I’ve been looking back over some of my old columns recently, and I’ve noticed a number of notions that keep recurring in my articles—ideas and advice that pop up again and again in different forms and variations. When I first realized this, I feared that perhaps I’ve just been too repetitive over the years, but what I eventually came to understand was that the reason these concepts keep recurring is because they are the bedrock principles that I feel are key for writers—beginners and veterans alike—to know and embrace if they are to write and work successfully. So, as we begin a new (and hopefully much better) year, I thought it would be helpful to summarize these notions so that they could be helpful and possibly even inspirational as we all embark on new projects and new storytelling.
It’s important to learn your craft
Many laypeople and beginning screenwriters feel that if they have seen a movie, they can write one. As anyone with even a modicum of experience knows, nothing could be further from the truth. Screenwriting is a craft—it has core concepts, key guidelines, and specific techniques that must be learned, practiced, and mastered if one is to become a competent screen storyteller. To become a decent screenwriter, one must learn and understand the basic concepts and principles of dramatic writing and how they have been adapted to visual storytelling. One must learn basic screenplay formatting and basic screenwriting techniques and devices. One must learn to show rather than tell. Most importantly, one must learn how all of these things work together to generate an effective screenplay. Too many new writers are eager to break the rules before they have learned them. Once in a while that works, but it usually just leads to self-indulgence and incoherence. If you don’t understand why a principle or a technique is important—how the piece contributes to the whole—you will not be able to creatively vary or discard it in an effective manner. Instead, you will just do a bad job.
Tell a good story
When I say “tell a good story,” it may seem like I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Many writers come up with good ideas but fail to develop them into a good story. A good story is a tale based on a novel concept or gives a novel twist to an established or traditional narrative. Its subject matter is of interest to an audience—it introduces us to a new world we were previously unfamiliar with or provides fresh insight or perspective on arenas we are already familiar with. A good story has interesting characters. A good story for a movie or a TV show is dramatic—it has an intriguing hook, escalating conflict, a cathartic climax, and a resonant resolution. A good story is entertaining—it provides thrills, laughs, and/or tears. A good story is told in an effective manner for its subject matter and has clear cause and effect. A good story has some (emotional, thematic, political, social) relevance for the people who will watch it.
Care about the story you are telling
Don’t write a script simply because you think it might sell. Don’t write a script because you think it will land you an agent or a manager. Don’t write a script because you think it will sell or win in a contest. Many writers—including some very good writers—pen scripts for these reasons and the results—while often competent—are almost always hollow and uninteresting. The only way you will ever write a script worth a damn is if you care passionately about the story you are telling—if it excites you and means something to you and if you can communicate that excitement and meaning to the reader and, ultimately, the viewer. If you can do that, the other things—landing an agent, selling the script—will take care of themselves.
Write to entertain
Whatever else they do—provoke, inspire, exploit, make important or profound statements—at their core movies and television shows are meant to entertain. So, make sure your scripts are entertaining—that they are intensely dramatic or riotously funny. That they provide thrills and/or chills. That they are full of suspense and surprises. That they take us to exotic or unexpected places. That they have us tapping our toes or teetering on the edges of our seats. That they trigger intense emotions within us and cause us to leave the theater with smiles on our faces and/or tears in our eyes.
Know your story’s genre
No matter how original or artistic or innovative your story is (or you think it is), every screen narrative ultimately belongs to one genre or another: drama, comedy, thriller, action, horror, romance, musical, war movie, biopic, etc. Every genre has its own specific and necessary components, conventions, tropes, and formulas and if your script is to be successful, it must address those core required elements in some manner (either by utilizing them fully or by subverting them in some clever, unexpected way). If you don’t, you risk disappointing and even alienating your audience. So, it is vital for you to be clear as to exactly what genre your story belongs to; that you are aware of that genre’s required elements and that you incorporate them into your story in some way; and that you review the best and worst films in your genre so you know what has come before, what has worked well, and (probably more importantly) what has not worked well.
Structure is vital
It has been said that sound with structure is music; sound without structure is noise. The same is true for dramatic writing: characters, events, and actions assembled in the proper structure is drama; characters, events, and actions without structure is just a jumble of stuff that happens.
Dramatic narratives have a single premise (too many beginning writers try to cram two or more premises into a single script). Dramatic narratives have a beginning, a middle, and an end presented in three acts. (Yeah, yeah, I know all about the supposed four-act structure, the five-act structure, the six-act structure, and the no-act structure. There are three acts and that’s it. Everything else is just playing cutesy with words.) Dramatic narratives have inciting incidents and two major plot twists. Dramatic narratives have an ever-increasing build and momentum. Dramatic narratives have powerful and inevitable climaxes and they pay off in appropriate resolutions. Narratives that do not have these things are not drama—they are just noise.
You must give us a reason to care about your protagonist
Hollywood wisdom used to insist that a protagonist needed to be “likable”—to be admirable and inoffensive and generally positive—for a script or a film to be successful. Popular films and TV shows featuring anti-heroes in both the '70s and our modern era have proven that this is not necessarily the case. However, while a protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be likable, they do need to be sympathetic. A protagonist can have negative traits or be an anti-hero, but in order for us to care about them enough for us to invest our time and emotions in their story for two or so hours, we must have some insight into or understanding of why they are the way they are and why their goals are worth accomplishing. And there must be some change in a relatively positive direction in the end for the protagonist for us to feel our time with this protagonist has been well-spent. I read too many screenplays these days in which the leads are just plain assholes. These scripts depict a lot of bad behavior, but never help me understand or sympathize with that behavior. With that understanding and sympathy, I might be willing to go on a journey with a difficult character. But if a jerk is just a jerk, then I guarantee you I’m going to check out early.
Narrative devices—flashbacks, voice-over narration, non-linear chronology, etc.—that grow organically out of the story’s core concept (for example, the non-linear narrative of Memento, a movie about a man with memory issues) can enhance a narrative considerably. Devices that do not spring naturally from a script’s concept and are used arbitrarily are just gimmicks that are to be avoided at all costs. Why? Because dramatic narratives require an ever-increasing build and momentum to be effective. The use of any narrative device automatically impedes that build and momentum. If the device enhances the narrative in some way, it can be worth the trade-off. If it doesn’t, then all it does is get in the way.
Have clear goals for your writing
Know the way in which you want your story to entertain the audience (by scaring viewers, making them laugh, and so on). Know the emotions you want to evoke. Know the point you want your story to make and the thoughts you want the audience to have on the way out of the theater. Keep those goals in mind, and work as hard as you can to make sure you reach them in every scene and on every page.
Writing is rewriting
This is an old truism, but it’s an accurate one. Many beginning writers want to churn out a single draft and be done with it and are very resistant to the idea of rewriting. But there is no such thing as a good first draft. A decent first draft is one in which you get all of your ideas down on paper. After that, you must revise and revise and revise—cutting, shaping, focusing, enhancing, and polishing in order to make your script the best it can be. There are no shortcuts and no way around it—this must be done. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Don’t settle for good enough
Somewhere along the line, the notion that a script that is just okay script is satisfactory got loosed on the world (probably by one of those “write a script in ten days” books). That all that is required of a spec is for it to get the main ideas and the basic storyline down on paper in a reasonably coherent manner—that it is not necessary for the narrative to be as well-honed as possible; for the characters to be as well-developed as possible; for the dialogue and writing to be as well-polished as possible. That if the basic premise is high concept enough, then the script only has to be just okay and someone will buy it and hire other writers to whip it into final shape. Not only is this idea completely looney-tunes, but it is also completely wrong. There are plenty of scripts out there that are just okay—that are good enough. They all blend together in a vast sea of mediocrity. If you want your work to stand out and be noticed, then every element must be as good as you can possibly make it. Nothing else will do. Set your expectations as high as possible, not as low as you can go and get away with it.
The entertainment business is a business, and therefore it is vital for you to conduct yourself in a professional manner. Present yourself and your material in a polished, professional manner. Treat people respectfully. Accept rejection gracefully. Don’t act in an entitled manner. Do not demand things. Do not call people names or treat them disrespectfully if they don’t give you the answer or the result you are looking for. One of the best lessons I was ever taught was that it was not enough to be talented—people also had to want to be in a room with you. If they don’t, then you’re going to have a very hard time getting anywhere.
I hope these bits help. Write hard. Write well. Happy New Year.
Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton
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