In my Writers' Program courses at UCLA Extension there's all kinds of personalities, skill-sets, and intentions, within the same class, but some pre-pro writers are more dedicated than others. So I've come up with a method to deal with latecomers. On the first night of a course, I announce that I'll begin each class at 7:00 p.m. sharp by sharing "secrets of writing a million dollar spec script." Those who get to class on time get to hear these tips - those who come even five minutes later miss out.
I'm happy to say that my current crop of students tend to be prompt. And it's occurred to me that these "secrets" - culled from my job of reading spec scripts and doing notes on projects in development for a major studio - might be of interest to Living the RomCom readers.
Instead of one long, long post, I'm going to deliver these tips in bite-sized blog pieces every day this week - five tips, Monday through Friday. They represent aspects of craft and creativity which scripts that sell have in common.
Tip # 1: Selling screenplays are clearly, vividly rooted in their star role's point of view.
You cannot read the first page of Susannah Grant's Erin Brockovich (revised by Richard LaGravanese) without knowing that this is Erin's movie - for that matter, Erin's point of view is equally obvious on nearly every page after that. Yes, it's a well-written script, period, and a great character - great enough to win Julia Roberts her Oscar - but a primary reason the thing got made (despite being a project that, in its subject matter, did not have a "mainstream hit" vibe) is that a major star like Julia fell in love with it.
Why? One obvious reason is that every scene in the script is written from Erin's POV. I don't mean literally: we're in standard screenplay format third person throughout. But every scene gets Erin's emotions and thoughts across. Every scene is conceived in terms of "What is Erin discovering and what are we learning about Erin?" Every scene gives us Erin's experience.
In the opening sequence, Erin interviews for a job. Dr. Jaffe, her would-be employer, clearly doesn't know what to do with her, and as he prepares to turn her down, he begins: "Look..." The narrative following the line reads:
Beat. By Erin's expression, she knows what's coming.
In the scene directly following, outside on the street, we read:
Erin is finishing a cigarette. Her face has fallen - the enthusiasm and spirit she showed in the interview are now replaced by a desperate type of concern. She takes a final puff...
If you were to remove both lines - the indication of Erin' reaction to being rejected, and the description of what shows in her face, on the street - you'd be removing our chance to know Erin and be in this experience with her. It would be minimal, technically correct screenwriting - but it wouldn't create that "we are her" feeling.
After nearly 20 years of working inside and outside of the studio system on thousands of projects, I've come to firmly believe that the most important goal of a spec script is to get the reader to empathize and identify with the protagonist. Accomplish that and any reader will go along for the ride. And any major actor reading the thing will think, "This is my movie."
Writing for a star makes sense. Stars want to play parts where the character's purpose is clear and strong, and the character's emotions are palpable and vivid. These are people that people relate to. We enjoy being with them and often we want to be them. In great scripts, the protagonist's inner life is clear and vivid on the page.
Almost every selling spec script I can think of (that I read) has this quality. The same basic principal holds true even for ensemble films; Rodrigo Garcia's forthcoming Mother and Child (which got Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, and Kerry Washington on board) is a script that makes the reader feel intimately involved with each of its major characters' inner lives.
Root your story in your protagonist's point of view. Every reader will understand the story with an extra level of clarity, and every leading actor who reads it will know that the movie is about... them.