To sell a screenplay, you need a great idea. Unfortunately, great ideas alone are never enough. To turn a great idea into a great movie, you also need great execution in turning your idea into a great screenplay.
To see two movies with great ideas but for execution, just watch bad movies like “Sex Tape” or “Nine Lives.” The great idea behind “Sex Tape” is what if a couple accidentally filmed a sex tape of themselves that got released over the Internet? That’s a great premise for a comedy, but the movie itself is relatively boring partly because every scene fails to deliver laughs.
“Nine Lives” is also a comedy about an arrogant businessman who ignores his family until one day he’s magically trapped inside the body of a cat where he must learn to appreciate his family or be trapped as a cat forever. Like “Sex Tape,” “Nine Lives” has a great premise, but also fails to deliver.
The key to execution is to make every scene reflect your main story. For example, “Sex Tape” and “Nine Lives” are both comedies, so every scene must deliver laughs in addition to telling a well-structured story. Yet if you watch “Sex Tape” or “Nine Lives,” both movies fail to deliver laughs and also fail to tell a compelling story.
One way to fail is to make a scene that doesn’t reflect the story’s overall promise. If you’re writing a comedy, then every scene must be funny. In the original “Ghostbusters,” every scene strives for laughs whether the heroes are fighting ghosts or investigating mysterious ghost sightings in a hotel. Pick any scene at random in “Ghostbusters” and you’ll find an attempt to create comedy that often succeeds.
Now watch scenes in “Sex Tape” or “Nine Lives” and you can go for long periods of time without a single laugh. When the scenes attempt comedy, it’s often painfully strained and unfunny, but the real fault is that most scenes simply do not even attempt to deliver comedy of any kind.
Pick a bad action film and notice how many scenes fail to deliver on the promise of action. Pick a bad horror film and notice how many scenes fail to deliver frights.
The key to writing a great screenplay is to make sure every scene delivers on your overall story’s promise. Promise comedy and every scene better find a way to deliver laughs. Promise action and every scene better find a way to deliver action. Even if the action is muted or implied, you need threats of some kind.
In “Die Hard,” the opening scene is curiously empty of action, but hints of action when a passenger notices the hero carrying a gun. Later when the hero meets his wife at her company Christmas party, there’s verbal conflict between the hero and his wife, but also the impending threat of terrorists taking over the skyscraper. So even though there’s little physical action at the Christmas party initially, there’s plenty of promise of action that creates suspense as we wait to see what will happen to the hero as the terrorists take over the building.
Here are some keys to writing great scenes:
- Make sure every scene delivers on your overall story’s promise. Every scene in a comedy must be funny and every scene in a horror film must be scary or create tension.
- Make sure every scene tells us something new.
- Make sure every scene shows conflict.
- Make sure every scene tells a mini-story with goals the characters want to achieve.
If you read screenplays of James Cameron, you’ll notice that he overwrites his screenplays with entire scenes that later get cut. That’s because these cut scenes add nothing new to the story. If a scene can be cut without hurting the story, there’s no purpose in writing that scene to begin with. If every scene tells us something new, it’s hard to justify cutting that scene out.
Conflict makes every scene interesting. Two people agreeing is boring. Even love scenes often have conflict as one person wants something and the other resists. In every romantic comedy, the two lovers never completely fall in love until the end because once they’re no longer fighting, there’s nothing of interest any more.
Mini-stories let us see characters striving for goals and overcoming obstacles to achieve them. Without goals and obstacles, scenes risk becoming straightforward and boring.
In “Nine Lives,” there’s a scene where the hero, trapped in the body of a cat, tries to alert his own family that he’s trapped inside a cat. To do this, he rips out a telephone book page of the pet shop where the owner knows how to talk to cats.
Unfortunately, this scene is so dull and lifeless that it’s just one of many boring scenes that sinks the entire movie. Instead of conflict or suspense, “Nine Lives” simply shows the hero’s wife discovering paper shreds of a telephone book and seeing the hero (as the cat) holding an advertisement for a pet shop. No laughs, no conflict, no mini-story of any kind, and consequently a flat, dull, boring scene that helps create a flat, dull, boring movie.
A better solution would be to have the hero realize the pet shop is listed in the telephone book, struggling to get access to that telephone book, and then struggling to find that pet shop ad to show to his wife. In the process of trying to achieve this goal of showing his wife the pet shop ad, the hero could have been struggling in comical ways. Now we would have been laughing while watching the hero struggle until finally achieving a goal.
Instead, “Nine Lives” simply shows us the hero with the telephone ad of the pet shop under his paws and that’s it. No tension, no suspense, no comedy, and thus no interest.
Scenes aren’t meant just to advance the plot. Instead scenes must deliver on the story’s promise and tell us a mini-story with conflict. When you carefully construct one scene at a time that reflects your entire story, you’ll be far more likely to create a great screenplay that can be turned into a great movie.