How to Tell a Good Script from a Bad One
Pro Tip: Start with a logline
By Jen B.
Before you think about how to sell your screenplay to the top screenwriting contests you need to figure out if your screenplay is… well, actually good!
Of course, what may seem good for one person might be terrible for someone else – it’s all subjective. However, there are a few tips on how you can try to make it more impactful so that it can resonate with more audiences.
Don’t be disheartened if you feel like your script might not be making the cut, after all even the best scripts are made after hundreds of rewrites!
Here’s a list that will be an excellent guide to writing powerful screenplays:
1. How “human” are your characters?
A strong character is one that audiences can understand or relate to. This means that they need to have “human” characteristics and emotions and vulnerabilities that will make us empathize with them.
Yes, even with the antagonist. A well-fleshed out villain or anti-hero is one whose motivations leading up to the “villainous acts” are made clear by their backstory or journey. A great example is Loki from the Thor series. Not only does his journey help explain how he became the antagonist, it also makes him a much more interesting character that has a very likeable and witty sense of humor.
Another good villain (excuse the Marvel references) is Thanos. His goal is ultimately to “save the planet”, even if he did do it the wrong way, which makes him a much more multi-dimensional character with vulnerabilities.
Vulnerabilities are also important because it allows the character to have a weakness, which automatically helps create conflicts and struggles for the character to achieve their goal.
2. PLOT TWISTS!
A brilliant script is one that can get you keep you wondering “what’ll come next?”. The best part is when you are sure that you have correctly predicted the potential scenario, but the script takes it to a surprising new angle. Breaking Bad is an example of a show that received a lot of praise for its ability to continuously surprise audiences with the way it would take the storyline and characters.
The Usual Suspects is a great example of a film that makes you constantly question what is happening. Even though it feels terrible to know that we were wrong in our guess, it is also exciting if done well.
It’s difficult to write a good plot twist but it helps if you try to break your scene and leave subtle hints of what is to happen beforehand, so that when it happens, the audience can understand it, but would not have predicted it. This is also called “foreshadowing”.
But the element of surprise can also backfire, as it did in the final episodes of Game of Thrones, where the surprising character decisions did not have the right “build-up” and so it was not as impactful.
3. Show don’t tell
Exposition through dialogue is your worst enemy. Screenplay dialogue can make or break your entire story. You must be very careful about making the characters only say what they absolutely need to say. Think about it can your character show what he wants to say through his actions?
In Inception, before explaining what the concept of Inception is through dialogue, they give a demonstration through visualize by having a scene where they actually attempt to traverse someone’s subconscious.
Aside from dialogues, even when writing your screenplay, make sure that you are not telling the story in your descriptions and are showing how the scene is going through your characters…
4. Keep rewriting
Your first screenplay is definitely not the final version. Send out your scripts to screenplay editors to get multiple opinions to see if your message is getting across clearly and if it resonates with more people. You need to be committed to your story but make sure you don’t get lost in it: be open to feedback and give yourself feedback too.
Keep revisiting scenes to see how it could be made better. Sometimes it also helps to take a break and revisit again with a fresh pair of eyes – it really helps to see if the scene is really as powerful as you had imagined or if it could be made better.
5. Letting go of your imagination
Thing outrageously! You need to think outside the box and go through all possible scenarios. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the most amazing ones. Even if you have a simple concept, it could be made powerful with the right stretch of imagination. This not only allows audiences to get hooked to seeing a new concept on screen, it also keeps your story from being stagnant.
Brainstorming is all about coming up with bad ideas, and sometimes the worst idea might actually have the potential to be the best ones. A lot of fan fiction comes from people who brainstorm better, alternative endings or plot twists to films, and sometimes the fan fiction becomes more popular than the actual film.
An example of this is the ending for How I Met Your Mother, which received so much backlash that an alternative ending was released to please the audience.
6. Honestly, would you watch it?
You don’t need to go to screenwriting schools to know what you like in a film. Start making notes on the films you like watching and why you like them. This will help you get in the flow when writing your own films.
When you’re writing a scene, try to imagine whether you think you would enjoy the scene. If not, maybe it’s time to have another look on how it can go. Also make notes of scripts you didn’t like and ask yourself why it didn’t work for you.
Screenplay proofreading is a great way to keep yourself in check, even if you can’t ask too many other people for their opinions. Everyone has their own taste and viewpoint and some people may even enjoy their own interpretation of where the story should go.
The important thing is that you are able to justify the way your story goes and stay true to your characters and storyline. Remember, keep rewriting and reading and try to write a story that resonates with you.
Don’t hold back if you think it’s too real to write a story that hits you hard even if you think it will receive backlash. Joker is a good example of a film that was heavily criticized for “glorifying murder”, although some claimed that it gave a very important perspective on mental health and institutional exploitation.
Just remember: don’t give up on your story!