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The 4 Keys to a Viable Screenplay

by Cameron Cubbison - updated on September 9, 2016

As the President in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, Michael Douglas states rather emphatically that “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, because it’s gonna put up a fight.”

He might as well have been talking about screenwriting. Nothing about screenwriting is easy. You have to want it bad, and you have to come prepared for a fight. When you’re in the trenches and can’t see the forest from the trees…and every writer is there at one time or another…here are some essentials to keep in mind. All good scripts have these, and all scripts that don’t suffer accordingly in the market.

1. Cinematic Premise

Regardless of genre, film is above all things a visual medium. Some premises are cinematic; they instantly paint a picture. Some premises are not and do not: “An invisible turtle paints his toenails and does arithmetic while lounging in a bathtub for two hours.” Well maybe that one does paint a picture, but it’s not a good one.

Whether it’s an intimate human drama or a big budget extravaganza, take every possible opportunity to make your premise as bold and cinematic as possible, and tell a story that implores an audience to watch.

2. Structure

There’s a reason why structure is hyped again and again and again in every screenwriting how-to and in every coverage report ever done. Yes, it really is that important. Structure is what keeps a script from feeling shapeless and meandering. It keeps the story (and therefore, your audience) focused by providing form and rhythm. Aristotle wired in the three-act template thousands of years ago and it has stuck like superglue-encrusted spaghetti. Three acts. Inciting incident. Beginning, middle, end. The best recipe for creating catharsis and closure you could hope for.

3. Theme

Believe it or not, this one is missing from the vast majority of scripts written today. There’s what your story is about and there’s what your story is about. A well-articulated theme is what allows your story to transcend the specifics of the plot and become something universal, that ideally everyone can relate to. Theme is the core of a great story. It’s, as that lovable Philadelphia sage Rocky Balboa would say, “the stuff in the basement.”

4. Character

Obvious, right? But the importance can never be oversold. Dimensional, human characters that we care about are what attract bankable actors to your script and people to your movie.

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