SIX REQUIREMENTS OF A SCREENPLAY
By Scott Carr
I’ve only written five screenplays in my lifetime, but the number I’ve read is one I don’t think I can accurately calculate. I’ve read many books on the craft of screenwriting and literary writing in general, as well as received a Bachelor’s degree in the medium. With all that “education,” I really have only six personal, immutable requirements from a screenplay (which are largely contextual), and I leave everything else as it relates to the content open to surprising me with a wide range of creative expression that is a screenwriter’s imagination.
1. Make me feel something. Scare me, make me cry, laugh, make me angry, excited, something. If I feel at the end like I did at the beginning, either rewrite it, write another script, or send it to someone without emotional expectations for your story.
2. Use active, cinematic language. Make me see, hear, and feel the characters and the world. The story and everything in it ultimately needs to exist onscreen, so it should be expressed in a way that serves the translation and be written like it’s worthy of that expensive transposition.
3. Have a voice, but not JUST a voice. If I’m going to spend time reading the script, I’d definitely prefer it be told in a creative and engaging way. But that voice will not survive the literal translation to the screen, as it will go through a process of interpretation and visualization by myriad people hired to bring it to life. Your script needs to inspire that investment, but it also needs to survive it. So, when the voice is inevitably stripped away, the story still better execute, the characters better stand on their own, and the dialogue better pop. There needs to be more fire on the page than smoke when it comes to getting material produced. Or – even though you may be an effective writer – you may be an ineffective screenwriter without the bigger picture of the process in mind.
4. Contextualize and authenticate your world on the page. Don’t assume I understand it, care about it, or know what it looks like. It’s the writer’s job to efficiently and cogently enroll me in the world, invest me in the story, and engage in me the characters. Don’t be lazy or presumptuous about that. I won’t fill in the large gaps – find ways to bridge them. While keeping the plot moving, don’t forget to create the world along with it.
5. Love your story, but write it for others. Be a sharer. A giver. A humble vessel or vehicle through which the story flows so that others can appreciate it and enjoy it just as much as the writer who slaved over it. Your story is a gift for another person, so make it about how it makes them feel rather than how it makes you feel – let that be a byproduct of effectively accomplishing the former. I can tell when writers write just for themselves and the way it makes them feel, and I recommend you keep those stories for yourself (because everybody needs personal, private inspiration once in a while). Send me what you’ve written for the pleasure of others. And then everybody wins, including the writer.
6. Operate from a theme. Tell stories that are actually about something meaningful, even if it’s deep down. There’s too much noise, vapidity, and insignificance that we deal with, so please don’t make your script more of that.
And if I’m not one of the people you want to read your scripts, then you have six fewer things to concern yourself with if any of these don’t resonate with you. They are by no stretch rules, laws, or facts.
I have a professional responsibility to service a specific writer community and expose material to a specific buyer community, regardless of my personal preferences about material. But I love the job even more when I get to handle material that lives up to these criteria. I’d like to think these personal requirements make material stronger and give it a better chance to go the distance from page to screen.
Lastly, having actually written five screenplays (albeit many years ago now), I know it’s a feat to get from FADE IN to FADE OUT, so regardless of what’s in between, there’s honor in embarking on and completing the process. It’s just the quality of the in-between that determines if it’s a career or a hobby.