What is the #1 most important ingredient of every great screenplay?
Is it great characters?
Although it helps to have great characters some good films have terrific plots with fairly shallow characters, yet we keep watching.
This helps, too, but I’m sure you can remember watching a film with a thin plot but riveting characters.
Some of the “highest” concepts make for the lowest box office.
As important as these elements are, there is one thing far more important to a great screenplay. It underlies all of the above elements. It is the stuff that makes life worth living. It is...interest.
If you can keep your reader interested for 120 pages you’ve succeed in writing a great script.
What makes a great character? He or she is someone who makes you interested to see what choices they’ll make, what they’ll do in dramatic situations, what they’ll say to a lover or an enemy.
What makes great plot? Story reveal that keeps you interested in what will happen next.
How do you create interest? By teasing your audience. Tell them what they want to see, then show it to them. Slowly!
Striptease artists learned this ages ago. The audience wants to see their body (well, at least the testosterone-pumping men do). But how does the stripper hold their interest so they’ll keep buying drinks—or popcorn—for 2 hours? If she just takes off her clothes and reveals herself the audience will get a quick blast, then their interest will fade. Been there, seen that. But if the stripper slowly unwraps her boa, then kicks off a fishnet stocking, constantly hiding what the audience came to see, giving little glimpses and flashes, she’s got their interest hooked like a bass after a wiggling worm. And she’ll keep it.
Ever read a “page turner” novel? Me, too. You just have to turn that page and keep reading. Why? Because the author has told you what you’re going to see in such a way that you want to see it. Then he reveals part of what he promised you, while at the same time expanding on the promise.
The same is true with screenplays.
Ever wonder why virtually every alien movie doesn’t show you the alien until halfway through the movie or later? They hook your interest by promising you something out of this world. The best example of this is the original Alien. Director Ridley Scott did a phenomenal job of teasing the audience with slow yet horrific reveal. We saw the alien’s nest. We saw its eggs. We saw its embryo. We saw its explosive birth. We heard it growing. We saw its tail. We saw flashes of its shadowy form. Not until deep into the movie did we see the actual alien.
This is the process of creating interest.
There’s a jillion ways to do it, but the basics are always the same: insinuate what the audience is going to see, play it up as big as you can within the context—action, emotion, sex, horror—then give them one small bite at a time, each taste expanding the promise in the audience’s mind, teasing a bigger taste to come.
Create and maintain growing interest in the reader and you’ve got a winning screenplay.
But there’s one more thing that’s even more important than interest. It’s so vital and so consistently effective, that with this single ingredient you’re guaranteed to create interest so strong that if you put it in your screenplay it’s virtually guaranteed to keep a studio exec riveted to your script. What is it?
Actually, there’s no such thing. But I’ll bet I piqued your interest.
©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved