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Meet the Reader: That's Entertainment

One of the biggest faults I find in many of the spec scripts I read is that they're just no fun.

Movies can do a lot of things -- they can provoke, challenge, inspire, confound, disturb, and transform -- but their primary purpose, the whole reason the medium got rolling in the first place, is to entertain the people that watch them.

Of course, the definition of entertainment varies from person to person. For some, it means mindless fluff whose sole purpose is to distract them from the cares of the day. Others are entertained by material that stimulates them on a deeper level or in a more complex manner. For my purposes, I am going to define entertainment as material that strongly engages readers/viewers, fully envelops them in an exciting experience, and ultimately moves them (emotionally, intellectually, or a combination of the two) in some significant or memorable way (from making them feel that they have just had the greatest roller coaster ride ever to prompting them to reconsider their entire philosophy of life).

These are things that a majority of the scripts that I read fail to do. While many of them are based on good ideas, are reasonably well written, and have decent characters and solid dialogue, when I read them I find that I am not engaged, not excited, and rarely feel anything. In short, I am not entertained.


Why this is? Well, it seems to me that many screenwriters have a tendency to become so focused on what I consider the secondary aspects of storytelling -- on delivering a specific message; on playing with form or format; on trying to be clever or quirky or serious or “artistic;” or on exorcising their own private demons -- that they forget about their responsibility to give the audience a good time.

To help you avoid falling into this trap, here are a few tips to help you make your scripts more entertaining:

1. Tell an entertaining story:

This may seem like a facetious suggestion, but it’s not. An intriguing premise, interesting subject matter, and provocative theme are all important narrative elements to be sure, but to be entertaining, a story must also be able to generate generous helpings of humor, action, and/or tears. It must also be compelling enough to hold an audience’s attention for 90 – 120 minutes and to serve up a sufficient number of the unexpected twists, turns, and reversals that all good dramatic narratives require. Not all story ideas have this potential (especially those based on true people or events. As we all know, real life is usually nowhere near as interesting as fiction, which is why so many biopic and historical specs fall so terribly flat). Creatively and commercially successful screenwriters are able to recognize the ones that do (and perhaps, just as importantly, the ones that don’t) and if you intend to forge a career as a scenarist, it is imperative that you develop this skill as well.

2. Milk your idea for all it’s worth:

Make the most of each and every element in the piece – never let any of them lie fallow or undeveloped. A good example of a movie that fails to properly exploit all of its elements is the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace. In the picture, it is established that the villain is hoarding all of the water in Bolivia, which he has stored in a secret underground dam. This turns the country into a bleak and inhospitable desert in which the people are slowly dying from dehydration. The potential of this concept is obvious and enormous – it’s so easy to imagine a spectacular climax in which 007 and the bad guy fight it out up, over, and around the secret underground dam before the structure finally explodes and the hoarded water is released, ironically drowning the villain in the symbol of his own greed as it floods the desert and brings life back to the beleaguered populace. Unfortunately, the film’s makers did not take advantage of any of this potential. Instead, they gave us a rather lame ending in which the secret underground dam is completely ignored while Bond and the bad guy duke it out in a drab-looking hotel that has nothing to do with the plot and catches on fire for no apparent reason (other than it’s the end of a Bond movie). The flaming hotel fight ends in a draw and Bond leaves the bad guy stranded in the desert to die a very unspectacular death off screen. The same film gives Bond, who is haunted by the tragic loss of a loved one, a beautiful female companion who is also haunted by the death of a loved one, and then fails to develop any sort of healing romance between the two.

Compare QOS to its immediate predecessor Casino Royale, which gives us a central poker game so packed with relevant incident and excitement that it could practically stand as a complete movie on its own; a brutal showdown between Bond and the villain that ironically transfers the bluff and call of the poker game to a harrowing climax involving interrogation and torture; and a tragic but touching romance between 007 and the female lead (whose orphaned past mirrors Bond’s own), which is not only completely satisfying in its own right, but that also serves to define 007’s relationship to women for the entire fifty-year series. Unlike QOS, all of the story elements in Casino Royale are utilized to their fullest and, as a result, it is certainly the more entertaining of the two.

3. Follow the formula:

Most stories belong to one genre or another (romantic comedy, thriller, horror, etc.) and each genre comes with a certain set of obligatory plot points that have to be utilized if a story is going to be successful within that genre (for example, a romantic comedy must have a “cute meet” between the two leads and a horror movie must have a climactic showdown between the protagonist and whatever evil force is running rampant in the narrative). Audiences either consciously or subconsciously know all of these points, are expecting them (part of the fun is seeing how they will unfold), and will be very disappointed (and, thus, not entertained) if they are not included.

Consider 1987’s Broadcast News. Although the film covers a broad canvas (from workplace ethics to the state of the television news business to the difficulty of having both a successful work and personal life), at it’s core, the film is a classic romantic comedy triangle in which a woman has to choose between a flashy beau and a more grounded one. Having been trained by watching the thousands of romcoms that came before, audiences were anticipating an ending in which the woman chose one man over the other for reasons they could get behind. But the filmmakers, seemingly unable to decide which man the woman should end up with, ultimately decided to have her choose neither. The result was a disappointing ending to an otherwise terrific movie that left audiences feeling confused, unhappy, and unsatisfied and was, in my opinion, one of the major reasons that this highly anticipated film ultimately underperformed at the box office and isn’t better remembered today.

Now consider 1997’s Titanic. Strip away the disaster movie trappings and Titanic is basically just an old-fashioned romance picture, and, in a romance picture, it is expected that the two main lovers will come together forever at the end. Jack and Rose do come together in the end and I think that is one of the primary reasons why the film became one of the highest grossing movies of all time -- people don’t plop down that much money unless they are feeling very, very entertained.

4. But don’t do it obviously:

Audiences want you to hit all of a genre’s required plot points, but they don’t want you to do it so obviously that they can predict how the story will unfold before they even see it. As an example, consider again Titanic – the audience knew that Jack and Rose would end up together, but did not expect that their union would come in death. That was a surprise, but a satisfying one. Another good example is The Sixth Sense. Because it was a horror movie, everyone in the audience knew that Haley Joel Osment’s character was eventually going to have to tangle with one of the dead people he’d been seeing, but no one expected that it would be Bruce Willis (including Bruce Willis). People got what they wanted, but in a pleasantly unexpected way, and found that to be very, very entertaining.

5. Respect the material:

People who like Batman take Batman seriously and want to see a movie that takes Batman seriously. Which is why Christopher Nolan’s Batfilms have been embraced and Joel Schumacher’s have not. If you can’t respect the material you are working on it, then work on something else. The reason that Die Hard is such a good (and memorable) film is because the people who made it – who knew darn well they were making “just” an action movie – loved the genre and decided to make it the best action movie they possibly could. The reason why most of the Die Hard knock-offs have been so bad is because their makers had no such commitment, but clearly saw their assignments as slumming that was good for making a quick buck and nothing more. If you’re only writing something only for the money or only because you think it’ll be commercial, you’ll never write anything good. Condescension is not entertaining.

6. Write it well:

Make sure all the elements in your screenplay – characters, dialogue, story structure, etc. -- are as good as they can be: as rich and textured and full bodied as possible. The more you give an audience to entertain them, the more entertained they will be. And be sure to pace the script as crisply as possible – too much of anything, no matter how good, is not entertaining. Better to keep the script short and leave us wanting more than let it run for 150 pages and have us grow sick of it.

Ultimately, the best way to ensure that your script is entertaining is to

7. Make sure it delivers what it promises:

  • If it’s a comedy, make sure it’s funny (on all levels – situational and character humor, witty dialogue, some solid pratfalls, etc. One or two scattered fart jokes and an occasional kick to the groin are not enough).
  • If it's a thriller, make sure it's thrilling (wall-to-wall action can quickly become numbing. Have lots of action for sure, but also include scenes of genuine suspense and surprise as well).
  • If it’s a horror film, make sure it’s scary (and not just gross, which seems to be the fallback position for most horror specs these days. Copious amounts of blood, severed body parts, and spilled intestines are fine up to a point, but some suspense and creepiness and a few honest to goodness, “jump out of my seat” scares would also be appreciated).
  • If it’s a drama, make sure it’s lively and engaging and moving and emotional, not just "serious."
  • If it's a mystery, make sure that the central puzzle is clever enough to keep us guessing all the way through (don’t reveal who did it on page 2), but that the solution (and please do give us a solution – ending a mystery on an open, unresolved, or ambiguous note is just about the worst thing you can do to an audience besides texting during the show) is logical enough that we kick ourselves for not seeing it all along.
  • If it's a romantic comedy, make sure it’s both romantic and funny (romance and comedy are the two elements missing from most modern romcoms – both spec and produced – these days. Just ask Kate Hudson).

In other words, never settle for making the script “okay” or “good enough.” Always aim for “great.”

Great ideas and great writing aren’t enough if your script doesn’t entertain. But if you give your audience an engaging, exciting experience, then you can take them anywhere you want them to go.