Screenwriting Refresher: 10 Fundamental Things to Remember

You’ve got this clever little screenplay you’ve been working really hard on for some time now.

Recently, though, you’ve started to feel like maybe you’ve reached an impasse–the easy brilliance you accessed at the start is fading, and the script isn’t quite there yet. Perhaps you’ve gotten so far into your own head that you’ve forgotten the fundamentals of good screenwriting.

Well, the following refresher course might help. You may think you understand these 10 tenets of great writing, but sit down and mull them over again–one of them may be the very idea that you’ve forgotten along the way to page 120. The tips come from former head of Britain’s Channel Four Drama and BBC Drama–now an independent producer–John Yorke, whose new book Into the Woods: a Five-Act Journey Into Story, takes apart the building blocks of story structure.


1. Start with a Bang

The first 10 pages of the script are the most important pages of all. If the audience isn’t hooked by the time they get to page 11, then the chances are they will never be.

By page 10, the audience needs to have digested crucial plot information, be clear about what kind of world they are entering, and be lulled into empathizing with those characters and concerned about their fate. The best way to achieve this? Do less rather than more. You don’t have to answer every question; you don’t have to explain every relationship; you just have to make them intrigued. Best example: Jaws – you don’t know who the girl in the water is; you do know Chief Brody is going to have to sort the problem out; apart from the fact that the shark is really scary, you don’t know very much else at all. But after five minutes you’ve signed up to find out.

2. Keep ’em Watching: Add Orchestra

When Orson Welles was rehearsing his 1938 radio version of the War of the Worlds, he gave the instruction, “Add more orchestra.” War of the Worlds took the form of a live radio newscast, interrupting a classical music concert to bring newsflashes from the scenes of the Martian invasion. No one knew while it was being broadcast that the invasion wasn’t real, just the product of a prodigy in his 20s who wanted to scare America witless.

Adding “orchestra” in the context of your screenplay means creating anticipation and deferring gratification – amping up the volume but retaining mystery. Hitchcock defined “suspense” as letting the audience know there’s a bomb under the table (vs. “surprise,” the bomb just exploding without warning). It’s the precursor of telling us there’s a shark in the water, but not telling the swimmers above it. By adding more orchestra into his radio program, Welles epitomized the value of the dramatic technique of holding back information. The result was mass panic, a change to broadcasting regulations forbidding that kind of show from ever being made again, and the creation of a compelling piece of art.

3. Distinguish Between “Wants” and “Needs”

Two-dimensional characters have a dramatic “want”–like Indiana Jones, they pursue a grail. Three-dimensional characters have a dramatic “want” and a character flaw, for which they need a cure. This “need” must be established from the very beginning of your script. Think of Disney: very early on there’s “the wish song” that tells us what our protagonists want from life or what they lack, and prepares them and us psychologically for the journey they will go on. “Wouldn’t It be Luvverly” and “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” are imperative to the dramatic structure of My Fair Lady and The Lion King. As they pursue their goal (their “want”), they learn to heal their flaw by discovering their “need” as well. In Little Miss Sunshine, the family is desperate to win the talent competition; what they need is not to win, but to love each other better.

4. Two Plus Two Equals?

“The Unifying Theory of Two Plus Two: Don’t give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves” –Andrew Stanton

There is nothing worse than characters in a drama telling each other exactly what they really think. People don’t in real life, so why should they in a film? One of the great gifts of visual drama is its ability to distinguish between what characters say and what they actually do. It is in the difference between the two that the drama lies. The heart of any scene is in its subtext, and it is subtext that engages the audience—for then they are actively working. From a big commercial beast like The Sting, to its opposite The Lives Of Others—a great deal of the pleasure comes from working out what’s going on yourself.

Ulrich Mühe in 2006's The Lives of Others

Ulrich Mühe in 2006’s The Lives of Others

5. Audiences Have to Empathize

Our ability to empathize with the central protagonists in a drama is absolutely vital and cannot be underestimated. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino portrays one of the great not-good good guys. Before Dexter offed people or Walter White cooked meth, a desperate Sonny Wortzik walked into a Brooklyn bank and attempted to rob it. As his story progresses, crowds gather around the bank to support the bumbling criminal. By the close of the film, viewers feel as empathetic of Sonny’s story as the mob surrounding the bank. Why? Partly it’s because we understand why he’s doing it (he’s trying to get money to help his partner) but more importantly, because that action embodies at some level a trait we’d like to have. We bond with Marvel superheroes because at some level we can easily fantasize about being lauded for saving the world, but we also bond with Satan in Paradise Lost—or Walter White—because we harbor dark, dangerous, angry desires as well.

It’s easy to overthink empathy. In the end there’s one simple question a filmmaker should ask—do you love your characters? If you don’t why should the audience? All great writing is full of joy—a sense of incredible possibility. If you don’t love your characters, good or bad, you can’t write for them. Empathize with them first so that others will too.

6. Connect Your Dots – But Not Too Cleanly

If Sarah announces in the first third of a script that she wants to be a millionaire, then it is vital that you pay that wish off. That doesn’t mean she has to become a millionaire—she may well become poverty stricken. And she may well either enjoy being poor or see it as a terrible burden. That isn’t the point. How you pay a story off determines what kind of story it will be (comedy, tragedy, romance etc.). The important thing is that you do pay it off. As Chekhov famously said, nothing set up in Act One can be ignored in Act Three.

7. Inject a Level of Irony

“I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” –Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

One of the most powerful weapons in the dramatist’s armory is the ability to subvert expectations. Some of the greatest moments in drama stem from making the audience believe the opposite of what is happening and then revealing the truth of a situation at the last minute. Look at any Hitchcock movie to see how fundamental subversion is to a good story.

If you think about it, it’s actually the most straightforward rule of all—for if a screenwriter isn’t subverting expectations then his/her script will be entirely predictable, and the audience will have no curiosity as to what happens next. At its most extreme you see this technique in films like Psycho or Sixth Sense, but on a smaller scale its everywhere—think of Terminator 2 when good Arnie is revealed to be bad Arnie. Why is it such a powerful technique? Because it always poses a question—”what happened there?” —the question that drives an audience through a narrative.

8. Give it a Title

One of Britain’s most successful TV writers, Tony Jordan, always gives every episode he writes a title, “so I know what every story is about.” In other words, he consciously creates parameters to make his story telling easier.

To do this, you have to understand your theme. All stories have a controlling idea, an argument, a theme. Look at the beginning of your script, look at the end, and look at what changes. Ask why it changed—that’s your theme. As you write, the overarching idea should never be far from your mind. Never spell it out; again, it’s far more powerful if the audiences work it out for themselves.

9. Put Your Strongest Arguments in the Mouths of the Opposition

“Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” –W.B. Yeats

Any film that starts with a character and simply proclaims they are right, or any film that says everyone who disagrees with the hero is an idiot, is doing itself a disservice. Films of the left (Green Zone) and films of the right (The Green Berets) simply pretend that there are no difficult questions to be answered, no shades of gray, no areas of doubt. It’s a fundamentalism that weakens drama.

Captain Phillips (2013)

If you make your antagonist sympathetic, if you give them good reasons for what they do—as Paul Greengrass does in Captain Phillips—then you create a richer viewing experience. Greengrass’s Somali pirates’ motives were clear (fear, hunger, terror) and their vulnerabilities apparent. You knew they were fighting for the families—and that they were scared—and you cared for them, too. “The stronger the villain, the stronger the picture,” said Alfred Hitchcock.

10. Revisions are the Road to Excellence

There is no such thing as a perfect script. It can always be better. A writer who says after three drafts, “I suppose that will do,” isn’t doing anyone any favors. Don’t be scared of notes. Most of them will make you better. Even if badly expressed they often indicate an underlying problem. What marks out a great writer from an average one is the pursuit of excellence. MM

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