The Secret to Screenwriting, Part 3
Updated: Sep 13
When we left off, we were talking about coming up with a great CONCEPT...
Next comes the real magic. I never read about this, but to me it’s the single most important, confounding, but also exciting thing in screenwriting.
That is, not just having a cool concept, but finding the particular EXPRESSION of it that truly works.
This is the pinch point—not just for amateurs, but for everybody. Studios spend years trying to get scripts right!
But studios, at least in theory, are staffed with executives who have the experience in trudging through these dark, scary caves and occasionally finding the light to get out.
Amateurs don’t even realize that they are in a cave!
I have been impressed to come across, from time to time, amateur loglines that have cool concepts. Maybe it’s one in thirty.
But I have never come across a script with that cool concept that was even close to professionally executed.
Most of the time, the concept is tanked by amateur choices.
The writer just takes it for granted that, well, of course it has to be about a female stunt driver. And the bad guy is her father. And the goal is to get her kid back.
Because usually these are the things that resonate emotionally to the writer, and/or have been in her head for years.
But honestly, she’s just hoping these things will work. And almost always, they don’t work.
So the writer spends four months getting the script into the best shape possible…
But the real failure happened in that first week, with the initial choices!
And thus all the writer has done is add to a portfolio of middling scripts that won’t attract professional interest.
SOLVE THE MATH
Every script has its “math.” All its elements—concept, setting, conflict, protagonist, goal, antagonist, setpieces, climax—are an equation. Or, if you will, that Rubik’s cube.
Getting those elements right—before you write—that’s DEVELOPMENT. It is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is harder than the writing—and yet it is the writing.
If you truly want to succeed—don’t just write what comes to mind!
Think through your choices. Remember, you’ve been doing this a while: You don’t need to write something in script format (or even as an outline) to envision how it might work.
I realize that many writers have the problem of being paralyzed by the blank page, and what I’m suggesting may take them in the opposite direction. I don’t know the solution for this.
Writing an undeniable script means methodically sorting through innumerable expressions of your idea in order to find the best version of it. Maybe that’s your first take—but almost certainly it isn’t.
The good news is that you get better at it with practice.
SIMPLIFY, DON’T COMPLICATE
I used to drive myself crazy imagining twist upon twist. “Wait, what if the kid is secretly the son of the protagonist? Or, oooh, the pretend son? And the real son was over here, all along?”
I kept on thinking of cool stuff to add—reversals and reveals. And all I did was outsmart myself.
In general, it is not that hard to think of things that would make for great movie surprises.
Every script needs a few great surprises—but suspense is far more important. It both lasts longer and holds the structure in place.
Thinking of too many surprises and reversals can get you lost in the weeds. So don’t complicate—simplify.
Great, you ask, how?
The answer is simple, although not easy. (It’s also the best way to get unblocked.)
The secret ingredient is humanity. And from it, emotion. That has to be your lodestar.
Here’s how to do it: You have your concept. You like your concept.
Find the human story that works with the concept.
Every movie has a human “want” at its core. That’s why there are so many movies with dead parents or dead kids—dead anybody. Because it gives clarity to the internal struggle of the protagonist: okay, it’s about accepting loss. Which is the fundamental truth of life: mortality.
You’ve heard this a million times: the protagonist wants one thing, but actually needs another.
The protagonist needs to accept, well, pick one: death, aging, love, himself. Whatever!
Are you rolling your eyes? Yeah, this is the subject of a zillion screenwriting how-tos. And when done poorly, it’s clichéd.
But it’s essential. And yet writers still don’t do this in their scripts!
I do see attempts made. But they’re clumsy.
Amateur writers are interested in movies. But professionals are interested in people.
Every movie ever made, or story ever told, is fundamentally about people. Even when it’s about animals or talking objects—they’re just proxies for human beings.
You have to stop being interested solely in movies—twists and chases and reveals—and become interested in people. Lean into their feelings, don’t run away from them.
You may have heard the expression, “Simple plot, complicated character”? That’s something a lot of movie stars look for—because they’re attracted to the role, above all else.
The real pinch point of every production is not the manager, or producer, or studio—it’s the star.
So everything I’m telling you—lean into the humanity—will work at that single, ultra-important moment: when the movie star reads and contemplates, “Do I want to do this?”
FIND THE SPINE
When you’re going through your multiple expressions of your concept, and starting to drive yourself crazy through the abundance of choices—stop and focus on the human journey that comes out of your concept.
What does your concept suggest thematically and emotionally?
Vampires suggest immortality and transgressive sex, passions and curses. So what’s here emotionally? Lust but also guilt and shame.
Zombies suggest the unstoppable nature of death. So this is fear, and thus, overcoming fear.
Every concept has an emotional profile—be it aliens, divorce, pirates, chess, karate, disco dancing…if it’s human, there are emotions attached. (Trust me on this.)
So take your concept, and reverse-engineer it to find an emotional angle that’s truthful to the feelings that would happen if that concept were real.
Then, find the protagonist with a “want” that connects to this emotion.
What if a repressed church lady becomes a vampire? Or what if a drug addict with a death wish becomes a zombie—but somehow keeps his humanity?
Just spitballing here, folks.
Find the “take” that, hopefully, hasn’t been done before in a movie—but feels like it should have been. If it connects to our current world, that’s even better!
This is brutally difficult work. I get the sense that many writers write in order to escape reality. So the thought of dealing with all these yucky feelings kind of defeats the purpose.
But emotion is, truly, the answer.
It can take a long time to learn. Writer/director Nicholas Meyer says, “Life is hot, but art is cool.” Which means, when he’s writing, he doesn’t want to make himself cry. He wants to make the audience cry.
It’s hard work—but if you can do it, you’ll be playing with power.
BUILDING THE SKELETON
So back to our concept. Choose the human story, whatever it may be: coming of age, falling in love, losing a parent, having a child, losing a child, getting divorced.
These things happen in real life, all the time. Lean into them! They won’t feel like clichés if you put them in new settings, and make them specific. They will feel honest and real.
Because they are real. We are all human beings, having experiences. Don’t fight it, embrace it!
Next, and/or concurrently, you’ll have to figure out—what actually happens in this movie?
Now we’re talking craft. You must brainstorm the antagonist, the characters, the setpieces, the structure, the climax—cool moments and maybe even snippets of dialogue.
Test the material against the concept, its emotion and the protagonist. Make sure they all work together.
If they don’t—dump ’em! Try something else.
Always look for opportunities to simplify: Do you really need to set it in outer space? Do you really need those two friend characters, or can they be combined into one?
This is not easy. And you’ll have to find your own way to do it.
Some people make notes and outlines. I tend to just marinate in it until I think I’m ready to try a few broad gestures as an outline. Sometimes it comes to me in a dream—which always makes me suspicious, but they’ve often been useful.
It is, alas, a fluid process. You must allow discoveries to happen to improve your story.
Here’s what not to do: Do not commit yourself to plot.
Amateurs do plot first, and then try to make everything else work. Wrong!
You’re going to do plot maybe last.
What are you going to do first? The EMOTIONAL steps in the protagonist’s journey.
Find moments that evoke the emotion. Then reverse-engineer the plot that supports it. Figure out the ending, and work backwards.
Plot is mechanical. You need character X to get to the train station in act two, so fine—you give her a reason.
But you figure out what needs to happen emotionally, and make the plot follow that.
Do not try to make the emotions conform to the plot!
And yes, it is excruciatingly difficult. This is why they say that screenwriting is like pulling an orange out of your brain through your nose.
And it’s why writing with this mindset may take a lot longer than it did before.
On the one hand, you have more experience, so you can write faster. But you’re also aware of so many pitfalls and mistakes, it forces you to be deliberate.
You are now writing a script like a professional.
You are endeavoring to go deeper into your concept, and you are eliminating extraneous ideas.
You are thinking emotion first, thus you are writing from the “inside out.”
You are letting all your screenplay “elements”—protagonist, antagonist, goal, setpieces, climax, dialogue, etc.—remain fluid so that you can kick up the emotion in each and every one, and find the most elegant ways for them to mesh.
You are connecting as much as possible to humanity and the world around us. So characters are beginning to feel real—even if they are animated appliances or living on Mars.
This is so difficult. You will have to kick up your craft to crazy-excellent levels.
And there is no useful “program” to follow to do this. Sorry. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.
I told you—this is all true…but you wouldn’t necessarily like it.
If any of this is useful, I’m happy to write more and share some tips and tricks I picked up.
And if any of it is wrong—please tell me! I would truly feel awful to be detrimental to anybody’s process. Thanks! —Lukas