Updated: Sep 13, 2022
THE ACTUAL METHOD (TO WRITING AN UNDENIABLE SCREENPLAY)
If you want to write an undeniable screenplay, step one is accepting that (almost certainly) nothing in your portfolio is anywhere close to that level.
So this means, most of the time, you need to write a new script from scratch.
You might be able to take an existing script and rewrite it—but be prepared to change it so drastically that it might as well be a new script.
Oh, and while doing this, you need to make a quantum leap in your skill level. That’s not just technically (exposition, dialogue, action writing), but emotionally—how can I create a character and a journey that connects to the reader?
Very few people will have the talent, insight and determination to be able to do this.
Frankly, many people reading this are probably already tuned out: “What a jerk! I’ve worked so hard on my scripts, surely mine are valuable?”
Well, if they’ve been on the Black List “top list” for months, and nobody wanted them—what do you think?
You need a great concept to move the needle. It is, truly, the only thing that matters for managers and producers.
When managers sign clients, typically the first thing they say is, “Make a list of all your ideas, and we’ll pick one and develop it from scratch”—because they’re trying to find a concept that will open doors for you. (They know those doors pretty well.)
A great concept is typically not reinventing the wheel, but a fresh twist on something that already exists. “Freshly derivative,” you could say. (Or a new hubcap on that wheel.)
It’s something we’ve seen before, but never like this.
It’s a man who has his daughter kidnapped…but he just happens to be James Bond (Taken).
It’s post-apocalyptic survival…but against monsters who hunt with sound (A Quiet Place).
What makes a logline great is when the fresh twist comes from the concept. It’s not this-plus-that. It’s this-because-of-that.
Amateur scripts are either “half a concept” (“a family tries to survive in a postapocalyptic future”)—which are simply “soft.”
Or, they are two (or more) different concepts smashed together—which are incoherent.
That would be, “A family tries to survive in a postapocalyptic future, when the parents need to get divorced.”
It’s like…huh? It’s two different genres: sci-fi survival and family drama. Or, more often, suddenly there are zombies, or kidnappings, or race-car driving—or something else that’s random.
That’s why amateur loglines, if they’re not boring, are often confusing to the point of parody.
Want proof? Go to the Black List website, and Coverfly’s Red List, and read dozens of loglines to the top-ranked scripts.
You’ll see how quickly you go into a fugue state from boredom—because the loglines are so generic and messy.
This is what managers and producers endure when they read amateur queries—and it’s why they ignore your emails.
The stuff all sounds the same. Nothing stands out.
And because most scripts are bad anyway, if the idea is lame, it’s almost unheard of that the script would be any good.
WORKSHOP YOUR CONCEPT
So you need a great concept.
It’s not particularly my strong suit. My friend and YouTube cohost Charlie Vignola is an idea machine—partly from talent, partly from spending 30 years as an executive for Jerry Bruckheimer.
It’s a skill, and one that takes practice.
You must spend a ton of time on your concept before you start writing—even before you start outlining!
A brief aside: what is the difference between a concept and a logline?
The concept is the important thing—the idea. The logline (essential in the business) is just the pithy expression of the concept for business communication.
But make no mistake: 95% of scripts are instant passes at the logline level. Brutal, but true. (Did you survey those Black List/Red List loglines like I asked?)
It is a mini-artform to craft the logline—but I’d rather have a sloppy logline to an awesome concept, than a perfect logline for a middling one.
The logline is more than just the general idea (i.e. zombies or aliens) because it contains the essentials of the script’s execution: the protagonist, goal and antagonist.
In other words, the narrative engine: Oh, it’s a heist. Or a love story. Or a courtroom thriller. We know what those are, and we can start to get excited about the cool twists your script brings.
You must make sure that each and every element works together, blends together, flows as one, and intrigues the reader.
This is truly where people go wrong: they have a killer concept, but they just use the first things they think of—without taking the time to workshop those elements and make sure they are the best possible fit together.
Think of a logline as a Rubik’s cube: When they connect, it’s that unmistakable, shiny rainbow perfection of a completed cube. Execs are like, “Whoa, what is that?”
When they don’t—it’s a checkered mess that looks like all the others. Execs: “pass.”
WHAT TO WRITE?
While workshopping your concept, you also need to be mindful of marketplace considerations: genre and budget.
The best script to write is something that you can sell. This means, probably, a feature.
The best use of a TV pilot is to go into staffing—if you live in Los Angeles or one of the few other big production hubs. Then the pilot is your writing sample to get a job. (It’s almost impossible to sell a show into development as a newbie.)
If you’re anywhere else—follow your dreams, of course, but I’d write a feature.
Try a horror movie with a cool concept; a grounded sci-fi movie with a cool concept (like a Black Mirror episode); a rom-com with a cool concept; or an action movie with, you guessed it, a cool concept.
I don’t know much about comedy. I guess it’s important that it be funny?
In all cases, you don’t want anything that costs too much money.
If you have a totally awesome, super-pricey blockbuster idea—bless you, those are the most valuable of all.
But remember: superheroes, animation, and space or fantasy epics are almost always made from existing intellectual property, and/or developed in-house by the owners, or come from super famous filmmakers. Nobody wants your $100M+ knock-off of Lord of the Rings!
Period pieces of any kind are extremely difficult to get financed.
Biopics and true stories can work as writing samples. They can be thorny as far as rights if there is music or intellectual property (“I.P.”) involved. But if you write a great script about somebody famous—yeah, people will read that.
A “stunt script” is something that will never get made, due to rights, cost or outrageousness. (Like a slasher movie, but set at Hogwarts.) But they can open doors as samples.
Write something that you can sell, or has such entertainment value it works as a sample.