Writing a Memorable Screenplay
The other night, as I do on most nights, once the kitchen was clean and the kids were put to bed, I pulled out my iPad, ready to dig into the script – a 110-page screenplay – I had to read that evening. I knew the title sounded familiar… Was this the same screenplay the writer shared with me about a year prior? Hmmm…. Couldn’t quite remember what that one was about. So I started reading, trying to find something familiar but… Nope. Nothing. At least, not until page twenty or so when it all started coming back to me: I vaguely remembered the protagonist, and even more vaguely thought I could remember something reminiscent of the set-up. I read this. A long time ago. I could, kind of, sort of remember now.
I have a great excuse, though: As part of my coaching work, I read a script a day, start-to-finish, first-page-to-last. So by simple math, I would have read about 300 feature screenplays and TV pilots between this draft now in my hand and the last. Therefore, it is not that hard to assume that, no, I just can’t remember every screenplay. Even though I do have a fairly good memory, if I dare say so myself. And the reason I tend to think that? It’s because of those other scripts. The feature screenplays and the TV pilots that I do manage to remember, even years after reading them, in very vivid detail.
All of which got me thinking: What are the major differences between the one script I read the other night that I could hardly remember less than a year after first reading its previous draft, and those screenplays and TV pilots that I can still recall with great specificity, some of which I read long before that? In other words, in my particular reading experience, what makes for a particularly memorable screenplay or TV pilot, the sort that I am not likely to quickly forget?
A stand-out, memorable screenplay or TV pilot is never derivative. It’s never overly familiar, something that you feel, as you read, that you’ve visited before. It’s never a straight forward this meets that; even if it possesses something this or that, the writer has managed to insert a new character, a new take, a new point of view that makes stand-out material feel, even if treading on some elements that are familiar, entirely new.
The term you hear often in the industry for a memorable screenplay or TV pilot is “voice-y and noisy.” Now, noisy doesn’t mean riddled with action and explosions, but rather a character, a tone or a take that is markedly different than others, and therefore moving the needle for its author.
Writing a memorable screenplay or TV pilot that is voice-y and noisy doesn’t mean delivering material that doesn’t adhere to the norm, that doesn’t uphold agreed upon structure, that doesn’t follow, in its own way, standard story and character logic. On the contrary, those screenplays and TV pilots that become so memorable are ones that are able to stand out while adhering to established screenwriting or TV writing construct, while still making the material feel fresh and new.
Voice, whether expressed in action lines, dialogue, character or the writer’s choice in subject matter, tends to be the first thing to get me to perk up and pay attention. When voice shows up, you are aware of it right out of the gate; while it may look like any other script, there is going to be a nuanced, immediate difference that you can sense in the material you are reading.
Anonymous Content’s Ryan Cunningham deciphers VOICE this way:
“The voice is a couple of aspects. One is literally the way the writer writes words on the page. Frequently that doesn’t actually translate into what the movie or the TV show looks like, but at the very least, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable because they describe certain things or point out certain details or have certain turns of phrases in their dialogue that make it feel more authentic or surprising in some way—usually those go hand in hand. The other part of it—which doesn’t exactly apply to what the words look like—is literally what they’re choosing to write about and who they’re choosing to write about and the way they choose to do it. And that can be anything from somebody who takes a really standard love story, but tells it out of order, like 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, and that’s a really unique experience to enjoy, no matter how you absorb it. To me that’s part of the voice. Or it could be just, you tell a story from a character’s point of view that people wouldn’t normally think of that story being told from, and that can be pretty unique—I consider that part of the voice, as well.”
Unique Take on Familiar (enough) Subject Matter.
In capable hands, even the dullest, or most tired subject matter can become fascinating. To illustrate, here are a couple of examples:
A few years back, I read a screenplay whose logline pretty much assured me that I had a very long and unforgiving night ahead of me. The story, about a woman who rejects society and decides to retire somewhere in the wilderness, without a serial killer hunting her, without so much as even an errant bear, promised to be the sort where nothing happened. Never a fun read, as far as I was concerned. The kind of material we’ve all seen, many of us wondering how it ever got made. But as I read the screenplay, I found myself more and more entranced, reading without effort, turning the pages faster and faster. The writer, Jesse Chatham, treated the subject matter in a way I never experienced, creating a rich, relatable character I had never before seen on screen, writing with great efficiency and nuance, telling an intimate, relatively small story in an entirely unique way, so much so that I remember details from this particular screenplay to this day. Incidentally, the screenplay, LAND, now has Robin Wright attached to star and direct.
And here is another one: Earlier this year, I read a post-apocalyptic feature spec that involved, among its many new-world elements, beings akin to zombies. But instead of making the entire screenplay about this particular abomination, the writer handled the presence of these beings with the lightest of hands, utilizing the living dead only as much as he needed for them to become effective antagonists in the story he was trying to tell. He could have easily given those creatures, how they came to be and the threat they now represented, center stage. But instead he gave them only as much real estate as was absolutely necessary, and kept focus on the unfolding, two-hander character journey that was the heart of his screenplay instead.
Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue.
If dialogue is fun to read, the reader usually goes with it. When every character has its own unique and completely authentic speech pattern, when snappy, fresh dialogue shows up scene after scene, when seemingly simple dialogue turns out rich in subtext and/or backstory… I keep reading. I keep reading because, if, at the end of the day, it flows seamlessly, and continues to be moving, thought provoking (without trying too hard), economical yet entirely entertaining, I know the read is going to be fun and, if nothing else, breezy.
A word of caution: Dialogue cannot be everything. If the characters are not substantive enough, if character motivations are unrooted or unclear, if the story, at the end of the day, doesn’t make much sense, it doesn’t matter how much great dialogue you pack in there, it’s not going to be able to hide a script’s major shortcomings. At the end of the read you may feel entertained, but within days (or hours) you will forget what the whole script was about in the first place.
A New Way into an Old Character.
Think of THE GOOD GIRL. And LADYBIRD. And MOONLIGHT. And so many others that put in the spotlight characters that we have surely met on screen before, but this time showed them in a new way, giving us fresh insight into their construct, their experience and their journey.
So much has been written about the essence and the importance of authentic, three dimensional characters: It speaks to humanity. It teaches us about the “other,” any “other.” It reminds us of our commonality. It shows us a reflection of ourselves. While heavy-handed, this is not untrue. And in a memorable screenplay or TV pilot, there is always that character that entertains us, that we relate to, whose plight or struggles or challenges or dilemmas feel authentic, that keeps us rooting for, or in the very least invested in, her.
Most of the time, when I remember a particular piece, it’s because it’s made me feel something. It made me sad. It made me laugh. Or reminisce. It made me think about my own childhood, about my own experiences, about my own family. It made me smile. It made me – for the right reasons – cringe. It made me admire the writer’s craft. Usually, this sort of script makes me turn the pages without noticing. When you read a lot, you are keenly and constantly aware of what page you are on, how much more you still have to go, because finishing the read also means – hopefully – finishing a busy day of work (but I love my work so… good problem to have). An emotionally resonant screenplay or TV pilot is the sort of work that envelops me emotionally. That takes me on a new journey. That makes me think about things a little bit differently. That makes me forget that I am working, and keeps me reading and – without noticing – turning those pages….
But these are just my opinion. What, in your opinion, makes for a memorable screenplay? Share it here in the comments, or send your thoughts to me privately through my contact form.