How to Write a Script That Sells: 4 Industry Perspectives

This is a deep-dive exploration of one topic: writing a script that sells — offering lessons from the point of view of 4 key entertainment industry professionals: a screenwriting development executive, a literary manager, an agent and a producer. You’ll want to set aside at least an hour to get the most out of this guide and these exclusive classes and interviews.

If you don’t already have a TSL 360, membership, be sure to join TSL 360 for a FREE 3-day trial membership! TSL 360 is the LARGEST screenwriting education content library where you can learn from the best in the biz, featuring dozens of masterclasses, deep-dive interviews and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, Emmy-winning TV writers, producers, agents, major studio executives – all in one place.  

What you’ll learn in this guide:

  • Story basics to help elevate your script to the next level and make it more desirable in the marketplace.
  • How a manager works with her clients to develop a script that she sells. 
  • Advice from an agent on how to help get your script into the right hands.
  • What a producer looks for in scripts he purchases.

 

Ready to dive in? Sign up for your TSL 360 membership, and then let’s get started:

 

1. Creative POV: Writing Instructor / Development Exec

VIDEO: Jen Grisanti – Story Basics for Writing a Script That Sells

Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed Story/Career Consultant, International Speaker, and Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. Jen got her start as an executive for Aaron Spelling before moving to CBS/Paramount, where she staffed numerous shows and worked directly with top executive producers and writers. Jen started her own company, Jen Grisanti Consulting, Inc., in 2008 to share the value she has learned over the years with up-and-coming writers to help them attain their dreams. She is also the author of Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit: How to Write a Script That Sells, and her upcoming book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life.

In her Master Class on TSL 360, Jen emphasizes knowing what the purpose of story is and being clear on why you’re telling your particular story. After all, if you’re not clear on what your message is, the audience won’t be either!

1:24-1:55 “One of the main points of story is to make us feel. This is a huge thing when you are constructing your story to really think about. What are story tools you can utilize that will emotionally connect your audience with your message, and what you’re trying to say with your story?”

Starting Point 

Jen believes in beginning the logline (1-2 sentence summary or pitch of the story) before diving into writing. 

2:20-2:38 “Writing a logline, I believe, is where writers should start. Obviously, you should start with the concept first… and then you should think about several loglines that will give a sense of the worldview that you plan on going into the concept through.”

Jen also emphasizes the importance of developing a compelling main (or central) character in that logline, with an original worldview. 

3:07-3:28 “We are looking at concepts that are very strong concepts, but it is the main character that we are going into the concept through that separates it and makes it feel like something we haven’t seen before.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Discover the steps of writing a logline that will both streamline your story and sell your concept. 

Objective of Story

According to Jen, the purpose of story is to elicit an emotional reaction in your audience, and to leave viewers with a message. Think carefully: what are you saying with your story, and what is your reason for saying it?

13:47-14:20 “Now the objective of story, we know, is to make the audience feel. The story is all about emotion… I really want you to think about your intention when you come up with your concept—of what is the objective of telling this specific story? What is your message, what do you want to leave your audience with, what are you trying to say?”

Concept

Many writers worry about keeping up with trends, but Jen bucks that by imploring writers to write from a place of passion instead. 

14:33-15:09 “So many writers will say, ‘How do I come up with a great concept? If I look at what’s in the market and I write something toward that, then already the market shifts and it changes.’ So how do you deal with that? By writing what you are passionate about. Because passion sells. Right now, the climate is: why are you the perfect writer to be telling this story?” 

In Jen’s Master Class: Learn how to sell your passion by identifying your own emotional truth. 

Inciting Incident/Trigger

There’s a lot more to the inciting incident of a story than meets the eye! Beyond being simply the “first big moment” in a script, the inciting incident (or trigger) starts off the domino effect of other vital elements of your story.   

18:14-18:51 “So many of you consider the first big moment to be the inciting incident; I term it as a ‘trigger’ incident. So, in the TV pilot, I call the first big moment the ‘series trigger,’ and that leads to a ‘dilemma.’ And then that dilemma leads to the ‘pilot trigger,’ which leads to the ‘pilot dilemma,’ and then leads to the ‘pilot pursuit,’ which will be one step toward the ‘series season one pursuit.’”

18:58-19:11 “…In your feature, you look at it as an inciting incident that pushes your character into a powerful dilemma and leads them toward a goal. 

In Jen’s Master Class: Find out the biggest thing Jen has learned in her years of development experience about creating strong inciting incidents.   

Dilemma

Stuck between a rock and a hard place? Your characters better be! Jen talks about the importance of setting up a no-win situation for your central character, where neither choice he or she has to make is a good choice. 

19:57-20:14 “The dilemma sets up the empathy and the internal stakes for your character. So having a powerful dilemma will make every bit of difference in whether your story works or doesn’t work.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Discover how a compelling dilemma leads to creating a great central character. 

Action 

The saying goes, “Lights… Camera… ACTION” for a reason!  Jen emphasizes the importance of your characters actively pursuing their goals throughout your story to keep your script entertaining.  

21:22-21:46 “Action is everything. So you really want to look at your story and recognize that in every act, the central character should take an action toward the goal, hit an obstacle, and the stakes should raise.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Hear the biggest mistake Jen sees when it comes to action, and how it weakens your central character. 

Obstacles 

To keep the journey of your story interesting, your characters should face many bumps along the way! Jen discusses the different types of obstacles your character can face that can add emotion and depth to the narrative.  

22:36-22:55 “Obstacles certainly can take on the external as well as the internal. So the external is what your central character wants. The internal is why they want it…that certainly builds on the emotion of the story.”

22:56-23:21 “So when you’re thinking about your obstacles, be aware that when you hit your act break, you can hit internal and/or external obstacles that help elevate the stakes for one or both. This really helps to build on the momentum of the story.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Learn about creating the kind of obstacles that can help raise the stakes and keep your audience riveted. 

Stakes

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Jen stresses that in order for the audience to be truly invested in your story, the writer, and, in turn, the audience, should know the answer to that question. Have something important on the line for your characters.

23:56-24:26 “…I think the best way to set up strong stakes for your story is to look and make sure that by the end of Act One, whether it’s a feature or a TV show, we should have a clear sense of the internal and external stakes, and we should know: what is the worst that can happen if the central character doesn’t achieve the goal?”

In Jen’s Master Class: Find out how to make sure the stakes in your script are high enough. 

Goal

According to Jen, a clear goal is what links the different elements of the script together and solidifies what your central character is after. 

25:50-26:20 “…On a large percentage of the scripts that I analyze, the note that I will give is that the pilot goal or the goal of the feature is not clear. We don’t know what the character wants, we don’t know why they want it, and we don’t know what’s at stake if they don’t get it.” 

26:33-27:05 “If you don’t know the goal, then you can’t link your action, obstacles, and the stakes to that goal. And so the setting of the goal is really there to benefit the story, because every action-obstacle-stakes sequence should be totally clear, or the audience should have total clarity on what the central character wants.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Learn why clear goals are vital to writing a marketable script. 

Protagonist/Main Characters

Jen drives the point home that character is everything! Make sure that not only is your central character compelling, but that you’ve chosen the right character in the story to be the central focus. 

28:43-29:09 “…This is everything, certainly in television, more so than ever… people come back to watch TV for the characters. So you really wanna take the time and develop your central character, and you also wanna make sure that you choose the right central character.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Discover how to choose which character should be the central character of your story. 

Personal Dilemma

In Jen’s experience, making the dilemma personal to the character and weaving it into the series setup can elevate your story. 

30:19-31:20 “I’ve seen the personal dilemma be the series-triggering dilemma, so they’re one and the same… I’ve seen the personal dilemma be set up first, and then the series trigger, and then the series trigger and dilemma, and it’s all linked. I’ve also seen the series trigger a dilemma, and then the personal dilemma will come later… the shows that I’ve seen work at a very high level… have the personal dilemma as part of [the] series setup; that it is the stronger way to go.”

Why Do They Want to Achieve the Goal?

According to Jen, the “what” isn’t enough—the audience needs to know “why” your character’s goal needs to be accomplished in order to connect emotionally to the character’s journey. 

31:31-31:50 “So you want to really be clear on what the ‘why’ is of your central character, and this goes into the development and setup of the internal part of your story.”

31:51-32:05What does your central character want—[that] is your quantifiable outcome. Why they want it is the emotional component that you’re adding motivation-wise to the external pursuit.”

Arc of the Wound

Jen discusses the trend toward introducing childhood wounds of a character early in the story to further dive in at a psychological level. 

33:02-33:34 “As story has been evolving… and really looking psychologically into the character, there has really been a recognition in story now where we get a glimpse of the [childhood] wound in the series setup. And then we get small pieces that are building up to the climax. So this is the arc of the wound.”

Wound/Flaw

It can be hard to see our own flaws sometimes, but it should be easy to see your character’s! Jen discusses how a central character’s flaw or wound can help the audience relate to your story and feel what you’re intending as the writer.  

35:50-36:09  “So what I very often tell my writers is that they want to think about what the wound is that drives your central character, and what is the flaw that gets in the way. This will help you add so much depth to your character.”

36:19-36:37 “Now the flaw is very often something that the central character isn’t totally aware of, and through the pursuit, they become more conscious of what they’re doing to get in their own way.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Learn how establishing a creative flaw in your character can elevate your script and help the audience feel and connect to your messaging. 

Theme

What’s the message you want to impart to your audience? What’s the feeling you want viewers to feel after watching your film or series? All food for thought, as Jen explores how strong themes in your work can make your scripts shine. 

37:45-38:04 “Theme, obviously, can be something that is stated. Very often it is stated to the central character, or it can be something that the central character becomes aware of in their pursuit of the goal.”

38:28-39:01 “I can tell you, when I staffed over 15 primetime shows, and every staffing season, I would read 300 scripts, that the writers who really fully understood theme, symbolism, and message are the writers whose scripts went to the top of the stack. So I encourage you to really understand the theme…and why you’re trying to say what you’re trying to say.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Hear Jen give one of her favorite examples of strong theme in television. 

Question

Jen discusses how setting up little mysteries, or questions, throughout your story can keep the audience needing to know more. 

41:17-41:41 “Questions are something that I really encourage you to think about with your story, because they create tremendous momentum and they really make your audience feel connected to what you’re trying to say with your story.”

In Jen’s Master Class: Learn examples of the types of questions you can use to dramatic effect in your story. 

2. Creative POV: Manager

VIDEO: Daniela Gonzalez, Literary Manager

Daniela Gonzalez is a literary manager at Circle of Confusion, a feature film and television management and production company, with offices in Los Angeles and New York. Born in Venezuela and raised in Southeast Asia, Daniela found her roots in the United States. Her international, multi-cultural background informs her taste as she represents a roster of clients with unique backgrounds and voices. Daniela holds a BA in Film Production with a minor in Film Producing from NYU. 

Daniela is a hands-on manager who loves developing material directly with her clients, gaining an intimate knowledge of the properties she later sells. In her interview, Daniela stressed the importance of working with her clients every step of the way during the development of a script, rather than having her clients solely develop their scripts on their own or in a writer’s group. 

23:00-24:23 “I wanna read every draft. I’m addicted to rewriting. There’s a little bit of danger when writers talk to each other, because it can feel like there’s a little bit of conflict in terms of—OK, I’m coming into it knowing what the market is used to, and whether those other writers that they’re talking to have read the amount of scripts that I have read, or are familiar with other producers and what their standard is, then fine, you can talk to as many writers as you want. But sometimes they aren’t existing in the same ecosystem, and can really cause conflict… I feel like we can’t make as much progress. 

That’s not to say you can’t be part of a writer’s group, and that’s not to say that my notes trump anyone else’s, but it’s also trust. It goes back to trust. It’s trusting that your manager’s giving you notes to make it the best script possible, and that they’re coming in with value and experience. And I think [the] experience that other writers that are in the same position as you… it’s not the equivalent. So that’s where I’m passionate about reading every draft and being involved in the process, because when I sell the script, I know it just as well as the writer does.”

Daniela also stressed the importance of knowing what’s in the zeitgeist when you’re in the market to sell your script. It’s also vital to determine what writing a particular script could mean for your career down the line. 

24:36-25:35 “It’s also in an effort to not waste time. Give me ten ideas. Of those ten, probably eight of them people have tried to sell, and they didn’t work. And it’s also a response to the zeitgeist, you know. Writers sometimes feel like ‘Oh, I am the one to kind of conjure up this brilliant idea,’ but because of the zeitgeist and…where we are, there’s a convergence where there’s also another writer, and there’s a piece of IP [intellectual property] that’s competing. That’s not to say that the writer that I’m working with won’t write the best version of that, but having detailed conversations of, ‘If you were to write this, what could that mean in the long run?’ And if you have another idea that seems more original, or just more attuned to your sensibilities, or what your goals are, then maybe that’s the one you should write. I celebrate doing my job at a granular level.”

In Daniela’s interview: Learn what traits Daniela looks for in a client. 

3. Business POV: Literary Agent

VIDEO: Keya Khayatian, Agent/Partner

Keya Khayatian is a Partner in the Motion Picture Literary department at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles. Born in Iran and raised in Los Angeles, Keya started his entertainment career in 1995 as an agent trainee in the UTA mailroom. He was quickly promoted to departmental assistant specializing in film rights for literary properties, and in 1997 he was promoted to agent. 

With a keen eye for spotting original artistic voices, Keya has helped develop the careers of many of the most sought-after writers and directors in the industry, as well as representing established UTA talent. 

In his interview on TSL 360, Keya has fantastic advice for writers who are trying to break in and sell their material. 

7:41-8:20 “You want a lot of people to read your work, and you want people to recommend that work. And, so, I think you want to be open to feedback, and you want to be open to sending your scripts to other writers—anyone who’s willing to read your script that might have an ‘in’ in the industry. Everybody’s looking for great material, and so in order for a script to get into the right hands, enough people have to like it and recommend it so that you create some buzz, and basically market your script before someone else can take over the job of marketing it.”

8:25-8:46 “Always be writing. I think that’s the motto for a writer, is to always be creating new material… and to really be in the community of writers and know what films are being made and know what the marketplace is like based on what’s happening from things that are coming out.”

In Keya’s interview: Get Keya’s ideas of how to stay connected to the industry as a writer and have the best chance of selling your script. 

4. Business POV: Producer

VIDEO: David Friendly, Film Producer

David Friendly is a film and television producer in Los Angeles. After starting his career as a journalist for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, David became Vice President of Motion Pictures for Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. Later, David opened his own shingle as an independent producer. Credits include indie darling Little Miss Sunshine, Big Momma’s House, My Girl, The Chamber, Daylight, Courage Under Fire, and the acclaimed series Queen of the South. 

In David’s interview on TSL 360, he discusses the kind of scripts he prefers to buy, from a business point of view. 

14:43-15:10  “I look for things that I think a wide audience can relate to. I’m not interested in making a little movie that appeals to a very specific demo. I’ve always been interested in movies or television that would appeal to a broad audience. So when I see a situation that I think is kind of fascinating, but relatable to a lot of people, that’s the bullseye.”

In David’s interview: Learn what David saw in Little Miss Sunshine that made him want to buy that script.


Sign up for TSL 360 to watch these full-length interviews, plus more from our collection of 80+ industry pros.


Rebecca Norris is a producer, writer, and filmmaker with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Her recent award-winning feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, has been distributed on Amazon Streaming and DVD. Rebecca is also a script analyst and consultant who has read for many companies, including Sundance, ScreenCraft, Bluecat, and the International Emmys, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Rebecca blogs for Screencraft, The Script Lab, WeScreenplay and Script Magazine, exploring the film writing and production process and encouraging writers to produce their own work. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!


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