What are the basic ingredients that make a great script, and thence a great film? Before you invest weeks structuring and writing a script, it is wise to step back and run through this basic list of criteria to see if the story holds up. Use the following 12 questionsnot too far afield from the journalists’ “Who, What, When, Where and Why”to discover if your story will be a Hollywood hit.
An active protagonist is someone the audience can relate to and identify with. What drives your protagonist? What does he or she want and how badly? A passive protagonist can be a big problem. In fact it can sink an otherwise good script. Find ways to make your main character an integral part of the story, not merely an observer. Heroes makes things happen, they don’t just let things happen to them.
Is there a central conflict strong enough to drive the engine of the film all the way through without losing momentum? What is at stake? Will people care? If the stakes are high (life and death, world threat, lost child), this will take care of itself. If the stakes are more subtle (for example, in A Thousand Clowns, the central question is: Will Murray the clown sell out, give up being the eccentric lovable fool he is and become just another pencil pusher?), it can be harder to get the audience invested. If you can get the audience to care about the character and the character to care about the problem, you’ll get there. The problem (or central question) must be in place by page 15 at the latestthough page 10 is better and page one is great. And it must not be solved until the climax of the movie.
Is it all talking heads or can the story be shown rather than told? As you begin to plan the story, try to avoid people talking in cars, over meals or on telephones. These are what we mean by “talking heads scenes.” Find more visual ways to stage these interactions. What large set pieces could it include? A carnival, planetary collision, car chase, scaling Mount Everest? Try to see cinematic possibilities now.
Where does the story take place? Does it need to be set in a broader context? If it is a prison story, can you find ways to get us out of the cells so the audience can breathe? If it all takes place in a submarine, the close quarters may work to help create the claustrophobic feel you want, but even so, an occasional enemy ship or storm will open the scene up and give the audience more to see.
Often novels and plays are difficult to translate because they are basically internal stories, and movies need to be seen and acted out, visually. If your central problem is emotional rather than physical, find a way to take the audience on a purely mental and emotional ride. In High Fidelity, the screenwriters chose to have the main character, played by John Cusack, talk to the audience directly. This took us straight into his head so we could explore with him the mental quandary he faced regarding love relationships. But this is only one possible solution.
How much time does this story cover? Is it compact or rambling over years? Is there any way to compress it to add energy to the movie? Remember: The best-selling book Six Days of the Condor became a hit movie titled Three Days of the Condor. In movies, the more tightly you can compress time, the better the story will move. Having to wait while characters stop to sleep for the night is tedious.
Is it contemporary? Historical? Most movies bought and made today are set in the present day. But most of the Best Picture Oscars in the last couple of years (Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator) have gone to period pictures. Either way is fine to go, but if you are going historical, be sure to do your homework and research the period.
If your story is science fiction, fantasy, futuristic or horror, you need to be clear on the reality base and the rules before you begin. For example, in a vampire movie the rules for vampires are: a) can only be killed by sunlight or a stake through the heart; b) need to drink human blood to survive; c) cast no reflection, etc.
Is the antagonist a worthy opponent who’s strong enough to be a real challenge to your protagonist? Who is the protagonist and what is motivating him or her? For the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist to work well, they should be equally matched in terms of power, intellect, presence/charisma and forces at the disposal of each. A weak or stupid opponent saps the game of its energy and fun. A football game won by 50 points is boring. One that is won by one point in the last three seconds keeps our attention. Make both sides strong and equally matched for a good game. If one person is the underdog, it needs to be the hero.
If there is a love story, think it through. Make the two people unique individuals, not standard cardboard figures plugged into the plot. And why do they fall in love? It can’t be just because they are played by gorgeous movie stars. It is your job to invent their meeting and the development of their relationship with enough freshness and detail that we are hooked by it and invested in its outcome. Avoid slow motion montages of strolling on beaches at sunset, flower markets, kissing in rain, etc. Show us scenes of two real people making a real connection.
Who are the other characters in the story? The protagonist usually needs someone to play off of. Even the strongest, most silent heroes have relationships. In Gladiator, the hero Maximus had the Numidian slave to confide in. In As Good As It Gets, the isolated, obsessive-compulsive Jack Nicholson character talked to the dog. Whether it’s a mother, drinking buddy or psychologist, make sure you fill your movie with good secondary characters.
Before you go any further think about what the story is really about. Are you saying “Love prevails”? “Justice can be won”? “Life sucks”? You may not plan to send a message with your movie, but it will be sending one anyway. Just be clear what your message is and that it’s one that you want to send.
If your movie idea meets nearly all of these criteria, then you’re good to go. I’ll help get you started. The first two words are “Fade In.”
Cynthia Whitcomb is the author of The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay: How to Write Great Screenplays and Movies for Television.
This article appeared in the September 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest.