The three most important elements of a screenplay are theme, character and plot. If you get these three elements working smoothly with one another then you will get a good story.
In the past few months I’ve been asked to rewrite or punch-up several animated feature screenplays. But after reading and analyzing them it was obvious to me that they didn’t need rewrites or punch-ups. One for one they needed new scripts.
I could have told these producers what they wanted to hear and given them the rewrites they asked for. But I can’t operate that way. So I didn’t sugar coat it when I gave them my notes. I explained in detail what was structurally wrong with the scripts with respect to theme, character arc and plot. And one for one the producers told me that they appreciated my input, but they were happy with the scripts in general and simply wanted the dialog and comedy punched up. I can’t doctor a patient I feel is dead so I didn’t pursue the work.
I’ve written a dozen screenplays (3 produced) and over 700 television scripts (650+ produced) so I’ve learned a bit about writing. It saddens me when producers think their animated feature scripts are good enough when, in truth, they aren’t, because it means their films will fail, which diminishes the overall value of the independent animated feature market. (NB: I’m not referring to the major studios—Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Blue Sky—who spend years and millions of dollars developing wonderful stories.)
I cannot repeat it often enough: The screenplay is the single most important creative element of a motion picture.
This is especially true for animated features because producers often make the mistake of thinking that if they put all their money into pretty animation it will result in a successful film. It just ain’t so. A bad story, well animated, will always result in a flop. Whereas a good story, even if poorly animated, could very well be a major hit. Audiences come to theaters for character and plot, not pretty animation. That's just a plus.
I can’t include every element of professional screenplay structure in a blog post. It takes a book or several college courses. But I can point out the most vital basics that must be present to make a screenplay good.
THEME, CHARACTER & PLOT
The three most important elements of a screenplay—or any story for that matter—are theme, character and plot. The theme drives the character through the plot. If you get these three elements working smoothly with one another then you will get a good story. It’s simple. But it’s NOT easy.
At the beginning of a story the protagonist usually has a goal which he strongly desires but cannot attain. He cannot attain it because he is operating counter to the theme.
Take, for example, Kung Fu Panda. The protagonist, Po, literally dreams of being a kung fu master. But he cannot attain this dream because he is a fat, undisciplined dreamer.
His fat-undisciplined-dreamer characteristics are the opposite side of the theme, which is that it takes training and discipline to reach a goal.
Po also comes to believe that he needs the “secret" of the scroll to become the Dragon Warrior, and that without that secret he cannot attain his dream. This is another part of the theme, which is that there is no secret recipe to success, just hard work and determination.
It is this theme that Po slams into again and again as he encounters the plot—having to become the Dragon Warrior in order to defeat the evil Tai Lung—during act two. Po is a lazy bigmouth who is more interested in eating and boasting than getting down to the business of becoming proficient at kung fu. All of the comedy and character of act two are the result of Po pushing this incorrect (counter-thematic) attitude against the highly trained discipline of Master Shifu and the Furious Five.
Over the course of act two, the counter-efforts against Po by Shifu and the Furious Five force Po to confront and eventually discover the right side of the theme: that there is no secret; he just has to train hard and believe in himself.
When Po finally makes his thematic character change he is able to defeat Tai Lung and becomes the very kung fu Dragon Warrior he dreamed of being in the opening scene. A perfect resolution of theme, character arc and plot.
There are several more character and structural elements required to make a complete and well-written screenplay. But the above description of theme, character and plot are the guts of what makes a script work.
Kung Fu Panda is a beautifully simple yet wonderful example of great screenplay structure. I highly recommend every producer read it and analyze it. If they can recognize the simplicity and quality of the thematic, character and plot elements, perhaps they will understand why most scripts need more than just comedy and dialog punch-ups.
©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved
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