How to Write a Great Script

We all know how to write "a script", but how do you write a great script? Some of us are very interested in the answer to that question.

For now, let's leave aside notions of what it takes to get by in the real world of screenwriting — writing to order, writing on assignment, writing to fit into the marketplace. These are all very real concerns, and those who do it...and what's more, can do it reliably...are skilled artisans.

But what lies within each of them, and within each of us — within every writer who ever lived — is the desire to write a truly great story. And we all have that great story (or several of them) waiting within us, just waiting for us to turn the key and let those suckers blink in the light of a new day.

Okay, well — it ain't that easy. But it's a lot easier than you think. And believing it's easier than you think is the first step toward unclenching yourself, and letting the genius within you flow.

Mine Your Life For Authentic Material
Find something true that you have discovered in your life, and include that in a story or write a story around it. A moment of epiphany or realization, when your world changed. This allows you to access true and genuine emotions and transmit them to your audience. It enables you to avoid artifice, to avoid that which is false, and fall back on that which is true in your experience. Truth is the great goal of all writing, and the one thing all classic scripts truly have in common. (That is, by the way, what they mean when they say "write what you know" — not the external trappings of your neighborhood, job, etc., but that which is more universal: the emotional reality that you know, and the things that you've learned from your challenges overcome.)

The trick here is to look inside yourself, to evaluate your own experiences — and identify those things that have really made an impact in your life. And what's more, to look at the steps you took, the stages through which you passed, before you finally arrived at a seasoned, mature level of knowledge concerning an issue. Those steps, those plateaus on the way, are the turns of your screenplay's story — they become the realistic stages of your protagonist's growth.

For example: you once thought your mom was a mean tyrant. When you got a little older, you began to realize the stresses she was under and the fine line she walked to turn you into a decent person. And then when you got a little older, you realized yourself the endless joys and anguishes of being a parent. Ultimately you arrive at a mature level of knowledge on the issue, and you can look back at the journey and see the steps it took to arrive at this knowledge. And that simple process furnishes material to power a great script.

Avoid Being Clever, Unless It Serves The Story
Excessive trickiness and craft springs from a desire to impress, a desire to be liked, a desire to not be killed. A desire to placate and a desire to know: sucking up. Nobody likes a suckup! Far better to cultivate a solid and Spartan style, and concentrate rather on what is being transmitted, the story elements and the shape and flow of the action. This will serve you in innumerable ways in your career. You can dress a good story up in any clothes, but clothes themselves will not make an ugly story more appealing.

Over the long haul, you will be live or die on your fundamentals. Your frippery is a wonderful thing and can get you very far in this business — but in the end you'll far more often be called upon to deploy your fundamentals, and defend them in story meetings. So, while your flash is an elemental part of your style, it'd better be the window dressing on a structure with a solid foundation in fundamentals.

Eschew "Originality"
Did I get your attention? Do you know what "eschew" means? I hope so. All writers want to be original, but the trick is to do so using familiar elements. "More of the same, only different" — you may loathe that line, but ask yourself honestly: as a consumer of entertainment, do you really seek out the fringe, the difficult and the impenetrable? Do you really enjoy the tricky, the complex, the incomprehensible...or do you actually just sort of appreciate those things? Then find yourself, when it's movie-watching time, picking something like Back To The Future which, though original in execution, is made up of lots of very plain and ordinary elements?

This does not mean, of course, to be boring. Most of the movies you love are based on familiar story patterns, and yet they aren't boring. Why not? All the originality is in the plot points, the twists, the reveals, the character dynamics — it's distributed within a story that fundamentally runs along familiar lines.

Okay, but what about a movie like Pulp Fiction? To this, we say — go for it! If you've got the outsized personality and the pure puckish self-confidence of a Tarantino, then you may be the one to enlarge the canon and open up new possibilities for us all. But, when the trucks come, the dumpsters of Hollywood thunder forth "original" screenplays. And it's for a very simple reason:

The writers don't realize what is original and what is not. They haven't the level of knowledge required to assemble a story that's genuinely original. Nor the experience to realize this fact. So be wise beyond your years — it'll serve you much better to break in with familiar forms, then launch off the success of those into your fresh, experimental scripts that will make us all cheer your talents! We'll cheer no less loud because your first scripts were simpler and more conventional.

Simpler The Better
This dovetails with the above. Keep it simple! Simple plots like love triangles, redemption stories, achieving difficult goals against great odds — these are the best. Dress them up with some twists and turns and you've got yourself a script.

A simple plot with complex characters is always better than a complex plot with simple characters. And just forget about a complex plot with complex characters — good luck trying to sell it, for one thing, and for another, they just take way too long to write. You could have written three smaller scripts in the time you took to write your gigantic 16th Century epic about intrigues in the Russian aristocracy. Take a tip from classic novels — as you'll notice, they all have fairly simple storylines (James Joyce's Ulysses excluded, but between you and me, nobody's ever actually read that book...).

Use Your Humanism
The definition of "humanism" translates to "deal with that which is relatable to ordinary people". The overriding philosophy of all great movies is humanism: the problems and cares of ordinary mortals, the preservation of human life, the nobility of self-sacrifice, for an ideal or for another person, the trials and tribulations of love, the protection of the weak against the depredations of the strong, and so forth.

Other more abstract philosophies are often well respected for their craftiness, but they generally don't make for good cinema. In the world of Movie, the human is king. And the human is embodied in the character, so really — character is king. Characters are everything in this business, because movies are acted by actors, and they all want to play characters. And audiences want to come see them play characters.

Even if those characters are robots, space aliens, avatars, rats, monsters — we focus on the humanity within them, in the same way that Disney/Pixar movies all make sure that their characters have very expressive eyes. The humanity in the character is what lets us into their world and enables us to relate to them. And, once in, we'll want to see them animated by the same drives that animate us — and those drives are the simple humanistic drives that have driven even the most spiritual among us since the dawn of time.

Being Great
All in all, writing a great script means tapping into the greatness within you — in so many ways. There are great stories that lie within you, universal stories, stories that are relatable to other people. We are all very different, but we all live in this same world, with the same physics, the same biology, the same chemistry — we hew to standards of behavior, and basic menus of wants and needs that make us all very much the same.

It's that sameness, that universality, which characterizes a truly great story, a truly great script. It must be accessible to a wide audience.  Those great, timeless stories each of us act out anew — these are those which power all great movies.

And the other greatness you'll be accessing is the ability we all have to write a truly great piece of work. Those of us who are geared toward expressing ourselves have similar capabilities within us to recognize and convey dramatically powerful writing. Whether we will develop and actualize these skills remains to be seen — there are so many things that can stand in the way and so many turnings on the road. But, fundamentally, we all have that potential.

The trick is to get over yourself, and get the hell out of your own way — become transparent to the genius within. Learn the things you need to learn, to recognize what's good and what's bad, what's been done and how, to say with authority what should be and why it should be...then, internalize it, deep down where hearts beat and muscles work — an involuntary place, beyond thought. Then, become transparent to that, and let the process flow.

It'll take work, and perseverance, but just keep at it. As long as you keep writing, you are guaranteed the potential to create a truly great script — it's only when you stop that this potential becomes moot. And hey, you just might learn things along the way that will become stages you can turn into future plot points!

So keep at it. Eventually, with a little luck, you'll find that great story within you and bring it forth into the world. We're all waiting for it!

To read additional articles, go to the article archive:  StoryPros Article Archive
Enter your email address in the box above and GO!
StoryPros E-Zine
Get the latest news, articles, events, and exclusive discounts on our services and contests!
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for our Ezine Newsletter
The Writers Store
Software, Books & Supplies for Writers & Filmmakers