OK. How DO you write a hit screenplay?
Here’s ten headlines. Ten rules of thumb. Ten writing magic stepping stones I follow religiously. Follow them conscientiously in order and you WILL see results. I promise.
- Make your audience care. Get a person at the heart of your story who is deeply loved. Make terrible, awful things happen to them.
- Make sure you are writing in a genre.
- Happy Ending. You need one. Not because they are better (though personally I think a truly joyful ending that doesn’t feel cheesy is many times more difficult to write than a tragic slice of gloom) but because producers like to see them, because the feeling in the industry is that Happy Ending = Bigger Box Office
- Love your hero, and force them to choose between two equally powerful alternatives at the end.
- Design your villain so they can attack your hero in the most personal, damaging, agonising way. Love your villain as much as your hero.
- Get your story right before you write a word of dialogue. Write a prose treatment of this story, describing what happens to your beloved lead character.
- Think about getting a gang of your friends to read the treatment. If three or more of them pick up on a point independently, you might have a problem there. If enough people say something it is probably true.
- Pick the first paragraph in your treatment. Think about it over and over again, visualise it in the bath, when you wake up, when you are walking along the street. Visualise what happens until you can run it through like a little movie in your mind, seeing what happens, almost hearing the dialogue. This will be your first sequence.
- Get out your word processor, or your script writing software, whatever, doesn’t matter. You can format it later. Get that little movie down on paper now. Write the scenes. Make the characters move, and talk, and feel.
- Repeat steps 8 and 9 over and over again, until you have got to the end of your treatment.
You have just finished your first draft.
Format it. Print it. Weigh it in your hand. Admire it. You should be proud. Few people get this far. And if you followed these steps, it’s going to be far more readable than anything else you have written.
Actually, writing a good, readable script isn’t rocket science. If you know what you are doing.
That’s a very important If
“If you know what you are doing…”
No-One Knows Anything
If you’ve spent any time trying to write, and you’ve got any kind of internet connection at all, you will have realised there are a million other guys out there hacking away at screenplays, all apparently convinced they know what they are up to, and shouting like wild animals at anyone who dares disagree. They sound so authoritative, so compelling, so right – and yet so few of their screenplays ever get past the first hurdle of the initial slushpile reader, let alone to the desk of anyone with any commissioning power.
William Goldman definitely makes a good point when he wrote ‘no-one knows anything’ about what makes a hit movie.
Meanwhile the people who do sell scripts seem to go on selling, and selling. Common sense would tell you they are obviously doing something different. Common sense would tell you that what they are submitting to the production companies is quantitatively different to what you are submitting.
How hard can it be to work out what the differences are?
As you probably know, it’s very, very hard.
In Fact It’s So Hard it Took Me Years to Crack
I’ve been writing for over twenty years and selling my screenplays for more than ten. I’ve been on course after course, I’ve done the gurus, (and I’ve noticed how few of them have managed to sell more than a few screenplays), I’ve read yards of “How To Write Screenplay” books – but most of all I’ve been working as a professional screenwriter in the British television industry and selling screenplay after screenplay.
After sitting back and thinking about it I developed 14 clear stages, or stepping stones, I follow religiously when I’m writing a new screenplay.
Follow the steps conscientiously and you WILL see results.
What is a Screenplay?
Ingmar Bergman said “I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images”.
He is the master, and he puts it perfectly. When you write a screenplay you are building a skeleton. The bones are made from the changes in your characters’ emotions over time. If these emotions are not true, and strong, your script will feel weak and unformed.
You are building a structure composed of emotional throughlines. These throughlines need to curve and cross in certain places so that they form a structure that we all recognise as a story.
If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, it’s probably just that you have never thought of a script in this way before. It’s quite simple, really. Just stick with this book, and it will become clear. (And here’s a reminder of what’s possible in the field.)
Follow The Method
The Screenwriting Goldmine video course lays down a complete method, which takes you from blank page to the end of a decent first draft in just a few weeks.
You need to do each of the steps in order – and it’s crucial to allow each of them the proper time. No rushing, or skimping.
If, after taking the course, you are disturbed by the amount of work I’m going to ask of you, well, I’m sorry but that’s what it takes.
But if you start to do the work, you’ll find it’s the best possible work there is for a writer – each stepping stone completed is another step closer to having a good screenplay finished.
So go ahead. Subscribe to my course. Follow the Fourteen Steps I set out for you – the actual road plan I evolved and synthesised from a thousand different sources and endless experiments – the actual road plan I use when I write.
And finally, just because it’s fun, have a look at this video to remind yourself of some shows we’d like to bring back…