Angela Guess of the useful and inspiring website L.A. Screenwriter has been running a series of posts she calls “the un-rules” (i.e. flexible truisms) that working screenwriters have found most helpful in their careers. And she asked me to do one, bless her heart, I suppose because besides being a writer, I’ve worked in the movie industry as a studio story analyst and private script consultant for some 25 years.
It’s from this latter point of view that I decided to tackle the assignment, asking myself, What didn’t I know when I first started out that I know now, that’s specific to the task of writing a script that will get a movie made?
There’s tons of small-bore info I could share, like how it’s good to put your completed first draft on ice for awhile instead of showing it around, or how it’s important to learn how to take script notes (with a cooperative spirit and an open mind, followed by a good stiff drink). But in terms of fundamental, big picture observations, for me it all boils down to these three.
1. A primary goal of any spec script that’s going to market is to get the reader to identify with its protagonist.
Your story requires a compelling, relatable lead character – meaning, we know what she wants and we believe she may be capable of getting it, the ways in which she overcomes her obstacles make her empathetic, and she’s complex enough to keep us interested. Your job is to get us to be her, even if this means putting what she thinks and how she feels into the narrative on the screenplay page. If we’re not totally emotionally invested in her story and seeing it though her eyes by the end of the first act, your script is dead in the water.
2. No amount of great writing can overcome the folly of a weak story concept.
It’s an awful truth, but it’s undeniable: While I’ve often seen an exquisitely crafted screenplay be rejected by a studio, I’ve never heard of one with a great story idea being turned down due to its poor execution. In this business, story concept rules, so no amount of skillful tap-dancing (e.g. pithy dialogue, cool visuals) can make up for the lack of a killer melody (i.e. a genuinely exciting same-but-different premise). Unless your script’s stripped-naked story idea earns an aroused “And then what?!” response when it’s pitched, you’d be ill-advised to spend the next few years of your writing life working on it.
3. Learning the difference between what a writer likes and what the audience wants is vital in forging a successful career.
Screenwriters may write to express themselves, to capture a personal experience, or to make a philosophical point, but an audience wants to be entertained and moved, and their demands trump yours. You have to develop a keen sense of what appeals to you as a viewer in a story, so that you can step back from your own work with objectivity, and be ruthless about losing whatever’s in the way of holding an audience’s attention or satisfying their expectations. Such hoary mantras as “Come in late, leave early” and “Kill your darlings” speak to the ethos of this rule: a screenplay is a shark that has to move to keep breathing, and lives on conflict. So always keep your ego at the service of feeding that beast.