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5 Things All Great Screenplays Have in Common

By Kathleen Laccinole · November 3, 2021

You’ve done everything right: entered competitions, sent out hundreds of queries, networked your ass off, and thrown your script at the security guard in front of CAA, and yet you can’t manage to sell your screenplay. And you have no idea why.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in that stuff,

But in your script, that is not ready.

– Joe Shakespeare 

Maybe, just maybe, your script isn’t…in it’s most polished state. It’s not what you’re doing that’s preventing you from selling your script. It’s what you are doing it with. Take a breath. Readdress. And before you chuck that script at another unsuspecting security guard, learn what kinds of elements pretty much all great screenplays have in common.

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They Have a Captivating Concept

Spec scripts that sell generally have a clear and concise CONCEPT that captivates a reader and an audience. (Those obscure, moody-type art films are best saved for when your next-door neighbor wants to direct and his parents are willing to pay for it.)  

In about thirty words or less, we want to know what the film is about and why we want to watch it. What is that unique element that makes it special? A difficult, out-of-work actor disguises himself as a woman to get a job on a soap opera is an original way to tell the story of a man who wants something and will do anything to get it. A film about a teenaged girl who goes to a new school sounds, well, boring. But if you make her home-schooled and idealistic, and force her to face off against the pack of Mean Girls who rule the school, you’ve got something intriguing and fun.  

Strong, Vibrant Characters Aplenty

Your main character determines what happens in your film, ergo we want a hero we can identify with and root for. We want to be saddened when they falter and delighted when they conquer obstacles; involved in their struggles and swept away by their stories. This all comes from a strong character arc. 

Since character growth is your film, without it we’re left feeling unsure of what we should be taking away from our hero’s experiences. Give your character a clear “outer” or “false goal,” and a compelling, relatable “inner emotional need” and we’ll be on board for the ride. In Tootsie, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) wants to get a job as an actor, but what he really needs is to learn to respect women. By becoming Dorothy, a famous soap opera actress, he learns to care about women – specifically Julie (Jessica Lang). So, when he gives up his false goal by outing himself on national television, he gets the girl… and everything he ever wanted.   

By creating a hero with depth and complexity you bring purpose and meaning into your material, setting it apart from others of its kind. 

Tootsie

‘Tootsie’

They Have a Compelling Plot

I can’t tell you how many scripts I read wherein halfway through, I’m still unclear as to what the film is actually about. Without a focused narrative throughline, nobody will finish reading your script. We need clear narrative intent (a goal), and a strong impediment to that intent (conflict and stakes). These narrative intentions must be clear in the writing – in individual beats, moments, subtext, emotional nuance, etc. The whole shebang should be transparent to the reader. 

Further, intrigue, tension, and suspense should be built into the narrative for a compelling read. Problems occur when the stakes aren’t high, and/or we lose the conflict. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the conflict. The more consistent the intrigue and suspense, the longer we’ll sit on the edge of our seats. The longer we sit in that uncomfortable position, the greater your chances of selling your script.

The Structure is Disciplined

Structure is how we hold all these elements together. Most scripts benefit from a strict three-act structure, built around the classic “Hero’s Journey.” (A hero goes on a quest, faces obstacles and a decisive crisis, prevails, then returns transformed.) Further, a sellable script has a well-paced, balanced rise and fall rhythm, with connecting plot points for a united whole.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow a certain established structure — films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, and Crash famously bucked the traditional three-act structure — it just means that whatever you do choose is reigned in and disciplined. If your structure isn’t strong, your script can wander. And if your script wanders, so too will the readers’ minds. 

Memento

‘Memento’

And Finally, for the Love of God, No Typos, Spelling, Punctuation, or Grammar Mistakes

The occasional fluff is fine. You’re human. But an abundance of easy-to-fix mistakes can be distracting and screams, “I don’t care about this script.” Proofread your script, and proof it again. Then have a friend and your mom check it as well. Because, if you don’t care enough about your screenplay to proof it, then a reader won’t care enough to read it. And if your script doesn’t get read… it ain’t gonna sell. 

Once you address these five key elements, go ahead and enter the competitions, send out hundreds of queries, and network your ass off. But please leave that security guard in front of CAA alone. He’s innocent. Rather, give him a character arc; throw him in an unusual situation with a meaty conflict; wrap it all up in a disciplined structure; and write a script about him. Chances are, you’ll sell it!

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