Writing a movie script is one thing, but knowing how to write a good screenplay is a horse of a different colour. It isn’t enough to know all about the mechanics of formatting correctly, or even throwing in some sharp dialogue (or so you think!) Let’s agree that a good screenplay is one that sells and leads to a commercially successful movie.
What makes a script good? What are the magic ingredients? How do these great screenwriters get their inspiration? There is no magic, except the kind generated by dedication and hard work. If you wait around, looking out of the window, expecting that flash of inspiration, you’ll be waiting a long time. It happens, but it’s rare.
For the vast majority of writers, the seed of an idea pops up in the mind and grows over a period of weeks or months. Whatever he or she is doing, the the idea is being nurtured in the back of their mind. Before getting down to some serious script writing, each scene is planned carefully to create the naturally flowing story crafted to capture the hearts of the audience.
How To Write A Good Movie Script – Two Perspectives From Professionals
My writing process has evolved over the years but I’m always very much concerned with outlining and giving a shape to it before I dive in. Whenever I’ve tried to just take a run at it I find myself writing myself into impossible corners and having to back up and rethink things.
I tend to think very much about structure and organization and I do a lot of preliminary sketches and notes and put post-its on the wall to figure out where certain scenes are before I actually dive in.
I don’t do outlines. I don’t plan where I’m going because I like to be surprised by what I’m writing. The greatest twist in the history of cinema I would suggest humbly is Darth Vader saying ‘I’m your father’. I love writing things when one character says something and you’re like ‘well that’s a joke’ and then you, you know, you go that way and I think outlines you know prevent that happening.
Obviously most people do them and that’s great and if that works for you then brilliant but it’s me personally. I like to be surprised and in order to do that, that can only come from listening to the characters. They’ve become very real people to us.
I mean they are obviously versions of ourselves at some level and we know where they want to go in life. We each have an instinct about our own characters and I think we have an instinct about each other’s characters.
Our daily routine for working is, when we’re writing, is to write five days a week, sort of 10 till 5 and it pretty much like a day job. A lot of that time is spent mining the interiors of the characters. It’s not necessarily physically writing but we might spend two hours discussing the motivation of something people say.
Write you know and I do think that that usually, with some exceptions, people are strongest writing about a millionaire. So for instance, I think Woody Allen is uniquely brilliant at writing about the world he came from and no one knows the nuances of that better than him but not by his own standards.
I think he’s quite clumsy when he tries to film about London. When you’re adapting a novel you have to take into account, especially with a well known work, what the audience remembers most from that book. You don’t have to remain true to the actual structure of the book or to specific lines.
You have to remain true to what people remember about the book. So they’re going to be moments that stand out in their minds, that they’re waiting to see, the scenes that they expect. Well Marigold is a very free adaptation and it got freer and freer. I mean the book actually got reissued with a new title and people reading it slightly baffled as to them in the end.
All we took from it is old people go to India, which is not say that’s not a great book, it just it was a process of development and the more people that read it they had that haven’t read the book, or like ‘why don’t we change that and change that’.
So gradually the book … because the longer the process of development, that likelihood is the further and further you’ll get away from the book itself. I learnt a lot at during working on the thick of it about this process. Very nearly everybody who are the core actors were also writers.
And I think that there’s something about having that bit of your head that can stand back and look at the whole and understands it as a structure and as a beast. That is very useful particularly if you’re going to use improvising. So really it’s about story. I mean, I think story is the key to writing.
You do spend a lot of time by yourself when you’re writing the first draft particularly and I’ve gotten out of the habit of showing anyone anything before the first draft is done. Because I’m too paranoid about what they’ll think of it.
I won’t even show my wife uh when it is done. I try to send it off and I’ve gotten better at not getting emotionally upset when the response is not ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever read in my life’. I think once something has worked you can analyze it post the event, like you analyze a rally at a tennis rally.
And explain why the two, you know, combatants, chose those shots at that time and why that worked but I think you you slowly learn what works and what doesn’t. I think with most things again the analogy was with sport the best way of learning is to watch someone who’s really good at it.
So watch stuff that you really like and respect and you will imbibe some of that and then you will make it your own. It’s an interesting challenge with screenwriting because I can’t spend page after page designing exactly the way a scene will look.
That’s the job of the director. That’s the job of the production designers. I have to captured the actions and the tone and the rhythm of the scene. It’s kind of always on set for everything I write … people still say like ‘that’s weird’ that the writers saying ‘where else am I going to be?’
Like I’m so I’m lonely on my desk. It’s, you know, this is the good stuff. This is why I do it – to be here – this is the good stuff. But conversely, when it’s not good … when they, you know, you walk into the bedroom of the character and you go ‘yeah that’s not what I thought’.
When they cast someone you go ‘really?’ That’s, you know, that’s tough but I mean that comes with it. Those are the breaks, you know. Listening, I think, for me has been really critical. I’ve worked with some brilliant script editors and some brilliant producers early on and they have basically taught me the rules.
Then of course those rules are there to be broken but I think without understanding them it’s really hard to keep going. I when I first started out I had a a piece of post-it note stuck to my screen that said ‘nothing worthwhile is easy’, so that when I got a rejection I would say to myself ‘well it’s not supposed to be easy’.
It’s going to be difficult. The real job in getting into this business is sticking around long enough and continuing to get better and better at what you do, because the truth is if you write a great script they’ll find you.
They’re aching for good writers, so it’s the ability to be ready when the door opens. It’s not about how which door you knock on first. It’s about, yes, getting the job as an assistant, keeping yourself in there, continuing to work at it and waiting you will get your chance – then the question is ‘are you ready?’
How To Write A Good Movie Script – Attention To Detail
When screenwriters finally get around to writing the story they’ve had in their head for so long they often want to hurry and get that first draft on the page without planning it out. Getting those 90 to 100 pages for that first draft often really is the hardest part but if you sit down and just start writing when you finish it’s really not a first draft.
Instead, it’s a rough first draft. Now I have no objection to doing this but the problem is some of the scenes that just get thrown onto the page to get that rough first draft completed stay in the screenplay when they really don’t fit, once you start developing it and really crafting your script.
I’ve read and analysed literally thousands of screenplays in depth from top Hollywood directors down to writers who didn’t know how to format a screenplay, and across the board the most common problem I see is writers leaving irrelevant or boring scenes in the script.
Actually, most professionals know to take those out but aspiring writers too often write scenes to fill the pages to get to that magical number of 85 or 90 page minimum and the minimum keeps changing, so they keep writing to get to that magic number.
But when a scene is plopped into just add to the page count, it can really mess things up. When it comes to the plot every scene in your script needs to be crafted so it arises organically and the next scene just comes naturally.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to make it seem so organic and natural but that’s the work you need to do to write a great script. Every scene in your script needs to be purposeful and meet at least two of the three key objectives.
If it doesn’t, then it either needs to be cut or rewritten so that it does meet at least two of the following three objectives. Now here are the three objectives:
amplify the theme
move the plot forward
develop the character arc
Now let’s take a look at each of these. Number one amplify the theme. Your theme is basically the whole point of the story. What’s your story really about on a universal level? Your story needs to offer some kind of insight into the human experience.
We become riveted, or I should say, audiences become riveted when we see characters confronting real-life situation. A movie script should show an amplified version of what we normally deal with. The lesson your character learns is the theme of your story.
Your scenes and sequences need to always have an eye toward your theme. Your images, your dialogue – they need to reference a theme throughout your screenplay and each scene should amplify the theme in some manner.
Number two objective is move the plot forward … In the film The Wolf of Wall Street for example, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the real-life wolf and DiCaprio does this amazing thematic speech about money. It’s inspiring to the employees while he gives the speech and then at the end he gives them a call to action which sets up the next point.
Having that speech turned into action for the plot is critical. He’s not just merely pontificating when he gives this speech to the employees. He actually has a very specific intention and in that scene all three objectives are met.
The theme is amplified, it moves the story forward and then that brings us to the third objective which – is number three, develop the character arc. The scene from the film that I just mentioned shows us Jordan Belfort’s character and it intensifies what we’ve already seen.
It builds tension around the question of ‘how long he can push things?’ Watching it, you can feel DiCaprio’s strong personal intention behind what he’s saying. It looks like he’s just motivating his employees but you can sense that he’s on a mission.
So that’s why it’s developing his character arc or revealing his character, also because this scene accomplishes all three things. It makes that scene one of the most memorable scenes in recent movie history in my view. Even if you hate the principal he speaks of, which is all about the money.
So those are your three objectives and you should try to fulfill at least two of them in each and every scene, if not all three. Now for a quick summary – to dramatically improve your script go scene by scene and see which of the three objectives or purposes above that it meets.
If it doesn’t mean at least two of them, then rewrite it or take it out. Feel free to also add whatever one is missing if it only meets two, but most importantly make sure it meets at least two of the three objectives.
I hope you have found this helpful. If you’d like to have a professional assessment on your screenplay check out the types of script analysis that I offer. Again, this is Melody Jackson. Let me know if you want any of my help and either way, whether you have me review your script or you do it on your own, keep these three key objectives in mind. Learn them inside and out and you will be well on your way to excellence in your screenwriting.