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Friday, July 4, 2008

How to Make a Good Script Great

So do Wavers think the Wave-inatrix ever takes a day off? Or a vacation? No! I work tirelessly, seven days a week! [Insert bleak moment of realization here]. And while it's the 4th of July all over the world, only one continent gives a damn, and not even the whole continent, either. The rest of us carry on living and creating and...okay I wish I were camping or something. At minimum. But. I do have a great article for Wavers today, by Michele Wallerstein: How to make a Good Script Great. Read and enjoy. And light a sparkler for me.


Getting a screenplay down on paper is difficult, there’s no doubt about that. Yes, you search endlessly for that “different” story, for that unusual and fantastic arena that you are sure no one else has done or will do.

Writers often try to find and create unique situations that are so far out that they bear little or no resemblance to real life or real people. Trying to be unusual can be a trap for new writers as well as established pros.

A “great” screeenplay and film has legs. That means that people will want to see the movie over and over again. They might want to bring their friends, or rent the film on DVD, or purchase a copy to own.

The secret for writing a great screenplay is not in finding the rare situation, it is in writing with the following high standards:

1. Character Arc: No one wants to stay with a film or screenplay if the main character does not grow internally, does not learn something important about him or herself and does not become a better, smarter or move loveable person. Whether the film is BOOTY CALL or anything by Jane Austin, you will notice the growth of the star character, and love them for it.

2. Underlying Theme: A great movie is not about the plot. It is about what is going on underneath. It is about something emotionally important or with a universal problem of great significance. Jim Carrey’s MASK is about the insecurities of all people. It is about the main character’s feelings of inadequacy’s and personal fears. You must find a way to touch something that can affect the collective and often unconscious needs of people in general. Even the animated classic, BAMBI, is about all of our fears of abandonment.

3. Dialogue: I believe that it was the great actress, Helen Hays who once said “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” Nothing in a screenplay is as bad as boring dialogue. You must learn to write characters that speak with a unique voice. They must jump off of the page with personality, wit and exceptionally clever ways of saying things. Each character in the piece needs to have a distinct personal quality and voice.

4. Pacing: If your pacing is slow, or worse, if it is repetitive, you will lose your reader in just a few pages. Keep the story moving forward like a shark in the water, never stopping, never holding back or over-analyzing itself.

5. Likeability of Main Characters: If the reader cares about the people in the story, they will want to go forward with the script. Likeability is more difficult to explain than it appears on its face. Sean Penn’s character in the 1995 film, DEAD MAN WALKING, is an obnoxious murderer. By the end of the movie, the audience understands him and has some sympathy for the child that he was and the unhappy adult he became.

Certainly there are more facets to a good screenplay then the above and those you will learn in film schools and books on the subject. The professional looking format, the short exposition, etc. mean quite a bit. However if you want to raise the standard of excellence in your writing, I suggest you concentrate heavily on seeing if the above 5 points are well in your next project. These 5 points will separate you from the crowd, they will turn a comedy, thriller, drama, family film or love story into a GREAT SCREENPLAY.

By Michele Wallerstein

"You can purchase Michele Wallerstein's CD titled "HOW TO BE AN AGENT'S DREAM CLIENT" by emailing her HERE.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

Great article!

PS, Julie I'm working too, boo hoo!

Julie Gray said...

You know, I don't mind working so much. It's better than being outside where it is SO HOT!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Michele Wallerstein

You know, I learned a lot today!
And some stuff I forgot but you gave it to me again. Thank you. Practice makes perfect. So how come the movie Hancock is getting negative reviews. Is it because it was a good script, not a great script. I think this is the case. Too repetitive -- just like the last superhero funny movie with Uma Thurman (can't seem to recall the title right now).