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The differences that will help you write a great script
Have a great idea for a screenplay? Congratulations! You are one step closer to having a great screenplay…but only one step. No less an authority than George RR Martin, author of the saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, which includes Game of Thrones, testified to this in a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine:
“Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”
He also downplays the importance of having a totally new idea:
“I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.”
Martin suggests that history is a great starting point:
“History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.”
Perhaps the moral is to steal your ideas wisely and apply your creativity not only to the story but how you tell it. One final encouraging word note from Martin:
“The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it’s much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose.
Of course even if he’s right, that doesn’t mean writing screenplays is easy…
For more about this fascinating writer, here’s a twenty-one minute interview:
What do we fear the most? Probably most of us wouldn’t say we’re worried about giant robots or lizards, sharks brought to us via tornados, or zombies, although all of those can be fun to watch at the movies. However, each of those does have some foundation–however distant–in reality. If you want to write a horror film it’s a good idea to start with what people really fear and then decide how realistic a version of that fear you want to create.
One common fear is the ally who turns into an enemy. History is full of double-crosses and unfortunately many of us have experienced a betrayal by someone we trusted.
On the level of realistic drama we have characters like Alex, the woman with whom the protagonist of Fatal Attraction has a fling. At first it seems like she sees the situation as he does: a one-night affair, probably a bad idea but one without lasting consequences. Of course it’s not long before we’re into bunny-boiling and he is facing a formidable enemy.
Moving on to more traditional horror territory (spoiler alert!), in Scream the boyfriend upon whom Sidney depends for protection turns out to be the killer. There are also major betrayals in Aliens, The Fellowship of the Ring, 300, Ghost, The Matrix, and many more.
It’s a fine tradition that goes back to Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, and the Bible as well. Sometimes the person doing the betraying had that in mind all along, other times something happens during the course of the story to change their loyalties.
You can decide whether the audience should know the betrayer’s intentions before your protagonist or find it out at the same moment. The former builds suspense–we wonder when the protagonist will finally figure it out; the latter generates shock. Both can be powerful but since horror movies often try for shock value, they lean more toward the latter.
In the case of a monster movie it can be the monster itself that goes from friendly to murderous. Poor old Frankenstein and King Kong both had good intentions but circumstances turned them into monsters in the eyes of the public. Or it may be a perfectly good friend whose personality changes when he becomes one of the undead.
The fear of betrayal, of people turning on us, is a survival instinct that still lives within, so why not take advantage of it to create a powerful horror script?
In future posts we’ll look at several other key fears that can be a great foundation for a horror or thriller film.
(You’re not going to turn on me by not buying my book, Your Writing Coach, are you? Not after all we’ve been through! You can get it at Amazon or your other favorite bookseller. We’re good, right? …Right?)
A lot of adventure, action and superhero movies set up a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Nothing wrong with that, as the box office results of many of these films reflect. However, if you want to write a story with more depth you’ll need to move closer to the kind of choices ordinary people face.
After all, how many times in your life have you had to choose between doing something you knew was good and something you knew was evil—I mean super-villain evil? Probably not often if at all.
On the other hand, how often have you had to decide what to do in situations where both choices had their pluses and minuses? Probably frequently. Other times both seem equally good or both seem mostly negative and you’re trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. I’m talking about dilemmas like these:
* You’re not as keen on somebody else as they are on you. If you tell them, you’ll hurt them now. If you don’t, they may get the wrong impression and it could hurt them more later.
* You know that a friend of yours is more seriously ill than she lets on. Do you let her know that you know so that you can be more helpful, or do you respect her wishes to keep her friends in the dark?
* You get a good job offer but it requires moving to another city. It will allow you to provide more for your family but it also will mean forcing your children to change schools in the middle of the school year and taking them away from their current circle of friends. Do you go or do you stay?
When you add regret to this equation, since in hindsight whichever choice we make can seem to have been the wrong one, you find yourself dealing with universals of the human condition.
Of course to craft a highly dramatic screenplay you may need to present your protagonist with choices that are more extreme but equally complicated. That’s when we begin to identify with your character, to get more involved by thinking about which choice we would make, and experiencing the results of their choice vicariously.
If you have a script that has a strong basic story but could use some additional depth, look beyond the actions of the characters to the reasons for those actions.
For instance, a kidnapper can be portrayed as just a villain motivated by greed, pure and simple. But there might be interesting aspects of that character to explore. Perhaps he was abused as a child and sees the kidnapping as a kind of rescue (even if the supposed abuse of the child he takes is all in his mind). Or maybe she finds in the course of holding the child hostage that she’s not as hard a person as she thought she was. Or maybe he feels he’s exhausted every legitimate avenue of getting money for something of true importance.
When you explore the characters in greater depth the story and dialogue gain more depth as well, and that can help even a superhero film. The vulnerability and failings of Spiderman, for example, have (in my opinion) always made him a more interesting character than Superman.
Look beyond good vs. evil, there’s character and story treasure to be found.
(Great writers like Dickens, Twain, Austen, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut knew how to create fascinating characters and put them into compelling stories. Many of these authors offered writing advice that serves the modern screenwriter or novelist, too. I’ve collected that advice and added suggestions on how to apply it to your writing. It’s all in the book called Your Creative Writing Masterclass. It’s published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)