can make that leap with you. Scenes that both advance plot and reveal character make a story dynamic and get us excited about the writing.
Conflict makesmovies. Without it there are no stakes, no escalation, no character arc. One single conflict grows tiresome. The greater the variety of conflict, the more gripping the story.
You got peanut butter in my chocolate! Great writing needs some of both. Every drama benefits from some comic relief. Comedies are enhanced by a bit of gravitas.
Dialogue comes from character. Some of the best writers I know claim that their characters speak to them. When each character has their own voice, dialogue becomes conversation. We’re not just reading, “John said this, then Jane said that.” We’re involved in a compelling interaction.
The art of great description is in the details. Less is always more and brilliant specificity is spine-tingling. What is essential for us to understand the character or visualize the setting? One or two unique details that make characters and locations spring to life will give your script dimension and make your writing irresistible.
Compelling storytelling is the be all and end all. I am a storyaholic. Nothing is as seductive on the page as a terrific story well told. Even a fair story ably told will capture my interest. But a story that I can’t follow, one where I can’t even figure out what it is about, is off-putting, disappointing, and unforgivable.
Strong writing provokes a visceral reaction in the reader. Convey the emotions of the characters and invoke emotion in the reader. We go to the movies to have a visceral experience – to laugh, to cry, to be scared, to be surprised, to be moved.
Films are a simple idea complexly executed. In my Big Ideas seminars, I frequently tell students “You’ve got too much tinsel on your tree.” Worried that their story is not interesting enough, new writers sometimes heap extraneous things onto their script, tangential subplots, outlandish twists, over the top complications – even alien invasions – until we can no longer see the beauty of the original idea. It’s buried under all the garland, sparkly lights and paper chains when, really, it was a lovely tree to begin with.
The human brain love surprises. A solid, unexpected twist is a true thrill. It’s even harder to achieve for those of us who consume story for a living, which makes it even more titillating. However, if we are out ahead of your hero in figuring things out (unless it’s a horror or thriller and the killer is hiding under the bed!) then you’ve made them seem not so very smart. They are less appealing and you’ve bored your reader.
Authenticity is intoxicating. Writing that feels true to life captivates us. It’s not literally true to life, as that would be dull rather than dramatic. A screenwriter who manages to heighten, exaggerate, or over magnify real life while still creating a naturalistic feel has a rare and valuable talent to illuminate life as we know it. When I experience this, you’ve won me over.
Endings must satisfy. Some scripts feel as though the writer ran out of steam. After all the foreplay, there’s no big finish. These scripts simply fall off the page. Other times, the ending isn’t what the story has been building up to all along, leaving us feeling confused or cheated. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing your opening time and time again, as that’s the logical place to start a rewrite – but a “happy” ending is what we’ve been sticking around for since the first scene. Don’t disappoint us.
Message matters. As an artist, your story should reflect what you think is important in life. It is the theme in great stories. And theme gives your story resonance, reaching a universal audience even when it whispers.
Here’s the cold, hard truth that might tick you off:
Will I try to produce this movie? Honestly, no, because despite the terrific writing I don’t see how to move this concept and genre forward in the marketplace. But you better believe that I want to know this writer that knocked my socks off. I want to read what else they have, discover what they’re writing next, and maybe even consider them for assignments. I would definitely recommend their writing to others in the business. Great writing is a precious find.
It’s rare to read a script where we enjoy the writing so much that we simply don’t want it to end.
But if you can create one, it’s sure to be a great beginning for your career.
- More Breaking & Entering articles by Barri Evins
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR (more tips on writing a script that's a great read)
- Meet the Reader: 12 Signs of a Promising Spec Script
- Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script
Tool to Help: