Today we’re going to talk about 5 of my 10 principles for great screenwriting. For me screenwriting is kind of like a seduction, where you’re trying to lure your audience in and persuade them to a certain point of view.
You get them to like certain characters and you get them to sympathise with your perspective storytelling is like a trance. It goes back to the ancient times when people would sit around campfires and tell stories.
There’s something about storytelling that mesmerises us, that we get obsessed with something about hearing a great story that requires our entire concentration.
We forget about everything else and become mesmerised with the narrative, with the situations, with the characters – almost as if what we’re hearing is real. It’s like a trance, a trance that lulls us to sleep or a trance that lulls us into the perspective that the storyteller wants us to buy into.
Best Screenwriting Workshops – Five Principles Of Great Screenwriting
This can be a good thing but this can also be a bad thing, depending on what it is the storyteller is trying to say. With these ten principles I’m going to teach you how the Masters have woven their stories, their narratives and hopefully you’ll be able to do the same.
Number one – make your characters likable. The more likeable your main character, is the more likeable your story is. If you do a test and you write down your five favorite movie characters of all time, then you write down your five favorite movies of all time, without fail I guarantee you that there’s going to be a tremendous overlap.
Chances are your five favorite characters, maybe not all of them, but the majority of them, are going to correlate with your five favorite films. Because essentially what a film is doing is selling us a character.
Therefore it’s essential that if you’re going to make a great screenplay a great film, you’ve got to center it around a great central character. The more engaging your protagonist is going to be, the more engaging your story is going to be.
Number two – give your story /script a strong re-watch or re-read factor. The great stories are classics not just because they’re great stories. They’re classics because they last and why do they last? They last because they have a strong re-watch re-read value.
The sixth sense is a great story not only because it’s entertaining the first time around but because there’s an element within it that gives it new meaning when you watch it a second time.
My favorite film is The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve watched the Empire Strikes Back probably three hundred times. There’s something about that film that’s so strong for me that no matter how many times I watch it I never lose my fascination with the worlds that are painted in that story.
Which I essentially divide into three parts – the Hoff part, the Dagobah training part and then the Bespin Cloud City part. But that story is so fascinating, for me it’s so mesmerizing for me, that I never lose interest in rewatching it.
You want to make sure that your story has a strong rewatch value. Some people give twist endings. This has an opportunity to give your story a rewatch factor but you want to make sure that your twist ending is not a one-trick pony.
You don’t want to have a twist ending that upon a second viewing, it doesn’t hold up. Try to tell a story that gains meaning the more times that it’s seen. If your story is only going to have value one time around, chances are it’s not a great story and it certainly will never be considered a classic.
Number three – you want to have a surprise in every scene. Now soap operas are usually associated with cheesy acting, extreme close-ups, etc, but the reason why soap operas are so compelling is because they put surprise us in each scene.
That makes you want to continue to watch, to figure out what’s going on. Practically, you want to create cliffhangers, where you create a conflict but then you don’t resolve the conflict in that scene. You create the conflict and you sort of leave the audience hanging and then you don’t resolve it until later on in your film.
This makes people want to continue watching or continue reading. This is something that will work particularly well in your story and if you don’t do the cliffhanger in every scene, you should at least do it periodically, but a surprise on the other hand should be in every scene.
What’s the difference between a surprise and a cliffhanger? Well a cliffhanger is a conflict that’s established in a scene that doesn’t get resolved until a later scene. A surprise, on the other hand, is an event that occurs in a scene that’s unexpected. Pulp Fiction is a film that does this particularly well.
If you watch Pulp Fiction, pretty much in every scene there’s something that happens that’s a surprise. Something that, if you look at the scene from the beginning, you’d have no idea where it’s going to go by the end.
So in the beginning of the film you have two people who are talking at a restaurant, talking about robbing gas stations, etc,etc. Well you have no idea by the end of that scene that they’re actually going to be robbing the restaurant that they’re in.
By the same token, when John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are talking you have no idea that they’re on their way to commit murder, to execute a hit. By another token you have no idea that Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames, the situation that they’re going to end up in with a Zed and and his buddy.
And I can go on. You have no idea that Mia is going to OD and you have no idea that Bruce Willis is going to end up confronting John Travolta and essentially shooting him when that pop-tart pops, although in that scene I believe it’s generic pop-tarts.
These are all surprises. It’s a great film to study on how to put surprises in every scene. This is why I film that is so violent and so dark in many ways is also so popular, because at every level, every scene has a surprise.
Also it’s a film that was nominated for Best Screenplay. It may have even won, I can’t remember to be perfectly honest, but I do know that it was nominated for Best Screenplay. Rodger Avery and Quentin Tarantino as the writers, that’s why it’s it’s great writing, with a surprise at every scene. It’s something that you should that you should try to do. If you can’t put a surprise in your scene you may want to reconsider putting that scene in your film, in your script.
Number four – you’ve got to make your audience, make your reader ask questions. You’ve got to do it from the beginning of the film all the way to the end of the film. So in the very beginning, you as the writer, should have a sense of what questions are.
My reader is my audience asking – you want to make them ask questions and then as you go you want to answer the questions but don’t answer a question until you’ve made the audience ask new questions. This will always be the key to a great screenplay, to a great story.
Make your reader, make your viewer ask questions and don’t answer the question until you make them ask new ones. Do this all the way until the end, and then at the end you want to you want to resolve things by answering all the questions.
Unless somehow it’s important to your narrative to leave certain questions open-ended and unanswered, but I would avoid doing this because very often viewers, readers will feel cheated if you leave certain questions that they want answered unanswered.
It seems like you’re cheating them and you didn’t know what you were doing and that you wrote yourself into a corner. There are ways and exceptions to this where you can do it and it’s brilliant, but it shouldn’t it shouldn’t be a cop-out to writing a great resolution.
After all, the ending of the film is in fact a commentary on the beginning, so where your film ends is critical and it should absolutely be set up by the beginning, so make the viewer, make the reader ask questions as they’re reading.
This is going to give even a comedy a sense of mystery and we all love mysteries. It’s kind of like if I say ‘I have a secret’. Well automatically you’re intrigued. Well that’s what you want to do in your story. You want to let the reader, let the viewer in on secrets. Do this and I guarantee your reader, your viewer will turn and continue to turn pages until these questions are answered.
Your viewer will continue to watch. If you’re not asking questions, then chances are your viewer and your reader will also not be looking for answers. If they’re not looking for answers, they won’t be watching your film and they won’t be reading your script.
Number five – you want to pick characters with opposing viewpoints together and each scene. You don’t want to have characters in a scene together who are agreeing with each other.
Can you imagine a scene with two people in a car?
“Hi John, how you doing?” ”
“Well I’m fine. Did you like the baseball game?”
“Yeah, I thought it was great. I really loved how that guy hit the homerun.”
“Yeah, that home run was incredible'”
It’s boring. It doesn’t make sense. Now I just made that up but now let’s make it a little more interesting:
“Hey John did you go see the game?”
“Why would I go see the game? Last time I went to go see the game I had that pain for everything and you ate all my food.”
“What do you mean I ate all your food? I don’t even like your food. Matter of fact the last time I went to a game you weren’t even there. I tried to call.”
I mean I’m just making this up but now all of a sudden the same situation, the same scenario is more interesting, because you have conflict. You have opposing viewpoints. You’ll notice this and in essentially all films it almost becomes cliche, but chances are when you are watching a film you’re seeing characters with opposing viewpoints pitted against one another.
The buddy film, you know the Rush Hour,s the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid – these films pride themselves on this formula taking characters with opposing viewpoints and putting them together. You even see this in sitcom.
Sanford and Son is a great example, Fred Sanford and his son the big dummy Lamont. These are great examples of how you have characters with opposing viewpoints pitted against one another and together it makes for wonderful drama.
That is a key and that’s critical. If your characters are agreeing with one another, then you’ve got to put a character in there somehow that mixes it up with a challenging dynamic conflicting viewpoint.
That’s what’s called drama. Drama is conflict. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have drama. If you don’t have drama, you don’t have a story and if you don’t have a story you shouldn’t be writing.