It’s trite to say that a great script is one that sells, but the hard truth is that there are thousands of interesting stories living their lives in underwear drawers and filing cabinets because they just didn’t cut it as a movie script. Writing for film or television requires a technical skill that is specific to the industry. It must be cultivated, honed and perfected, just like all other crafts.
At the heart of every great script is a quality that’s hard to define. A certain creative spark or simple rhythm that captivates the reader and, ultimately, the audience. Everything else, however, can be pared down to following a few basic rules.
1. USE THE RIGHT SOFTWARE
Less than 1% of all scripts submitted to filmmakers actually make it to pre-production. As marvelous and original as your script may be, it’s not going anywhere if nobody can follow it. You need to abide by the guild standards for formatting, and that’s not going to happen unless you use a purpose-built program. There are several on the market, designed especially for screenwriters, and you’re going to need to pick one if you’re serious about submitting a script.
2. WRITE FOR THE MARKET
If you have a great idea for a plot and have made an emotional investment in your quirky masterpiece, that’s wonderful. Go write a novel. Screenwriting is a business, pure and simple, and you need to write what the market is willing to buy. The goal is to produce a movie that will earn more than it cost to make, and that starts with a story people will want to pay money to see. Forget the exceptions that prove the rule and focus on what mainstream audiences enjoy – family dramas, action movies, and thrillers.
3. GO EASY ON THE DIALOGUE
Scripts that are heavy on dialogue tend to be thin on action, and most people want to see something happening on the big screen. If you’re Woody Allen, you can write whatever you want, but the rest of us need to focus on showing the story rather than telling it. Dialogue should be entertaining or informative, but not the main vehicle for carrying the plot. If you need to use dialogue to explain what just happened, you’ve usually got a problem.
4. REMEMBER THE BUDGET
Unless you’ve been commissioned to write the next Star Wars Trilogy, you need to be realistic about what your characters are doing. Mass destruction and mayhem cost money, as do elaborate sets and period pieces. If you’re just getting started, your investors are going to be cautious, so write a script that won’t cost the earth to make.
5. STEAL FROM EVERYONE
This is Quentin Tarantino’s famous advice, and there’s no better for an aspiring screenwriter. Look at the award winners for best screenplay, and figure out what really works in the script. Watch Juno or Good Will Hunting from a writer’s perspective. Sure, they were big productions, but either one could have been made on an indie film budget. Isolate the features that made the screenwriting great, and adopt them as your own. It’s hard to think of an industry more dependent on luck and timing, but that doesn’t mean great scripts don’t share a common thread. You’re going to cut your teeth on independent productions, and that involves creating original work that investors believe will sell. Shoot for a fresh take on an established genre,curb excessive dialogue, and let your talent take care of the rest.