by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
There are certainly no formulas to writing a good script. None that work anyway. There are, however, forms. Good music uses chords that resonate together. Painting uses color systems that work in unity or intentional disunity. Photography uses composition techniques to most effectively draw the eye through the story of the image. The list goes on. Sometimes, we complete a script that works really well in some areas, yet falls flat in others. It seems unbelievable that we could craft an entire script and somehow forget something significant – until it happens to you.
While every script is different, here’s a checklist of elements your script might be missing and desperately need.
1. A Protagonist
This seems like a no-brainer. It’s hard to imagine a good story without at least one character in it that we relate to and root for. Yet, I hear dozens of pitches every month about a concept that never mentions a specific character in the story. Concepts are great, but people connect with the characters they see on-screen. Many new writers get so excited about the idea they have for their script that they end up constructing shallow, flat characters that no one will care about.
Make sure your script has a protagonist, not just a main character. A protagonist is someone we understand on some level, even when we can’t agree with them. A protagonist is a character that we enjoy watching and rooting for (or against). A protagonist is someone we become invested in as the story plays out. But perhaps most importantly, a protagonist is someone we see ourselves in.
2. An Antagonistic Force
Even if there’s not a specific person who serves in the role of the antagonist, there should be an antagonistic force. Otherwise, we will have no conflict, which we will discuss in a moment. For some reason, many writers fight like mad to keep a separate human antagonist character out of their stories. Sure, stories where the character is battling against something within themselves can be interesting. But we need to see something on screen. Watching someone battle inner conflicts or demons exclusively is pretty boring in a film, unless you are Terrence Malick or someone of his ilk, and let’s face it, most of us are not.
Antagonistic forces can take the form of a weather phenomenon (such as a tornado), an institution (such as a prison system), or even a shark that fights the town for control of the beach. But whatever form the force takes, it needs to be there. Writers with less than three feature scripts under their belt should consider sticking to external human antagonists before entering the tricky waters of internal antagonists or other more nuanced forces.
3. An External Goal
Without an external goal for your protagonist, your story can meander about. What are we going to watch happen on screen? Thinking and talking can be fascinating in real life. However, people rarely sell scripts that feature those activities exclusively. A good place to begin in determining your protagonist’s external goal is asking yourself what they want and what they will do to get it. The higher the stakes for reaching their goal, the better the story.
Finally, remember the external goal is just that – external. We need to be able to take a picture of it. A woman trying to find love or acceptance is interesting, but you can’t take a picture of that and have an audience understand what they are seeing. Goals such as those are also difficult because we have trouble understanding when they have been accomplished. I can take a picture, however, of a girl who finds a date to the prom. Remember, the more specific and photographable the goal, the more the audience will relate to it.
4. An Internal Goal
You might know what you want your character to accomplish in your story, but do you know why? Many times, the more general external goal we first formulate is actually a better internal goal. (See the example about finding love above.) The internal goal does not have to be photographable, so more abstract and internal processes are acceptable. Gaining respect, learning to be a better person, and overcoming selfishness are all excellent internal goals. The internal goal should be learned through the process of achieving the external goal. We enjoy seeing external goals on screen, but internal goals are why people go to movies.
At their heart, stories are about characters dealing with and overcoming conflict. We all have it. We all relate to it. We want to see characters find ways to reconcile theirs. It’s reassuring to us. If that person I love in that film I love can find a way around the things that are causing them pain, maybe I can as well. If your story is missing significant conflict, people won’t likely care. Indifference is the enemy of the scriptwriter. Cause some trouble for your characters. Create some conflict.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.