At the core of what we’re trying to do with any script is to make strangers care.
Virtually every note I give on any script ultimately connects to that goal. We want people to emotionally invest. It must matter to them what happens in our stories. And that’s because they feel something about it.
This takes three primary forms:
1. They emotionally connect to the main character(s).
2. It matters deeply to them that the overall problem/goal gets resolved.
3. The process of watching all this is really fun. Meaning they’re entertained by it.
Some have criticized it for following a formula for this kind of musical biopic — where the star rises to fame but has personal issues and conflicts that prevent them from enjoying and sustaining it in a healthy way. I was prepared to agree with this criticism. It’s also easy to find articles online about all the things they “got wrong.” Trust me that this wasn’t a result of oversight, ignorance or carelessness. Deviations from the absolute facts in true story adaptations are done because it’s believed it will make the story resonate more and be more comprehensible and compelling to audiences. And that often is the case. I once blogged about how Argo did this.
As for the “formula” note, I have also been known to defend formula, in the sense that there are principles behind “what works” that are often there for a reason — though if they’re followed in an obvious by-the-numbers way without a lot of skill, passion or originality, that can be a problem. Perhaps some felt that way about this movie.
But for me, and I’m guessing many audience members, this wasn’t an issue. Because I felt myself caring, and getting swept up in the emotion and entertainment value. I wasn’t noticing the creative choices and judging them like I often do when I’m not invested. I got sucked in.
Whether you’ve seen it or not, or feel the same way or not, let’s talk about the reasons.
1. I connected emotionally with the main character. Why? Because he had appealing qualities and struggles, while also possessing flaws. He suffered as a result of his mistakes and tried to rectify them. Generally speaking, he was “likable.” I am often a defender of “likability” as important because I believe virtually all main characters of successful film and TV scripts are easy to embrace, with a few exceptions that work for some very specific reasons. Writers often don’t realize how important it is to get the audience strongly on the main character’s side, in the opening pages, or realize how challenging it can be to achieve that in a believable way. The other thing that’s easy to miss is the importance of point-of-view, which means subjectively telling the story from the perspective of a main character whose emotions and desires are front and center, throughout. So Bohemian Rhapsody was not ultimately the story of a band, a song, or even a career. It was about a man, with a very personal, tender, difficult, emotional journey. Freddie’s feelings are what we’re focused on, most of the time.
2. As a result, the audience (or at least some of us) care that they resolve their problem. And that problem and how it develops is front and center throughout. In this case, it’s about conflicts related to closeted (and then uncloseted) sexuality that seems to threaten his happiness and the success he otherwise finds. It’s an internal issue that needs healed, but importantly, it has huge external consequences. And those are what we’re focused on. Because an internal journey on its own is usually not enough, on screen. The audience connects because of the external problems it leads to, including conflicts with others, addiction, loss of loved ones, etc.
3. The movie is wildly entertaining. Maybe it helps if you like Queen’s music, and enjoy the spectacle of seeing it brought to life in vivid cinematic ways. For an audience to keep caring, they also have to strongly enjoy the ride, and find consuming the story to be almost like “candy.” There are a lot of ways to entertain (and there’s a whole chapter in my new bookThe Idea about this), but they all come down to making the audience feel certain emotions. The music and spectacle is one aspect. There is also comedy, and poignancy, as well as romance. They consistently make choices that are designed to make it fun. Maybe some will feel they went too far at times, and it didn’t work for them. My point is that the writers and filmmakers were consciously looking to milk these things — to deliver them in ways that will impact the audience emotionally. It doesn’t just happen. But it’s important that it does.
Whatever type of script you might be writing, my advice is to make it your primary goal to capture the audience emotionally in these ways, recognizing that it’s the most important thing, and that it takes a lot of focused effort to do successfully. When you do, people will be laughing and crying, applauding, on the edge of their seats, and then telling their friends they loved it. Regardless of what some critics might have said. And isn’t that ultimately what we want?
The show runner of a drama series I once worked on described what he wanted in the middle of an episode as being a “punch – counterpunch” dynamic between the good guys and the forces opposing them. As I coach writers these days on their projects, I often find myself using this phrase to describe how we want the second act of a movie (or main central section of any story) to feel.
No matter what your genre or medium, what stories tend to have in common is this:
A main character has a big problem to solve and/or goal to achieve, which tends to build and complicate as they actively try to resolve it. It gets worse and continually changes, in ways that entertain the audience and keep them compelled, because they’re emotionally invested in the character and a certain kind of desired outcome for them.
So one of the biggest challenges in any story is the need to keep things changing and developing in the middle, and moving forward in such a way as to keep the audience hooked.
One way to approach it is to think about what initial steps the main character might believably take, and how those might go wrong, or at least only partially right, while also resulting in more difficulties they will have to deal with in future scenes. After all, it’s characters dealing with difficulties that we audience members almost exclusively want to watch, so we’re almost always looking for how to increase those.
Often these problems and complications that result from their actions are going to come about because whoever or whatever opposes them (be it a particular human antagonist or something else), is going to “counterpunch” in response to the main character’s “punch.”
That counterpunch will put the main character in a new situation with fresh problems to deal with. And then the cycle can begin again. They punch, and their opposing forces counterpunch. Or the opposing forces punch, and they counterpunch. Either way, it should feel like a great sporting match, to some extent — in that neither team is able to easily win the day. Instead, both continue to fight, responding to what the other has brought with their own new ideas and actions. This is true in everything from action movies to romantic comedies — where the “problem” of the story is the thing in the way of a relationship.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, The Book of Mormon, Team America: World Police) have said a key to storytelling they learned at some point was that it’s not, “This happens, then this happens.” Instead, it’s “This happens, therefore this happens” or “This happens, but this happens.” In other words, when a character takes action, it changes the situation in some way and causes more things to happen as a result, often unforeseen things that aren’t helpful to what they’re trying to do. And this often comes from a “counterpunch.”
Robert McKee also talks about this in Story: how most effective scenes involve a character (typically the main character of that story) taking action to try to get something they want in the world, and not getting the result they had hoped for and expected. And it’s the improvising that they have to do, in the face of that, which tends to be most entertaining and intriguing for the audience.
“Point of view” is a big part of this. The audience is meant to take on the subjective perspective of the “main character” of a story, and then stay with them, in virtually every scene, as they continually take action after action in pursuit of their desires, then deal with the consequences, regroup, and continue on. So good scenes generally depict that special person the audience is emotionally aligned with trying to do something, and encountering conflict.
Where writers sometimes go off track is when they depict other characters who aren’t the “main character,” separately from them. (Or write scenes where there is no real conflict or agenda someone is pursuing, but simply a sharing of information or opinions in a low-conflict way.) This generally happens because they don’t realize how important point of view is to earning and maintaining that all-important goal of “audience emotional investment.” That tends to dissipate when we leave the main character, which is why it’s generally better to meet other characters only when they do, and not separately from them.
I can imagine you’re now asking this:
“So there’s only one main character and they have to be in every single scene? That doesn’t seem right!”
Here’s how I see it: there is only one main character in a story, typically, and yes, they should be in pretty much every scene. But there might be multiple stories within one script, each with a different main character, and their stories can interweave. So in every scene we’re following the main character of one of the stories in the way described above.
Virtually every TV episode or pilot works this way, as well as many books and plays. There might be two, three, or even ten or more “stories” in one episode or work. Movies, on the other hand, usually only have one main story and a subsidiary “B Story” with the same main character as the “A Story.”
Whatever the situation in your script, and however many “stories” it has, it’s helpful to remember this one thing: we want each main character’s overall problem in each story (which hopefully is really compelling to the audience for the 7 reasons I talk about in my new book) to be front and center in every scene of their story, always developing, and generally building in difficulty and importance, because of an ongoing sequence of punch – counterpunch actions between them and whoever or whatever is against them.
If you do that, and it’s all believable and entertaining to watch — and the audience has a strong reason to care about this main character and their outcome — you will be on the right track.
This is really what they pay us writers to do, when you get down to it, beyond everything else. We are supposed to grab people, to make them emotionally invest in the character(s) and situation(s), so they’ll want to keep watching/reading.
If we don’t, it doesn’t matter how well we execute on the page. Not really. We have to convince them to want to be there, to want to stay. And that’s about how it feels for them to be a part of the story.
Most of my notes on most scripts point to this central need. Writers sometimes lose sight of this as the goal, and don’t realize just how challenging it is to make millions of strangers engage and feel something about a story and characters. It’s hard! But it’s maybe the most valuable thing we do as writers — give the audience something to care about, to connect with, to lose themselves in. They want to experience the events of the story as if they were happening to them — to feel a part of it, and so connected that it really MATTERS how everything turns out. Almost like it’s their favorite sports team playing for the championship. And it’s our job to make that happen.
There are two aspects to emotional engagement. Both are important.
The first is about making them care about the predicament(s) of the main character(s) — to feel for the people and what they’re going through and trying to achieve. So many of my blog posts are about different ways to try to ensure this happens: by seducing them into some connection in the opening pages, by making sure the main character has one big problem they will actively focus on throughout, and that it has high enough stakes, and that the story is told subjectively through their point-of-view. Achieving a kind of emotional oneness with the main character(s) is something we take for granted, as viewers. But as writers, we have to strategize and work hard to make this happen.
The other way to engage audience emotions is through entertaining them. That is, we lead them into experiencing pleasurable emotions, that they chose to watch the movie/show because they’re hoping to feel. Different genres do this differently — depending on whether their audience showed up to laugh, to be scared, to experience romantic love, etc.
It’s not easy to achieve high entertainment value if you’re not also making them care about the characters and strongly bond with them. But occasionally it happens. If a comedy is funny enough, or a horror film scary enough, or an action-adventure has big enough spectacle, bonding with the characters can sometimes be slightly less crucial. With some movies, the audience just wants to laugh really hard, see awesome eye candy, etc., and they may or may not be quite as connected with the people. These kinds of movies are like amusement park attractions, to me. Sometimes they can be big successes. And a writer who can entertain this hugely can definitely find work. They just might not stick with you as much.
Most writers I work with aren’t focused in that direction. If anything, “entertainment” seems to be a lower priority. They’re not actively going for a particular genre, other than perhaps “drama,” which can be the hardest to make “entertaining” (and can sometimes become bleak, or boring). With this kind of script, it’s that much more important that the audience have strong emotional investment in the characters and their problems, and what they’re doing in the face of conflicts and complications they encounter to try to reach their goals.
In my view, most writers could stand to focus on both of these ways to engage audience emotion more, as the one-two punch of what makes a script really “work” — assuming it also has a strong enough original premise. And when you come right down to it, virtually every other screenwriting trick of the trade ultimately works in service to one or both of these goals.
Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch in Netflix’s SET IT UP
The new Netflix romantic comedy Set it Up is as good example as any, of a movie that makes both ways of engaging emotion a priority. I’m a fan of the genre, and it’s one the major studios don’t tend to make as much anymore — this gentler, pleasing kind of story of how two people come together (as opposed to more raucous comedies that might also have a romantic subplot). This movie presses a lot of the traditional buttons that you would see twenty years ago in studio rom-coms, and though I thought it took a while to really kick into gear, once it did, I found myself caring more and more about the two leads, enjoying the chemistry between them, and wanting to see each of them grow into their best selves, and end up together. And like the best versions of this genre (what Save the Cat would classify under “Buddy Love”), these two ultimately seem like they could be each other’s “perfect counterpart” — the person best suited to help them to find that best self.
If you watch it, notice all the things they do to make the two leads lovable, and growingly so. The more we watch them both be abused at work (and later in relationships), the more we can’t help but feel for both of them, and want them to find some escape (which they seek to achieve by secretly setting their terrible bosses up with each other). But once we get past that initial premise, it starts to be about something more — we want them to find personal fulfillment, and even love.
In terms of entertainment value, there is plenty of comedy throughout, as well as a chance for the audience to vicariously enjoy the experience of love blossoming, between two people they come to care about — one of the most time-tested kinds of “entertainment emotions” that audiences will pay to experience.
Whether you enjoy the movie or not, it’s trying to do what movies do best, when they are as successful: which is to entertain people, while making them care.
When I first started writing, I wish someone had explained to me what the necessary elements of a scene were. (As well as the key criteria for a good story.) In many scripts I read (and some I’ve written!), the writer seems a little hazy about what a scene should contain, and as a result, the flow of the story isn’t as engaging as it could be.
So let’s clear up any confusion on what a scene is, what it should look like, and what is to be avoided.
A scene is a story in miniature
Just as a story has a beginning, middle and end, and is focused on a problem or conflict of some kind, so do most good scenes.
And just as “point of view” is crucial to a good story, so is it key to a good scene.
What that means is this: in any given scene, we are typically focused on one character’s subjective experience of the situation. We have a clear sense of what they’re feeling, what their problem is, what they want, and what’s in the way.
And the scene is about that situation developing, through conflict, as they attempt to solve their problem or reach their goal for the scene.
Those attempts typically don’t easily work, and result in complications or unexpected results that force them to improvise, with some kind of rising tension and emotion, leading to a climax of some sorts, and, finally a resolution to the scene, in which its key issue is ended in some way, but also, something has happened that turns the story in a new direction, leading to new scenes.
Scenes that don’t engage audiences tend to lack these elements. They aren’t focused on a particular character’s understandable emotions and wants, and/or there isn’t a conflict at the center of the scene that builds and resolves in this way.
This is what we want to avoid: scenes that are just about characters exchanging information or opinions with each other, without much conflict or emotion. Scenes where characters get along — or goals are achieved easily — are not dramatic (or comedic) scenes. They just kind of lay there.
The audience is engaged by the problems, and attempts to solve them. And they need to have some “skin in the game” or a “dog in the fight,” in a scene. They need to be seeing it though someone’s eyes, who they are relating to in some way as they deal with a problem or pursue a goal. Otherwise they are just watching from an objective distance, without caring that much about what happens.
This doesn’t mean there’s not some room for good things to happen, or for characters to talk to each other about things without major conflict, but ideally, such moments are brief, and feature other elements that keep things moving along engagingly. For instance, in those scenes in Sex and the City where the four friends would commiserate over cosmopolitans about their latest man troubles, the advice they would give each other would (a) be entertaining, (b) focus on strong emotion, (c) focus on a particular character with a particular relatable problem, and (d) usually advance their story in some way. And even then, there would often be some conflict as the woman in question wouldn’t like how her friends are reacting to her issue, or what they think she should do.
I’ve heard it said that a good scene should either advance story (which is what I’ve mostly been talking about) or reveal/develop character. Or both. I don’t disagree. But even scenes that don’t advance story and only develop character need to do so in ways that are entertaining, emotional, and typically conflict-based, where it feels like the character’s situation is developing because of what we’re learning about them and what’s going on for them, during these “in between” moments of the story.
So there are a few key elements of a scene that we want to typically include:
Entertainment value (appropriate to the genre)
All of these serve to emotionally connect the audience to what’s going on, and make them want to keep watching/reading. That’s ultimately the name of the game. They’re not as connected when people they don’t really care about talk about things they don’t have a strong stake in, with little difficulty, and where things aren’t moving forward, and aren’t really that fun to watch!
One other common point of confusion about scenes. There are two ways of thinking about them. On one hand, every time you change time or location, and have a new scene heading in a script, you’ve got a new “scene.” So a scene can be as brief as a single line.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a scene as a complete dramatic unit that moves the story forward.
For instance, when Save the Cat talks about a feature film script containing 40 scenes that one could outline on cards (or paragraphs, in a Word document, like I do with my coaching clients), Blake Snyder means something much bigger than a location or scene heading change. He’s talking about a scene with an average length of 2.75 pages (in a 110 page script). It might have several location changes within it, before it’s fulfilled the criteria above.
Now some “moments” in a script might not accomplish all of the above, but serve as necessary interstitial elements, between scenes that do. As such, these are usually quite short, as in under a page.
One of the things I find often when a writer outlines a project for my feedback, is that a lot of what they think are full “scenes” in terms of “one of the forty” are really short information exchanges that don’t have enough meat, conflict or development in them to really engage the audience and move things forward. So rather than counting as a full “scene,” they are just little moments that can maybe be tacked onto the beginning or ending of one.
Let me conclude with something that a key mentor told me, during the years when he was the producer and I was the writer on a big project: scenes should serve multiple purposes. A lot can be going on in a given scene. Ideally, character is being revealed/developed, information is being given to the audience (shown, rather than told), AND the story is also moving forward in a dynamic way.
Rather than one small thing at a time happening, a lot can be packed into one scene, so that it’s rich, compelling and full of life and creative content.
This will help ensure that readers care about what’s going on, invest deeply, and stay engaged throughout the story.
I’m lowering the price of my least expensive, introductory consultation package for TWO DAYS ONLY, from $245 to $145.
It’s called the “Fifteen and Four” and it includes a one-hour one-on-one Skype or recorded phone conference with me, to discuss material of yours that I’ve read beforehand.
This can be anything from the first 15 pages of a script plus a 4-page synopsis (hence the name “Fifteen and Four”), to 25 pages of script, to a 10-12-page outline. Or you could just send a one-page synopsis, or even a page full of loglines of ideas for potential projects you want feedback on. (If you only send a single page, the call time would increase to 90 minutes.)