How to Write a Screenplay That Sells
- October 22, 2015
- Posted by: HalCroasmun
- Category: Articles
How to write a screenplay — Is there a formula?
There's a quote I've heard around Hollywood many times — "Every writer is just one script away from a career." Translated, it means that with the right screenplay, you're in business.
So, how do you write that one screenplay that sells? For some people, that "one script" is their first. For others, it is their 20th. It all depends on how fast you gain an understanding of the skills and concepts that make a highly marketable screenplay.
To learn how to write a screenplay that sells, let's discuss what you need to succeed in this business:
- A solid plan that can produce success.
- The resources to make that plan happen.
- The willingness to do what it takes to make the plan happen.
Before you think that I just said "If you have a plan and resources, you can succeed," look back and you'll see more in those three lines.
First, it is a SOLID plan that CAN PRODUCE SUCCESS. That means that it considers the marketplace and what they will buy and it gives you a step-by-step process to produce that quality of screenplay and get it to the buyers.
Second, you need the RESOURCES to MAKE THAT PLAN happen. This means time, effort, and money when necessary. But money is the least of the three, by far. Most importantly, you need to acquire the skills to write at the quality level that Hollywood requires.
Third, you need the willingness to make that plan happen. I am often inspired by screenwriters who continue to take whatever effort is required. When I watch a writer enter my classes at a low level and five months later, send me a screenplay that is written at a professional level, I'm inspired. When I see a writer who has a great script promote it to everyone who could possibly buy it, I'm inspired. When I hear back from a writer who started only two years ago and yesterday, she had her script optioned, I'm inspired.
Before I present the first part of a plan that could work for you, there is one more thing that you must know.
IMPORTANT: To create a truly marketable script, you plan and design it from the very first step in the process. Marketability doesn't just appear after you've written your screenplay. You have to know how to write a screenplay from a marketablity perspective in the idea phase.
You'd be amazed how many times a writer has asked me how to make their script marketable…after they've written it. Their story may be wonderful, but from a "marketability perspective," it has major problems at the concept level, the outline level, the structural level, and in many other places.
Instead of that, what if you build marketability into your script from the very first decision?
Here's a 11-step plan that we use in the ProSeries Professional Screenwriting Program that produces writing and projects at a professional level:
1. Start with a marketable concept.
In the first weekend of any movie release, two things sell the movie to an audience — the concept and bankable actors.
Here's the good news, you have 100% control over one of those extremely important factors — the concept. Isn't that amazing? As a writer, you actually have more control of whether a movie does well at that box office than most Studio execs.
A marketable concept is one that is unique in a significant way and appealing to a wide audience.
Make sure your concept is as marketable as possible. This is the place where the screenwriter has the greatest power. Don't waste your chance to "Wow!" them with your concept.
2. Create characters that A-list actors will want to play.
Most likely, you won't be able to interact directly with A-list actors, but it is still very important that your characters are appealing to bankable actors.
Because the public attends movies with stars they like. So it is easier for a producer to secure funding for a script they have stars attached to. Naturally, that is one of the first things producers look for in a script.
3. Outline your script to make sure every part of it is dramatic and fresh.
If you want to make sure your story is marketable and will work for a Hollywood production company or Studio, take a few days to create an amazing outline.
I get so many scripts submitted that have problems that could easily have been solved in the outline stage. Instead, the writer is willing to do ten different rewrites to avoid creating an outline in the beginning.
Here's a tip: If you can't create a compelling outline for the story, your script will probably never be more than mediocre.
When you create an outline, you have the chance to test the quality of your plot, subplots, scenes, twists, turns, opening, ending, etc. It is so much easier to solve problems before the story is covered with thousands of words and images.
Even more important, the outline is the chance to design even more amazing situations into your story. Often, looking at a 10- page outline will have you see many places you can improve to bring your story to a professional level.
Don't let anything keep you from the creative opportunities that outlining can provide.
4. Write a great opening that will engage the reader and audience.
While the Indie market may be accepting of slow openings, the Hollywood market isn't.
Some people think it takes many pages to reveal character. I think you can start on page one and reveal your characters through their first actions and lines of dialogue. It isn't an easy thing to do, but it is doable, and that will have your writing stand out as professional.
Remember, your first page is your first impression. If you make it a great one, you'll have the reader, agent or producer feel like they are in the hands of a professional. That's the first impression you want, isn't it?
Read the article I wrote earlier titled Your First Page Sells Your Script and you'll see what I'm talking about. You'll also see some great examples of how the first page can engage the reader.
5. Make sure every scene is extremely engaging.
Properly designed, each scene will re-engage the reader's attention. One scene will lure them in. The next will surprise them. The next will create suspense. Follow that with an ironic scene, then a crucible scene.
Whatever order you choose, you need to make sure of two things:
- That you have a variety of different scene structures to make sure the script doesn't feel predictable.
- That for each scene, you choose the scene structure that will yield the most value in terms of curiosity, drama, and entertainment.
Scene structure is overlooked by many, but it can be a major asset.
6. Make sure every page demands that the reader reads on.
In general, readers are overworked. So your job is to make it almost impossible to put your script down until every page has been read.
By the end of each page, you want them wondering or worrying about what will happen next. The more they are curious about the future of your story, the more likely they'll continue reading.
It could be as simple as a line of dialogue calling the protagonist's goal into doubt or the entire scene could put your protagonist into the worst spot of their life. Just keep them wondering and your script will get read.
7. Use terse description that gives more meaning than words.
Brief. Concise. Crisp. Get it?
Just as important, many times, a short sentence can deliver more emotion and power than an entire page when you've selected the right words. This is especially true of initial character descriptions.
If you want great description, practice finding ways to deliver a powerful message with as few words as possible.
8. Have dialogue that actors will fight to keep in the script.
Imagine dialogue that is full of subtext, anticipation, and surprise. If you provide that and deliver maximum character in most of your lines, actors will absolutely love you.
Great dialogue comes from understanding your characters very well, but it also comes from having the flexibility to create 25 or 50 or even 100 different ways to say the same line. And that means truly understanding the different places a character might deliver a line from.
Consider a character who drops their plate in a restaurant. What would they say if they were embarrassed? How about angry? How about if they have a strong need for attention? What if one of their traits is "humorous?" Or "violent?" Or "sophisticated." Notice how a small change in the character will change their dialogue in the same situation.
The more you know about different types of dialogue structures, the more amazing your characters and their dialogue will be.
9. Finish with a 3rd Act that generates the BUZZ that is necessary to get the script sold.
Your third act should take the conflict and tension farther than either the first or second acts. It should have the following components, but they should deliver more emotion and meaning than anything we've seen so far.
- Turning point that propels us toward the final conflict.
- An emotional crisis that demands a confrontation.
- The climax where the protagonist and their biggest fear (often the antagonist) come face to face to fight it out.
- The final scenes that bring the movie to a resolution.
Done correctly, the third act will be the most engaging of all the acts and it will bring the movie to a close that leaves an audience breathless.
BTW, it is not the "formula" that delivers this quality entertainment experience, it is two extremely important qualities that are missing from the majority of the scripts sent to Hollywood. Those are:
- Giving the surprising, yet inevitable experience.
- Having the final pages deliver profound meaning.
Bring those two qualities to your ending and you will be a star.
10. Design marketing materials and a marketing plan that will get the script in the hands of the right producers.
You've written an amazing script that has a High Concept and now it is time to market it. At this point, please don't make the mistake that most screenwriters make — writing a synopsis/query letter that tells your story.
"What?! Why wouldn't I tell my story?" you must be asking.
Because telling your story is different than "selling" your story, that's why. 99% of the marketing materials I see are so poorly written that only desperate "producers" will request them.
You need to switch hats. Take off the "screenwriting hat" and put on the "marketing hat." As an expert in marketing, you have one objective — to hook the top producers into demanding your script!
So every word of your marketing materials needs to be designed to build more and more curiosity until the producer becomes obsessed with reading your script. Often, that means "selling" your story in a completely different way than you would "tell" it.
Once your marketing materials do that, you do some simple research to generate a list of 25 – 50 (or more) producers who may possibly be interested in your project. Targeting the right producers is a valuable strategy that dramatically increases your chances of REAL success.
11. Whatever the result, return four months later with the next High Concept script.
This business isn't about one project. It is about consistently returning to your contacts with the next great movie. Do that and you'll build a career. Even if this one doesn't sell, you are still creating a reputation. If the writing is great, they'll want to read your next script.
So get back on the horse. Generate another High Concept idea and pour your soul into the writing. Go through the first eleven steps again. This time you may have a sale and guess what? The second your next script sells, they'll want to take another look at this one. Hollywood is famous for rejecting script after script, then the moment you become hot stuff, they buy the same scripts they passed on.
Every one of these steps is covered well in the ProSeries where writers learn over 300 professional skills to write a professional screenplay.
Master these eleven steps and you'll most certainly have a career as a paid screenwriter. If that is truly your dream, you should do whatever it takes to become highly proficient at each step.
Remember, you are one script away from a career — if that screenplay is a true masterpiece. You can do it!