First Draft: Five Criminally Underrated Elements of Successful Screenplays

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1. Specific and Concise Script Titles

Yes, we know that a great title can’t save a lackluster screenplay—but you’d be surprised what triggers the interest of Hollywood insiders. And triggering their interest early is key to capturing and retaining their attention. The title is the first contact that Hollywood will have with your screenplay as they read query emails, contest submissions, the trades if you make The Black List or sign with big representation, etc. So you want those titles for your scripts to be enticing. But the underrated aspect of that goes beyond just getting their attention.

Creating specific and concise script titles is all about giving a lot of information clearly with just a word or two—in brief but comprehensive fashion.

The spec script Buried—written by Chris Sparling and later produced with Ryan Reynolds in the lead — is a perfect example of specific and concise. Within the context of the screenplay, the word buried conjures thoughts of fear (being buried alive), suspense (trapped), and intrigue (how to escape). When a script reader sees a title like that, there is instant recognition as far as what they expect. The reader—script reader, assistant, intern, development executive, producer, manager, agent, or talent—instantly begins to ask themselves theoretical questions, whether consciously or subconsciously.

“Why are they buried?”

“Who buried them?” 

“How will they get out?”

“Will the whole story be set within wherever they are buried?”

“If so, how can a story be sustained in that one location?” 

The reader’s interest has been triggered. All thanks to one specific and concise word that readers will later see applied to the logline and opening pages of the screenplay.

They will want to discover the answers to those who, what, when, where, how, and why questions that are immediately triggered upon reading the screenplay title.

In order to accomplish this, you need to find words that can trigger reactions and interest. Look at your screenplay and find words, phrases, and terminology that most embrace the concept—and those that will register with the average person.

When I was developing my own recent psychological thriller about a character that is thrown from his car in a single car accident in the middle of nowhere, the one word that stood out the most was thrown. That became the title and has since garnered some excellent attention, especially as the title is connected to the very first image within the screenplay—a man being thrown from his car. The word immediately conjures those questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why.

“Who is this character that has been thrown?”

“What will the story center on?”

“If he’s in the middle of nowhere, what conflicts will he face?”

“How is he going to survive?”

“Why should we care?” 

Give us something simple, something specific, and something concise that will trigger our interest.

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