We write scripts to sell, to build our skills, and to get considered for other work. In that spirit I present the following suggestions.
1. Work in an extant genre
It’s easy to see if a genre script works or not. A thriller thrills, a horror scares, a comedy amuses. Readers can compare genre scripts to other works, but if a script is too original, there’s nothing to compare it to, and it runs the risk of being discarded out of hand.
If you write a comedy and it doesn’t sell, you can show it to some Fox executive who needs to hire someone for THE HANGOVER 6. A script sample that’s a gonzo mix of time travel, werewolves, and jet fighting, or a weirder SYNECDOCHE, NY has much less utility.
2. The script should illustrate cause and effect/connect the dots.
A script that connects information to what has come before holds a reader’s attention. A bad script expects us to make cognitive leaps:
SCENE ONE: A BOY WETS BED.
SCENE TWO: A HOUSE BURNS.
This (almost) makes sense to me, because a TV show told me there’s a correlation between pyromaniacs and bedwetters. A better script would be more accessible to the portion of the audience who isn’t me.
SCENE ONE: A boy is fascinated by fire.
SCENE TWO: A distracted dad leaves a lighter on the counter.
SCENE THREE: A house burns.
Screenplays illustrate cause and effect. Every action, description, and line of dialogue must advance plot, illustrate the characters, or both. A bad screenplay is loose and arbitrary. A good script is taut and sings with dramatic unity and intention. There’s much that’s subjective about writing, but it’s always a good sign if a script logically hangs together.
3. Your protagonist should be based on an actual star
You can write a part for young Dustin Hoffman, but barring a time machine, you’re not getting him. Instead, consider movie stars who have successfully carried actual movies in the last year, then tell your story using them. This makes your script immediately more plausible, and vastly increases the chance that your spec script might get made. Just don’t cite your inspiration in your actual script.
4. The protagonist should have a clear-cut arc.
As noted earlier, arcs are essentially character changes that happen incrementally due to events in the story. Arcs shape the plot, and invests us in the action. Executives and readers are trained to look for arcs and their presence of one is a promising signal that the writer just might know what they’re doing.
5. Your script should say something about you.
Haikus have 17 syllables, limericks rhyme, and screenplays have their own rules. Much of a script is pro forma: It’s gonna be approximately one hundred ten pages, there will be 4-8 setpieces, the characters will grow and change, and everyone will be impossibly good looking. These requirements don’t leave much room for your original voice, but there’s a tiny, precious spot for it, tiny as a post-it note. The best scripts populate this space with a gorgeous and original voice. Don’t forget to include yours.