- Get your hooks in early – the first 10 pages are the most important. If the person reading the script is bored, so will an audience be watching it and they’ll switch channels!
- Have a narrative thread running right through, it doesn’t need to be continually taut but it mustn’t break or the audience will drift away. Create a sense of forward momentum and build.
- Whose story is it? Most stories have only one or two main protagonists.
- What is the inciting incident and how is it paid off?
- If you show a gun in act one, you must fire it in act three. In other words, if you set something up, then make sure you pay it off.
- Get in late, get out early – in every scene.
- Scenes should be about the characters in that scene.
- Defer gratification and create anticipation.
- Subvert expectations.
- Make your characters active, not passive, in their own story. Character is action – characters are defined by what they do, how they choose to overcome (or not) an obstacle or complete a task.
- Give your characters a journey.
- What do your characters need and want? These are not the same thing – they may want to marry someone rich but to be happy they need to fall in love (probably with someone poor!).
- Characters should pursue their want (although not necessarily their need). It must be established early.
- Show the turning points on your characters’ journey– they must be dramatised and they must be believable.
- What is at stake if your characters don’t achieve their objective? (In a crime thriller this might be their life, in a romantic comedy it may be their happiness).
- What do your characters learn? How do they change?
- Give your characters obstacles.
- Why should we care? We must have empathy for your characters – that doesn’t mean they have to be nice but we have to understand them.
- Would all your characters react differently to the same incident? If not you need to do more work on differentiating them.
- Make your characters real, not just serving a plot point.
- Love your characters. If you don’t, neither will your audience and they’ll switch off.
- Internal conflict (within a character) and external conflict (between characters) is essential for all good drama and comedy.
- Dialogue should sound naturalistic.
- Use subtext and avoid writing on the nose. Characters shouldn’t be telling us what they really think and feel (unless of course it’s something they’ve been trying to articulate right through the story, in which case when they finally reveal it, it’s dramatic).
- Avoid characters telling us information the audience already knows.
- Every word counts – if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal something new about a character, you should probably cut it (unless it’s funny!).
- Characters should have individual voices. If you covered over the character names, could you tell whose speech it is just from what they’ve said and how they’ve said it?
- Film and television are visual media so the golden rule is ‘Show, don’t tell’.
- Keep action descriptions succinct.
- Your script will look more professional if it’s laid out in a script format.
If you don’t have professional scriptwriting software, like Final Draft, you can write your script in Word using a template like Script Smart or Celtx.
Review and Revise
Before you send your script anywhere, read it with a critical eye. Make it the best you possibly can.
Proof read your script for obvious mistakes. Sloppy scripts full of mistakes suggests that this is something you’ve dashed off not lovingly slaved over.
- …are there to be broken. Just be aware of the rules and make sure you have a really good reason for breaking them.
Many thanks to John Yorke for his excellent ‘Advanced Story Course’, from which much of the above is taken.