by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)
Admittedly, my last article — Ken’s Top 10: Annoying Things I See in Scripts — was kind of cranky. That’s not who I am, and really, isn’t there enough complaining on the internet? As my penance, here is the flip side — a list of things that I love to see when I read a screenplay. I’m staying positive, people.
1. A screenplay with an appealing main character.
Call me old-fashioned, but I want a screenwriter to give me a reason to care about a main character. For some of you this may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how often I read scripts where the writer has failed to make a compelling case for why the main character is worthy of my interest.
2. A screenplay that knows what it wants to be.
Perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the current film and television business is that many productions are intended to reach a global audience. And sometimes a film or television series for everyone is a film or series for no one (see, for example, Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad). So I love a script that commits to what it wants to be and is concerned only with being the best, unique version of itself. I’m thinking of films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina, or a series like The Americans. They may not always be the most commercial, but at least they don’t feel like they were written by the marketing department.
3. A screenplay that pulls me through the story.
Give me a reason to turn the pages. In other words, what am I hoping to learn or see or know? In general, every story is about someone we like not getting the things they want. When they get what they want, the story is over. So what does the main character want, and what prevents them from attaining it? Concern for this dilemma is usually ever-present in the scripts I love.
4. A few good plot twists.
What story doesn’t benefit from having a few good surprises along the way? Nothing is duller than a script that unfolds exactly as expected. Hopefully this is not controversial. Predictability – you never want to see that comin’.
5. A screenplay with a personal voice.
Stories with a personal voice are all the rage in Hollywood these days: a script where the individual personality or “world view” of the writer shines through. It’s the thing that make a Joss Whedon script different from a Coen brothers script. More than anything else, this makes a screenplay memorable for me.
6. A script that takes me into an unfamiliar world.
Who would deny that one of the great pleasures of films like The Godfather or The Martian is the experience of being taken inside an unfamiliar and fascinating world? But even if the story is about a typical middle-class family, I love a screenplay that can take me inside the lives of authentic characters with intimate detail. I love feeling like that proverbial fly on the wall when I read a script.
7. A screenplay with a satisfying ending.
Orson Welles famously said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I love this quote more for what it says about life than anything else. Yes, we live in an era where “dark” is in, especially in television, but I am looking for art that perfects life. If I want failure and frustration, well, I get plenty of that for free in my own life.
8. The conflict of powerful equals.
This is another way of saying a great protagonist with a well-matched antagonist. This is where the best comedy and drama comes from. A defined and sympathetic protagonist, with a clear goal or inner need and a strong antagonist (or challenging force) that opposes the protagonist. It’s one of my delicious pleasures when reading a screenplay. Just remember that every character is the hero of their own existence.
9. A screenplay with great expository dialogue.
Now I’m getting kind of wonky, but I always appreciate good expository dialogue that doesn’t seem like expository dialogue. It’s very hard to do well, and there are screenwriters I consider very talented who can’t always pull it off. For my money, Aaron Sorkin is the master. But tell me who you like.
10. A script that pays attention to supporting characters.
I love a screenplay where colorful supporting characters pop up from time to time. Unfortunately, when a film or series is edited, these smaller roles are in mortal jeopardy unless they are relevant to the plot. Take a look at some of Ron Shelton’s work (Bull Durham, for example). I love the vivid supporting characters Ron always creates to populate his stories.
Thanks for playing Ken’s Top 10. Please tell me what you love to see in a script.