5 Essential Elements Every Spec Script Should Have
Did you know that there are important elements that can help every spec script get noticed by Hollywood?
When we're talking about spec scripts we are referring to those written under speculation that they will be sold, meaning that no one is paying you to write them. They are your own original concepts that you choose to write in hopes of selling or using as calling cards for representation and consideration for writing assignments.
Established Hollywood screenwriters can certainly write on spec. They even manage to sell their spec scripts from time to time. But the majority of the spec scripts out in the world today are written by unknown screenwriters looking to draw interest in their work.
When you write on spec, you're not writing for a niche or grand audience — you're writing for the script reader. And that script reader has a stack of scripts on their desk or in their computer folder. They crave to find that glowing original and unique script that stands out amongst the rest.
Here we feature five essential elements that all spec scripts should have to capture the attention of that script reader.
Table of Contents
Concept. Concept. Concept.
Hollywood is a concept-driven industry. Yes, they want talented writers that can tell great stories and conjure amazing characters, but when it comes to spec scripts, if you don't have a clear and concise concept to sell, it's just not going to happen. That's often why quirky dramas, quirky comedies, and small character-driven pieces just don't sell — with any exceptions few and far between.
Those types of scripts generally belong in the indie world where you can partner with local filmmakers and get them made — or direct them yourself (easier said than done, mind you).
Assess which screenwriting path is best for you — and then take it!
When you're trying to sell a spec or use one to get noticed in Hollywood, you need to have a concept that engages the powers that be within twenty-five words or less (give or take). And these concepts — often referred to as high concept — usually encompass a gimmick paired well with a compelling concept.
A gimmick is a situation, character, or idea that instantly captures the interest of the script reader. The concept is the plan or intention wrapped around that gimmick to create a compelling story.
A shark attacking people isn't enough. That's the gimmick. The concept evolves when three very different characters are brought together to hunt down and destroy that shark.
A park full of dinosaurs isn't enough. That's the gimmick. The concept evolves when things go awry, and a select group of characters is stuck within that park as the dinosaurs wreak havoc.
A world full of sound-engaged terrorizing aliens isn't enough. That's the gimmick. The concept evolves when we learn that a family must survive the threat in near silence as they deal with the guilt of losing a child to the aliens and raising a newborn amongst them.
Concept is everything. The script reader wants to read something compelling — something engaging that they haven't seen before. It's the essential element to every great spec script.
Continual Conflict and High Stakes
You can write a protagonist with next to no character arc — as evident in many iterations of characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond — but if you put such characters through hell and back, audiences will eat it up.
Note: We hope all of your protagonists have some form of character arc, but we're trying to make a point.
The stakes have to be high and you have to inject your script with conflict — trials and tribulations galore. You need to force your characters up a figurative tree with a figurative hungry Grizzly waiting for them below, then set it on fire, and figure out how they are going to survive.
That is what every script needs — within the context of a great concept — but it's especially necessary for spec scripts because it will keep the reader engaged and turning the page.
With every few pages, you need to up the stakes and throw more and more conflict at your characters.
Most screenwriters make the mistake of getting into the habit of perceiving a screenplay as merely a collection of scenes that tell a story. For any great script, you don't want scenes — you want moments.
The single-word definition of "moment" is importance.
Each and every "scene" you write has to be a moment. It has to have emotion. It has to take the characters forward in the story. It has to have meaning. It has to be important.
If you watch your favorite movies, you'll notice how almost every "scene" is a moment to behold.
Where would Sophie's Choice be without that moment of decision that she has to make?
Where would Good Will Hunting be without the confrontation with the Harvard snob in the bar — or the climactic emotional moment between Will and Sean?
You need amazing moments that build on each other and always push the story and characters forward.
It's not enough to just convey a plot point through dialogue and some scene description. We need to experience cathartic moments throughout the whole screenplay. That is what embeds that script into the mind of the reader and it's one of the single most important elements of a successful screenplay.
Give that reader many laughs, many scares, many thrills, and many tears — whatever the genre and story entail.
Fluid Pacing and Uncomplicated Aesthetics
If your spec script isn't a page-turner, it won't be read past the first ten pages — a harsh reality in many development and production offices.
The script has to be a fast read with every page so the reader can see the film through their mind's eye. If the story lingers, you'll lose them. If the scene description is very dense, going well beyond two sentences with each block of description, you'll lose them. If the dialogue is overly long on a continuous basis, you'll lose them. And you can't blame the reader because it's a science that they have no control over. Have you ever read a book that had a slow burn opening that went on for multiple chapters before the concept really kicked into gear? It's almost impossible to read if you aren't engaged within those opening moments. Why? Because your mind just isn't interested enough to continue.
Embrace the Less Is More mantra and trim your story down to the core meat.
Simple and Straightforward Format
The screenplay format exists for a reason. Yes, it has evolved. But there's still a standard that needs to be met. Why? Because screenplay format is the simple language used to decipher the writer's vision and translate it directly to the script reader to allow them to visualize the film with their own mind's eye as quickly as possible.
If that format isn't consistent and doesn't adhere to the general guidelines and expectations of the industry, the script reader is going to have trouble feeling any sense of pacing.
If that format is overly busy with transitions, camera directions, overly long scene descriptions, overly long and inconsistent scene headings, and incorrect margins and placements for sluglines, action, dialogue, parenthesis, and other screenplay elements, it's going to be a tough read for that reader.
It becomes frustrating, and their mind just shuts down.
Keep it simple.
Focus on nothing more than these elements:
- Scene Headings
- Scene Descriptions
- Character Names
If you want to add some parenthesis, sluglines (important actions or objects in CAPS), and a DISSOLVE TO transition here and there, no problem. But overall, just keep it simple.
No reader is going to be dazzled with your direction of the camera or overly "creative" format that you've come up with. You'll only be giving them a legitimate reason to toss the script aside because such overindulgences are nothing more than a sign of an amateur.
Use these five points as a checklist when you're going through your latest spec script before sending it out to contests, competitions, fellowships, managers, agents, and producers. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does it have an intriguing concept?
- Does it have enough conflict and stakes?
- Does it have great moments full of memorable and cathartic emotion?
- Does it have amazing pacing and aesthetics that will keep those pages turning?
- Does it have simple and easy-to-understand format so the reader can focus less on interpretation and more on instant visualization?
Yes, the Oscar-winning scripts you've read from past decades show evidence to the contrary. But what you may be forgetting is that most of those scripts weren't written on spec by unknowns — and many of them also represent a time when standards and practices were much different.
If your spec script has these five elements embedded within their pages, you will find yourself far ahead of the pack and have a better shot at moving up the ladder.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies