Last week we took five effortless screenwriting methods known for their power to improve a screenplay and then we had a competition the next day challenging you guys to implement those methods into a short script. The experience was so fun, I decided to do it again!
So here are five MORE bang-for-your-buck methods you can use to improve your scripts. They’re a little more involved, but no less helpful. Also, don’t include any short scripts in the comments today. That’s for tomorrow. Here we go!
NUMBER 5 – A CHARACTER WHO WANTS SOMETHING
One of the easiest ways to give your story life is to give each and every character SOMETHING THEY WANT. The more concrete the want, the more defined the character (a character who wants a bag of money, like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, is preferable to a character who wants “a better life” which is vague and nebulous). The main reason you want a character to want something is that it INSTANTLY MAKES THEM ACTIVE. They now have to go and get it. And if a character is trying to get something, they’re moving. And when they’re moving, the story’s moving. But the real power of this tool is when you apply it to not just your hero, but to all your characters. Because then those wants start colliding, and that leads to conflict. And conflict is the essence of great drama. Needless to say, this is really important.
NUMBER 4 – SUSPENSE
My last post on this topic confused, frustrated, and in some cases, angered readers. So I’ll try to keep today’s definition of suspense simple. Introduce something that the audience wants a resolution to, then suspend the reveal of that resolution. This was the basis behind Nick Morris’s winning short script from last week. He introduced a mysterious box, then waited until the very end of the story to open the box. Suspense tends to work best when the hero is in some sort of danger. When Clarice Starling comes to Buffallo Bill’s house at the end of Silence of the Lambs, we know that Buffallo Bill is the killer. But she does not. The writer then draawwwwws out the reveal, making us suffer through the scene, before Clarice eventually figures it out. If Clarice would’ve walked in, seen evil in Buffallo Bill’s eyes immediately, then pulled out her gun and started shooting, how fun would that have been? But suspense can be used anywhere. A guy and a girl who have tons of chemistry meet at a party, and then we suspend the moment until their first kiss.
NUMBER 3 – THE MAGIC OF AN UNRESOLVED ISSUE
Wanna improve your dialogue immediately? Give a character something they’re upset about with another character, but they haven’t brought it up yet. The tension resulting from that unresolved issue will play as subtext underneath any dialogue between those two characters. The most obvious version of this is that a woman has just found out that her husband is cheating on her. Her husband, meanwhile, comes home oblivious. He kisses his wife and asks about her day. Meanwhile, the wife is stewing, and we make our way through this conversation with this huge elephant hovering underneath it. But you don’t have to use this tool with one character ignorant of the situation. Another version of this is two parents who have lost a child but they never talked about it. So that unresolved issue is playing underneath even the most mundane of their conversations. This is essentially the essence of subtext.
NUMBER 2 – THINGS DON’T GO ACCORDING TO PLAN
Nothing should ever go according to plan in movies. If your character goes to the DMV to get a new license, goes into his boss’s office to ask for a raise, goes to the store to buy some groceries, or goes to an asteroid to stop it from colliding with earth, THE EVENTS THAT UNFOLD WHEN HE GETS THERE SHOULD NEVER GO ACCORDING TO PLAN. Some might say that storytelling is just a series of events that don’t go according to plan.
Why is this important? Well, let’s say a character wants to ask for a 100k raise from his boss. He goes in, asks for it, and gets it. Was that interesting to watch? Of course not! It’s fucking boring! But if he goes in having practiced his “raise speech” all night long, then, just as he’s about to ask, his boss brings a second person into the meeting and informs our hero that he’s being let go from the company and that, for the next two weeks, he’ll be training his replacement, now you have a scene. Where this tool becomes really powerful though is when you build the plan up beforehand. Make it so our character or characters have practiced and prepared for this event endlessly. The best example of this is heist movies. The characters spend the whole movie preparing for the heist, making sure they have every angle covered. And then, of course, none of it goes according to plan. The fun is in watching your characters react to this. It’s the power of plan disruption.
NUMBER 1 – HIGH STAKES FOR EVERY CHARACTER
I recently read a script that involved a giant party scene. Everything in the story was leading up to this party. However, when the party finally arrived, it was DOA. It just wasn’t that interesting. And the writer wanted to know why. The answer was simple. Not enough characters had something at stake in the party. They were just there to have fun. For a big scene to work, but really, for any scene to work, each character in the scene needs to have something at stake. If the moment goes poorly, they stand to lose something. If the moment goes well, they stand to gain something. If those principles aren’t in place, the audience isn’t going to care what happens.
For example, I was watching this old movie “Marty,” last week about an aging unattractive bachelor who’s just about given up on trying to find a wife. But his mother begs him to please go to a local club and try to talk to someone. Marty’s been to this club before and it’s only ever resulted in rejection. So he doesn’t want to go. But he doesn’t want to upset his mom either. So he relents.
This is the PERFECT scenario to show how impactful stakes are. We know that this is literally the last time Marty will ever try to find a girl. So this moment HAS to go well. And for that reason, the scene is great. Had the writer constructed the scene so that Marty goes to this ball every week and this is just part of his routine, the scene, like the party scene in the amateur script I mentioned, would’ve been DOA. Nothing’s at stake if he’s going to be here next week doing the same thing.
But here’s the real power in this tip. The writer didn’t just pay attention to Marty in regards to stakes. The girl Marty approaches is struggling with the same problem. She too has just about given up on trying to find someone. So going out is a big deal for her as well. The concept is this: The more people in the scene who have something at stake in what happens, the more charged the scene is going to be. Start with your hero. Make sure he has something at stake. But then move to the other characters as well.