Before you write a script, make sure you have one dynamite scene for the second act, one that couldn’t exist without your premise, one that you can’t wait to write.

Most of my advice stems from the premise test.

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

It seems simple, but it’s actually a powerful and merciless tool that exposes flawed or incomplete thinking. It’s simplicity covers a lot of complexity and theory, so it’s much harder than it looks. I’ve written a lot about premise, the point is to give a clearcut sense of the who/what/where of the story and to express how the idea will be conveyed in an active and interesting way.[1]

Of course, it’s easy to write a weak or incomplete premise test. For instance:


That’s not really a premise for a movie, because it’s only described one scene, and not even a scene from the second act. Unless this is going to be a stagey, talky movie about one long conversation in the doorway of an apartment, I have no idea what this script will read like.

That’s why I give this advice. Before you write a screenplay, before you write an outline, before you break out the index cards do this:

Write a fifty word pitch on the scene from the second act that you can’t wait to write. This should be a scene that showcases your talent as writer, is entertaining, and something that fully utilizes the concept you’ve set up.


The mother has a brief affair with a barista at a coffee shop. Not bad, I can envision that, but it has nothing to do with the setup. You could slot that into nearly any drama.

The mother kills the lover with a hacksaw. Okay, that’s gives me an idea of the movie someone wants to write. I’d question the necessity of the setup, but at least it’s an involving intro to a thriller.

Day six of the road trip. The mother and the lover are in Mississippi, checking off another item from the bucket list. They’re mad at each other, and that expresses itself as they bet on competing boxers. This reads as the strongest for me, because it’s both a pitch for a scene, and it gives me a nearly complete idea of the kind of story this will be.

Try this for yourself. If you can’t come up with one dynamite second act idea for your concept, it might not be worth spending 6 months wrestling with it.

It’s not enough to have something you want to say. You need to find an entertaining way to say it.

I read a lot of scripts. Many suffer from the same problem: no second act. It’s a simple problem to diagnose, but a hard problem to fix. Writing a good second act requires a working knowledge of three act structure, a working knowledge of genre, and a good sense of what a general audience might find amusing, enthralling, or entertaining.

All these are learnable skills, and almost all writers learn these eventually. There’s one psychological hangup that often makes this harder than it ought to be: confusing enthusiasm for telling a story for having elements in your story that might make another human being entertained.

I have always struggled with this problem, but it was especially pronounced when I was starting out. I’d come up with odd genre hybrids (sci-fi/action/horror plus teen movies) or convoluted concepts (it’s time travel in a parallel universe plus it’s a dream world) or odd meta stuff (every killing in this script precisely maps to a deadly sin and also a key sequence in LA DOLCE VITA). None of my early work was very good… I had big ideas driving it, but I failed to enshrine those ideas in the kind of magical narrative detail that drew people in and made them happy.

That’s a fundamental problem.

So if you’re struggling with a concept not being “high” enough, or a second act that’s anemic, or a script that’s “soft” or execution dependent, it’s often useful to ask yourself – “what in this script has a fighting chance of making a general audience happy?” If you can’t answer that, work harder to find the answer. If you can, work at patternizing that, find a way to identify what works and do more of that.

There’s a million things to learn in screenwriting and you’ll never know all of them. But if you can write something that transports someone away from the mundanity of their existence, that makes them feel, that takes them to a place they’ve never been, then you’re already far ahead of 90% of the bores, dilettantes and wannabes.

As story tellers, we are entertainers. Respect the audience and be entertaining.