If you think back over the books you have read or films you have watched, there will be some which stand out above the rest. The stories engage you in a way that the others don’t and touch you on an emotional or intellectual level – or both.
Film is a compelling medium through which a storyteller can tell their tale and have their voice heard. But what makes a strong screenplay?
There are many factors that go into telling a strong and compelling story. This article will break down the elements you need to incorporate in your screenplay to create a story that engages and moves your audience.
What makes a strong story?
Have a message
At its core, a strong story will have a message to bring to the audience. That message may be explicitly stated, like in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy says, “there’s no place like home” and realizes that she already had everything she wanted. Or it may be more subtly implied, such as Jurassic Park’s warning as to what can happen when people try to interfere with nature.
Some films aim to raise awareness of particular issues. The Day After Tomorrow brings attention and awareness to climate change, for instance. Other films want to challenge the way their audience thinks, such as Philadelphia, which helped to destigmatize AIDS at a time when it was a taboo subject.
A story with a strong message can emotionally engage the audience during the film and can continue to generate discussion and interest in the days that follow.
Use relatable experiences
Script writers often use events from their own lives when writing a script to shape the story or add depth to their characters. When the audience can recognize events from their own life experiences in your film, they will more strongly connect to your story. Having a basis in reality will also make your film more authentic.
It’s helpful to make your story relatable, but that doesn’t mean you need to limit your story’s scope to everyday events. Rocky is a film about boxing, but, more importantly, it is about overcoming hardship to achieve your dreams. In many ways, this is the same story as the journey of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, who goes from being a poor farmer on an obscure planet to a hero who saves the universe. The audience will relate to the characters’ struggles even if they take place in an unfamiliar world.
Write compelling characters
To engage your audience, you need to create compelling characters that people will rally behind. When your audience feels empathy or sympathy with your protagonists, they want to know how the story ends.
Ensure that your characters are believable and three dimensional. It can be tempting to use established stereotypes to quickly determine who is the hero and who is the villain of your story. While this can be a good starting point, you should flesh out your characters with their personalities, foibles and nuances. Consider Police Chief Brody trying to protect Amity’s people from the shark in Jaws: he is afraid of the water and doesn’t like going out on the boat. Indiana Jones faces all manner of challenges but is fearful of snakes. Giving your hero a weakness is one way to make them more human, just be careful not to make these weaknesses humorous.
Take time to get to know your characters before you write their story. Where were they born? What accent do they speak with? What is their favorite food? What music do they listen to? Make each of the main characters in your story different and unique. Most importantly, write characters you like as you will spend a lot of time with them as you work on your story!
A strong plot
At a fundamental level, there are only six or seven basic story types. To make your screenplay stand out, you must try to find a new and unique way to look at a situation or struggle. For instance, the horror film The Lost Boys used vampires to retell the story of Peter Pan. The film Forbidden Planet was a science-fiction take on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
One of the most common romantic plots is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back again. Yet, there are still fresh, new romance films made each year. How could you tell that story in a new way? You could set your story in a different historical period— in the past or the future. It could be boy meets boy, or girl meets girl. What if the two protagonists fight on different sides in a war and supposed to be sworn enemies, yet fall in love? At its heart, West Side Story is a reworking of Romeo and Juliet.
Start with an age-old story and then allow your imagination to take it in a brand new direction. There are lots of books which can help you learn more about building a strong plot. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and Poetics by Aristotle are great places to start.
Before you start writing
Before you start to write your first screenplay, you should take the time to read some screenplays. Doing this will allow you to study the form and structure of screenplays for films that you know and like. However, it can also be useful to read screenplays for films that you didn’t enjoy to see if you can determine why they didn’t connect with you.
As you read the screenplays, study what worked and what didn’t work. Choose some stories that are driven by dialogue and others that are more focused on action. Consider what message the writer wanted to convey through the screenplay and whether it is explicit or implicit.
It can be a useful exercise to have your own take on what worked for those screenplays. Choose a scene and think about how you could write it in a different way to achieve the same goal.
The Internet Movie Script Database (https://www.imsdb.com/) is a fabulous free resource with screenplays from all genres and an ideal place to start your research.
As well as reading screenplays, it would help if you also watched films. Choose one of your favorites and write an outline for it. An outline is a writer’s blueprint for their screenplay. It may be in the form of bullet points or short paragraphs for each scene, summarizing the essential plot points, action and dialogue as necessary.
Map how the plot is structured and how the characters develop. Traditionally films have often followed a three-act formula. Act One introduces the characters and establishes the setting for the story. It also includes an inciting incident that sets the tale underway and ends with a turning point, which leads to Act Two. In Act Two, the protagonist pursues their goal, leading to another turning point at the end of the Act, which suggests that they will fail in their quest. In Act Three, the protagonist will face a climactic do or die battle leading to the story’s resolution.
Study how characters learn from their experiences and are changed by them. What journeys do the characters go on, both physically and emotionally? The loner may have to learn how to trust others and work with them. An arrogant man may learn humility. A timid person comes to believe in themselves and stand up against their foe. If a film character tells you their weakness or worst fear, you can guarantee it will be a challenge they have to overcome before the end credits roll.
Write with passion
Writing a screenplay is rarely a quick process. You will be spending a lot of time crafting your story and molding your characters, so write about something which inspires you. Find a topic you feel strongly about and base your screenplay around that. If you are passionate about the story you want to tell, then others will be as well.
You could use your story to raise awareness of an issue that is important to you. Alternatively, you may choose to set your story in a community you want to highlight, so that message is less explicit.
You may also choose to write about a subject which you are keen to learn more about. The research for your story will allow you to educate yourself and your audience at the same time.
Also, before you start writing, it is essential to understand that screenplays follow a specific and established format. Doing some research and knowing the proper format will help when you are ready to turn your screenplay over to producers and directors.
Make it personal
When you are looking for a story to tell, why not start with your own experiences? You can choose to base the main plot of your screenplay on your life event. Alternatively, you could use your experiences as a subplot or to add depth and characterization to your protagonists.
Telling a personal story will ensure that the plot is very genuine. Incorporating elements from your own life will help you relate to your screenplay. It is important to be aware that if you can relate to your story, you can rest assured that your audience will.
The authenticity that comes when writing from personal experience will add depth and an emotional punch to your screenplay plot. It will add a level of humanity and nuance that comes from having that real-life feeling.
Show don’t tell
When writing a screenplay, you should always keep in mind that film is a visual medium. Remember the adage “show don’t tell.” A common flaw in scripts is to have the protagonists describe a situation or event through dialogue when it could be more simply conveyed to the audience with visual images. Never have your characters speak what can be shown.
The more visual a film is, the more universal it will be to all viewers. Also, by trusting your audience to follow the plot by interpreting what they see, they will become more engaged and invested in your story.
Once you have finished the first draft of your screenplay, an essential part of the writing process is rewriting. You should review what you have written and seek to remove any unnecessary dialogue. Also, leave out any unnecessary action and stage directions, as these will be determined by the directors and the actors.
We have already seen that a screenplay is usually divided into three acts. However, those acts will be further divided into shorter scenes. With books, authors frequently end each chapter with a cliff-hanger moment, which makes the reader excited to turn the page to see what happens next. It’s no different when writing a screenplay.
By using suspense, you will keep your audience wanting to see what comes next. This doesn’t need to be the level of intrigue from a film like The DaVinci Code! It could be as simple as your protagonist suddenly checking their watch and realizing they are late for a necessary appointment. Will they make it on time? Try to end every scene in a way that creates a “what will happen next” moment. Your audience will want to find out more and will be hooked.
Don’t overcomplicate things
Incorporating a subplot to your main story will add more interest to your screenplay. It will also give you the means to introduce more depth to your characters, for instance, by including a backstory that will make them more realistic and intriguing. Some stories will naturally be more complicated than others, especially if they have a larger cast and more characters.
Try not to over-complicate your plot, however. Adding unnecessary layers could just end up confusing your audience or taking them out of the story if it starts to become unrealistic.
Good storytelling will have a strong message that comes from emotional truth. Whether a film is fiction or non-fiction, if it conveys real emotion, the audience will relate to it. When you have crafted a screenplay that moves your audience, they will continue to discuss your story long after the final credits have rolled.
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