Six Ways to Improve Your Screenplay
Elan Mastai explores how to rethink your writing, avoid unoriginality and reveal yourself through your writing.
By Elan Mastai.
At some point, all writers get writer’s block. And when you get stuck, it’s natural to reach for something you know has worked before: a cliché.
Of course we all want to write the most original, unexpected, vivid version of our story. Usually, the main challenge isn’t imagination—it’s time. Great writing takes time. The less time you have, the more likely you’ll fall back on some stock trope to get you through whatever narrative obstacle you’re facing.
Writing is tough even when you’re being completely unoriginal, let alone when you’re actually trying to do something unique. We’ve all heard people say that you can’t teach someone to write. I disagree—you can teach someone to write. But I don’t know if you can teach someone to be curious and observant about human nature, which is what makes writing come alive.
Getting un-stuck is about rejecting cliché whenever you can, by always grounding your story in the realistic, authentically human choices your characters make. That’s a writing lesson that can take a lifetime to learn. But if you, like many of us, are a little short on lifetimes, here are some quick ideas for the struggling scribe.
Set the hook by forcing a choice
As early as possible in a screenplay, I try to write a scene where the protagonist has to make a decision between two clear choices. Right off the top, I want the audience to be able to make a decision—either “This character is like me” or “This character is not like me.”
Neither choice is wrong. It’s all about what’s right for your story. But it gives the audience an immediate sense of how to relate to the main character. Are they the same or are they different?
Strong, clear early choices get you in the habit of showing your character making actual decisions. These can be everyday choices in the beginning of your script or, as the plot takes off, choices made under increasing, relentless pressure.
If your protagonist comes off as too vague or too stock or simply too bland to carry your movie, try this: On page one of your screenplay, create a situation where your character has to choose between two options with clear consequences. Let them reveal who they are to the audience as soon as possible. Because that also means they’ll reveal themselves to you as the writer.
Forget subtlety for one draft
We all want to be subtle writers. I’m pro-subtlety! Often, though, we get to the subtle version by writing the obvious version first.
Often a vague, muddy Act Two happens because you didn’t effectively communicate your character’s goals to the audience in Act One. They sort of-kind of-more or less get the gist of it, but if you asked them, they wouldn’t immediately be able to say what your protagonist wants. That can make your Act Two feel aimless. Often, when someone says your second act feels too long, it’s not about page count, it’s because they never got a clear sense of where you were taking them, or why they were going.
Try writing a scene at the very beginning of Act Two where your protagonist just… says what they want. States their goal in clear, direct language.
Does anyone ever need to see the sledgehammer obvious version you wrote? No! But this might help you realize that you actually don’t have a clear handle on those goals, either: “What is my protagonist’s actual goal? And what is the crucial difference between the thing they think they want and the thing they truly need?”
That’s what writing this kind of on-the-nose scene is actually about—teasing out the conflict between your protagonist’s stated goal versus the true destination that your movie has in store for them.
Again, this scene doesn’t need to survive past your first draft. But once it exists, it can inform everything that comes after it. Afterwards, you may just remove it.
Don’t answer too quickly
A pretty good Act One isn’t that hard to write. Because it’s just asking questions. Questions aren’t the hard part. The hard part is the answers. In classic storytelling advice: Put your hero up a tree, throw stones at them—but then get them down.
By questions and answers I mean plot—why did your hero go up that tree and how will they get down?—but also character and theme. A good Act One raises them narrative questions, psychological questions, philosophical questions, and so on. But at some point you have to make decisions about what the best possible answers might be. You’ll lay out your final answers in Act Three, but the path to finding those answers is in Act Two, that rocky, investigative middle section.
A problem I often see in early drafts is that the protagonist already seems to have all the answers before they’ve even started their journey through the plot. They have nothing to learn because the writer already knows where they’re going. Writing demands injecting a certain amount of willful blindness into your characters. You may know the answer, but your protagonist is still searching, making the kind of mistakes that keeps your plot moving forward.
Write a “supposed-to” ending
The end of Act Two is one of the hardest parts of the script to write. When I get stuck, I think about it like this: The Act Two break is the moment where your protagonist thinks the movie is supposed to end. That’s how they need to behave, as if the actions they’re taking at the end of Act Two are what will definitively resolve the essential conflict of the movie.
They’re wrong, of course. They don’t know that it’s only minute 70 of a 100-minute narrative. Their choices backfire. They think they have the answers, but they’re the wrong answers, or, at least, incomplete. The movie isn’t done with them yet. They haven’t finished learning, growing, changing.
Make everyone’s lives worse
We spend so much time with our characters that we grow to love them. So we don’t want to kick them when they’re down. In real life, if someone you care about is hurting, you don’t actively try to make things worse.
But we have to make it worse for our characters. Tough choices made under pressure are how you find out who someone is at their core—in stories and in real life. It’s easy to do the right thing when everything’s going great. It’s a lot harder when everything’s going to hell. Love your characters enough to make bad things happen to them, so the audience can find out who they really are.
(To clarify, this is writing advice, not life advice—don’t do horrible things to the people you actually love in the real world. I mean, unless they deserve it.)
So if you’re feeling stuck in Act Three, look at the sequence of events from the beginning of Act Three to the climax and ask yourself, “Are things getting progressively worse for my protagonist? Or have I unintentionally made them incrementally better without realizing I’ve sabotaged my ending?”
Going back to the hero up the tree idea: Sometimes in Act Three, without meaning to, we show our characters slowly but surely working their way down the tree, branch to branch, getting closer and closer to the ground. They go around fixing a bunch of smaller issues in their lives, building up the tools to face the big challenge of the climax.
It’s totally reasonable. It’s even realistic. But it often fatally undercuts the climax, draining away the tension and boring the audience.
The best endings usually come down to a choice, a big, life-changing decision with irreversible consequences whatever way the protagonist goes. And the most satisfying version of this climactic choice is going to happen if everything from end of Act Two has made your protagonist’s life worse. Don’t have them carefully ease their way down the tree. Make them jump.
Be fully yourself in the ending, if nowhere else
Sometimes problems littered throughout your script are just symptoms of a more fundamental issue: your ending.
The ending is where all the infinite storytelling possibilities fade away and you have to take a stand: “How does my story resolve?” On the way there, you can show off all you want with twists and turns and gimmicks and techniques, but in the end you have to make a final decision. It’s not about what could happen, it’s what you, the writer, believes must happen.
Boy meets girl. Do they get married and live happily ever after? Does their initial attraction fizzle and they eventually break up… only to start the cycle again with someone else? Does one murder the other and plot to cover it up? What do you have to say? That’s what you have to write. If you don’t, it’ll feel false.
So, just like your protagonist should make a revealing choice on the first page, you have to make a revealing choice on the last page. A writer can hide in his own scripts, concealing his true beliefs, taking the audience down a narrative path that teases countless potential outcomes… until the end. That’s where you have to reveal yourself. If you don’t, your ending will never really land.
Sure, you can write something that works structurally, weaving together plot strands and resolving character arcs in a pleasantly schematic way. But it won’t affect the audience the way your favorite movie endings affect you. Why bother writing anything, if you won’t at least try to live up to the movies that made you want to write in the first place?
Like your characters, you’ll make your share of bad choices and good choices as a writer. And, like your characters, a strong choice boldly made is always going to be more interesting than a timid choice made weakly.
So choose. You can always rewrite it later. In fact, you will.
This article originally appeared on the MovieMaker website. MovieMaker Magazine is the nation’s leading resource on the art and business of making movies and the world’s most widely read independent film magazine.