It’s the Best of Times for Scriptwriters and the Worst of Times
By Jeff Kitchen
It’s a truly great time to be a scriptwriter today because there’s such an explosion of opportunity. All the new production entities and streaming services need so much product, and producers constantly tell me they’re starving for people who can write. So it is indeed a “golden age of opportunity and adventure” to quote Blade Runner, but only if you know how to make scripts work. The problem is that 99% of all scripts submitted are rejected, and that is an alarming fact.
The problem is that dramatic writing is a completely different process than most people think it is—nothing like writing a novel or telling a story around the water cooler. Of course it’s storytelling, but the story has to be dramatized so it can be performed by actors and continuously grip an audience. It’s a tricky art form and most people have no idea just how demanding the craft is. They rush home from a great movie, all excited to write a script and become a millionaire. What could be easier or more fun? But writing a great script, it turns out, is extraordinarily hard to do, and takes a unique and rare set of skills.
Dramatic Writing is Notoriously Elusive
Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s notoriously tricky and slippery, unpredictable and hard to do well consistently. Something can look great on paper and then fail on screen. Scripts can falter at a key point, and no one can figure out how to get it working. The same basic story done two different ways can see one of them go huge and the other go down in flames, and it can be hard to tell what the first one has that the second lacks.
You’re Building a Complex Mechanism
There is so much craft involved that it’s akin to designing and building a nuclear attack sub on your own from scratch. Without proper training, the chances of finishing a submarine that’s watertight, can navigate the world’s oceans, detect enemies without being seen, stay submerged for months, launch devastating attacks, evade enemies and repel attacks, survive multiple catastrophic scenarios, keep hundreds of sailors alive and comfortable for years in extreme conditions, and so much more reliably for decades, is astronomically slim. This may seem like an extreme example, but the hard fact is that virtually no one can consistently make scripts work. Of course, the top-level people are great at it, but then it falls off a cliff because 99% of scripts are rejected.
Producers are Starving for Good Writers
The problem is quite real. A top writer-producer just told me their bottleneck is finding writers who can really write, not just show up with a good writing sample. It’s a chronic problem that’s plagued producers for decades and is not getting any better. If what you’re writing doesn’t work, then it’s gibberish to the people who need a script to shoot. You either know how to write drama or you don’t, and it’s an extraordinarily specific skill.
Whether you’re writing for the movies, TV, or Broadway, you’re writing for a performance medium. You are adapting or translating a story into drama—telling the story through actors on stage (film, TV, or theater) for an audience. This is the craft of the dramatist—dramatizing stories for performance.
It’s All About the Audience
You’ve either got the audience engaged or you don’t. If they’re not on the edge of their seats, then it doesn’t work. Drama is not about story. Mere narrative does not make something work on stage. It must be dramatically engaging, which means that the audience is compelled to see what happens next. The degree to which they’re in doubt is a measure of the dramatic intensity of the story.
A movie playing to an empty theater has no power. It’s just shadows on the wall. The power of a film resides in the response of the audience. Whether it’s a gripping drama or a goofy comedy, it has to work dramatically. Liar, Liar with Jim Carrey is a slapstick comedy but it’s compelling.
Continuous Coherent Dramatic Action
Part of the trick is to keep them engaged consistently, with no dead spots. You need continuous, coherent, compelling dramatic action. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts, but a state of action that you put the audience in as they actively work to figure out how the story will turn out. If they’re not on the edge of their seats, then you’re not dramatizing your story fully and completely.
The picture seen above has about 1,000 people in it. Only ten of them would know how to really make scripts work. This is an extreme situation—that so many lack the fundamental skills even though they’re all working hard at it. If this was 1,000 licensed plumbers, they’d all be able to install a hot water heater safely and reliably in your home. They’re trained to that standard. Producers are looking through 1,000 scripts by professional writers who went to film school and have agents, and only finding a handful who can write effective drama. That is the craft of the dramatist, and it takes considerable training and experience to master.
Master the Craft of the Dramatist
There are so many things that must be done right to make an effective drama, in any genre. All the parts of the story need to be integrated into the one main action. You see this in an orchestra where all the musicians are doing different things, but they’re all working together to create one piece of music. This is called structural unity.
You tend to want your protagonist to be trapped in a Dilemma of magnitude, which means he or she is caught between two equally unacceptable choices. Many people use term dilemma, but most don’t know what it is or how to properly use it in a script. They think it’s a problem, like the office manager has to find the missing thumb drive before the critical meeting. But that’s a problem, not a dilemma. In the movie Training Day, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), is caught between his ambition and his moral compass, desperate to make Alonzo’s (Denzel Washington) elite undercover narcotics squad but at the same time fighting to stay clear of Alonzo’s criminal activities.
Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action, Resolution, Theme
This dilemma builds to a make-or-break juncture, the Crisis, which forces the protagonist into a Decision and Action about the dilemma, which leads to the Resolution—the protagonist actively and conclusively resolving the dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme of the story. Being able to clearly articulate the theme that’s emerging organically in your story is crucial because it helps give shape, tone, and direction to your story. Many people don’t grasp exactly what Theme is or how to build a script around it, so they lose its fundamental strength.
The Enneagram for Building Characters
Character development is very demanding, as each major player needs specific traits, tendencies, and flaws. The Enneagram is a remarkably powerful resource for this. A personality-profiling system that’s based on ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, it provides a deep and complex reservoir from which to build characters.
The 36 Dramatic Situations for Brainstorming
Many scripts suffer from a weak underlying story. This is a huge factor in how many scripts are rejected. People put so much work into a weak premise, lacking the crucial skill to evaluate ideas and reject poor material. Bad grapes will not make good wine, and well-structured crap is still crap. One tool that can really help amplify an idea is the 36 Dramatic Situations. A list of story elements, like Ambition, Disaster, Pursuit, and Revolt, it offers possibilities for breaking a story out of cliché, raising the stakes, violating poor choices, and shaking things up in a good way. People with less writing skills make safe choices and don’t like getting in over their head, but end up with mediocre scripts that no one wants.
Solid research helps too because digging deep into an idea can open up dynamic possibilities. Brainstorming explores extreme options that can catapult you into a bigger and much more dynamic arena. The more craft you have, the more you can afford to make adventurous choices.
Using Logic to Pull Your Whole Story Together
All the previous tools provide dynamic components for your story, but until you pull them all together into one coherent plot, you’ve only got a bunch of clever components. A tool called the Proposition uses the power of logic to pull all the parts together, fusing everything into one main action. Then you can begin plot construction.
Plot Construction is a Key Skill
Plot construction can seem foreign to amateur writers who just start writing scenes without a deep knowledge of how the whole story works. That’s generally a recipe for disaster because if the big picture doesn’t work then the details don’t matter. A well-written scene in a script that doesn’t work is worthless.
Get the Overall Story Right First
It’s important to work from the general to the specific, getting the big picture working before addressing details. Control of details is crucial because the work of the amateur is characterized by the Unnecessary, with dialog and description overwritten, entire scenes that are unnecessary, sequences that are bloated or unneeded, acts that are bloated and occasionally unnecessary. Sometimes even an entire script is unnecessary. That might sound funny unless you’re a studio script reader and you’ve read thousands of unnecessary scripts. Proper technique will free you from the profusion of unnecessary detail.
Work Backwards From Your Ending
One way to do that is by working backward from your ending, chaining back from each effect to its cause. Doing this for the overall story gives you the major building blocks, the spine, of your story. Once you have that, you then do the same for each act, fleshing out a little more detail as it becomes necessary. Then you do it for each sequence, layering in just a little more detail. Next you do it for the first scene and then you write that scene. It has only that which is necessary and nothing else. And by identifying and amplifying conflict in the overall story, each act, each sequence, and each scene, you make sure your audience is continually on the edge of their seats. This three-step tool is called Sequence, Proposition, Plot and is remarkably powerful for plot construction and story development.
Engineer Your Script Properly Before You Write it
The essence of good craft as a dramatist is that you can take most of the energy that goes into rewrites and use it to properly engineer a script before writing it. This systematic approach gives you excellent control of your developing story even as it gives you total creative freedom to continually invent and adjust as you layer more and more detail into the growing story.
Master Dramatic Writing and Forge a Career
So the scriptwriting is radically harder than most people suspect, and it’s an extremely unforgiving medium. Your script either works or it doesn’t. If your hobby is building airplanes, then you need extreme expertise in their design and construction because getting it almost right isn’t worth anything at all. The craft is learnable, but it’s much harder and more complex than most people suspect, and if you want to make a consistent living at it you need to put a couple years into mastering the skills. A weekend seminar won’t do the trick, and merely having a clever story won’t get you across the finish line if you’re not an expert dramatist. But when you master the craft, there are thousands of producers out there hunting for you, and the sky’s the limit.
Jeff Kitchen trains scriptwriters in his three-month and two-year programs at http://script.kitchen. A top-rated teacher, Jeff has trained thousands of writers from Broadway to Hollywood, with former students nominated for multiple Oscars and Emmy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars. Jeff’s two-year program is a rigorous online apprenticeship that trains you by constantly building multiple scripts in a challenging workshop format.