What are the ingredients of a good script?

August 19th, 2010 by Ron
The Script Blogger

When you watch a movie the script is an invisible component, the silent foundation of the film.

Understanding the importance of the script requires an understanding of the various ingredients that make up a good script.

In the words of Alfred Hitchcock, “There are three things you need to make a good movie; a good script, a good script and a good script.

So what are the ingredients of a good script?

Firstly the premise in which a theme is presented through a concept that becomes the embodiment of a story.

Once the concept is established in the mind of the writer, other ingredients have to be combined in a fluidly that conveys the story as a smooth movement easily comprehend by a reader of the screenplay and eventually the director and actors.

Many writers put down their initial thoughts in an outline before beginning to write the screenplay. .

The outline is a plan to write a plan, almost like a map of where the writer wants to go with the story and that often includes a sketch of the main characters, where and how the beginning and ending of the three acts will take place and what the climax, the destination, of the story is.

The chances are the writer will be more successful in conveying the story if they have a map and the outline is the map.

Once the writer begins to put the story into the composition of a screenplay the other ingredients of a good script come into play.

STRUCTURE giving the screenplay pace and incidents in the right place within the script, which will translate to timing within the movie.

This is difficult to achieve for new writers as it requires a discipline in timing and understanding of the three act structure of a screenplay, the setup, the journey and the destination, with a point of decision or point of no return for the main character halfway through the second act.

The acts are normally divided as act one being the first quarter of the script, act two, the second and third quarter of the script leading to the third act, the last quarter,.

Simply put as 25%, 50%, 25%, with the climax as the last half of the third act.

ACTION which is seen as movement in a film, sometimes refereed to as ‘The Business’ is the descriptive text of what is happening and where it is happening.

When writing ‘The Business’, it is important to think very visually as every movement in your script will be what (hopefully) ends up on the screen.

It is easy to think you’ve described an action when in fact you’ve written ‘What Happened’ not ‘WHAT IS HAPPENING’.

This is referred to as the difference between TELLING and SHOWING. In a good screenplay the action is shown not told and it is written in the present tense.

In many scripts the action scenes are incorrectly written in the past tense.

The first thing to realise about film is everything happens now. The eventual audience see everything for the first time as it is shown on the screen. Even a Flashback, is in reality seen in real time on the screen.

The writer has to achieve this in their text.

A common fault is to take to long to set the scene for the action and then loosely describe the action.

Action scenes are the main thrust of a script. They move the story forward often better than dialogue.

You can help to show your characters temperament through action, fill in the missing spaces, add to your characters arc, bring excitement to your script, humour,  drama, emotion, pathos, in fact anything you want. But it has to be believable and relevant.

Relevant is a BIG word in scripts. Many writers include superfluous scenes that bring nothing to their story, often taking the reader out of the flow.

Watch any DVD these days and most will have a selection of deleted scenes.

Think of the cost to the production company filming a scene only to have it end up on the cutting room floor.

Many times those deleted scenes will have actors who were only included in that scene. Fortunately they got paid for their time, but in reality their character was superfluous and their performance unnecessary.

Whose fault is that?  Initially the writers.

In a Spec Script the writer must indicate action without stating camera angles, choice of lens or type of shot. It is the director’s camera skills that heighten the pace and sometimes the velocity of action.

Keep your text to a minimum to achieve the pace and finally make it realistic.

And don’t include un-filmable things such as what a person is thinking, expecting or hoping to happen. If it can’t be filmed don’t include it.

Not all action is dramatic but every bit of the business must be relative. It must entice the reader to want to read on. It must help paint the total image of the finished product and it must move the story forward.

Dialogue during action should enhance the scene, not distract and it should be snappy, easy to say and relevant; both to the character and the scene.

The action allows for many opportunities to move the story forward.

Scriptwriting is a massive jigsaw of words and as with a jigsaw the complete picture should not be revealed until the last few parts are in placed.

So it becomes important when to reveal something or not.

The action allows the placement relative to your timing. It can also be used to increase the pace of your story or slow it down.

When writing a script you constantly have to think of the visual representation of your text. Will it transpose to the screen?

This is most important with your character’s emotions and is an ideal place for their emotions to show.

For a script to work the reader must associate with the characters. Many top actors only accept roles because of the character they are going to play.

They find an affinity with the character or they feel the role stretches their acting skills. It is your writing that has to achieve this when they read your script.

The more they can visualise your character the better.

It is worth considering the word the director calls before shooting a scene; “ACTION”.

Make it real, keep it brief, question the relevance and most of all KEEP IT VISUAL.

One trick is to use INTERCUT so that two and sometimes three locations can be highlighted within one scene.

In a way editing the action as you would like to see it on screen. I don’t recommend this is overused but it can add to the pace and reality of the setting.

Action in a screenplay works best if the writer presents it in short passages, nothing over four or five lines. Five being the absolute maximum.

Clever descriptive text will create camera positions in the logic of the visual interpretation, creating the keys points to highlight.

It helps the reader visualise the action. It helps the director plan the scene.

It helps the pace and most importantly it describes what eventually the audience WILL SEE.

Another area to concentrate on is Dialogue.

Remember dialogue should not be a monologue and while characters are talking something should be happening visually on screen.

Aim to keep dialogue short, snappy and very relevant to the character delivering the line.

Through dialogue a writer presents the voice and often the mannerisms of a character.

Again emotions can be shown through dialogue as easily as action but it is when the two work as one that real emotion is captured both on the page and on the screen.

Good dialogue appears natural and not contrived; it fits the character’s profile and personality.

Actions and dialogue are not the be all and solution to everything pay attention to the Settings, locations, period, order of scenes and continuity as they all play a part in giving a script a flow.

Making the screenplay a page turner but through all of this it must be formatted to industry expectations.

Not forgetting the importance of memorable characters in an original story with Conflict running though the screenplay like blood running through your veins.

It is only when all this comes together in one document that it can be referred to as A Good Screenplay.

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