How To Series

Making a Screenplay Rise To The Top

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.

Since 1990 I have had the privilege of critiquing screenplays from individuals, a few studio writers, and seeing some pilots. Most of the time they are in the "good range," but rarely rise to excellent or superior... and they aren't that difficult to fix. All of the information necessary to make a screenplay rise above the rest is on the menu button at left, marked "Screenplay." What does it take to make a screenplay rise to the top? A few hints are on this page.


What is needed to make a screenplay rise to the top?

Timely, interesting, and compelling topics

How do you know what these are? Talk to the people in the demographic group that is your target audience. What are they concerned about. What are you concerned about? What are their hopes and fears? What are today's issues? And then remember, at our core we all basically want mostly the same basic things: to love and be loved, to make a contribution to our world, to be competent, to have friends and be accepted, to be secure and make a living, to raise a family, to have fun, to do things that are interesting and relevant to us at the level at which we can accomplish things effectively, to grow and achieve; and maybe super-inflate our ego, steal a fortune, or save the world. All of these things play out in thousands of variations in people and the situations and events in their lives.

Characters that are complex, honest, and people can identify with.

This is always the number 1 problem that I see. Too many characters never had a life. They were born moments before they entered the stage, blank puppets ready to do the writer's bidding, paper dimensions, wood emotions, pliable as plastic, cold as metal, completely artificial. Who are your characters? What are their dreams, their ambitions, who do they like, what do they hate? What are their hobbies? What are their relationships like? The audience needs to identify with them. We want to love them, hate them, feel sorry for them, laugh at them, be awed by them, be shocked, struggle with them to reach their dreams... Make each character have an audience reaction. Character driven series are as popular with audiences as plot driven - people want to ride along with characters and see how their lives unfold.

Plots that bring characters into conflict.

Put two characters on the stage and they should go through the following: Action, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction. Much of action / reaction is dialogue. Their actions reveal what is in their minds and hearts, their attitudes, how much they are trying to hide it, and ultimately how far they are willing to go to get what they want. The drama is played out in character action and reaction. And it isn't all opposition - some of the action / reaction is encouragement, assistance, advice and arguments, love, etc. between two characters who badly want the same thing and are in conflict with others or the universe.

Great dialogue

Brief is good.

Subplots that help develop the plot.

Subplots add interest and texture to a story. But most audiences aren't yet sophisticated enough to want to see two stories at once (there are exceptions). Typically the subplot entertwines with the main plot and helps develop it, especially by the end.

Depth: Explore issues, don't give answers.

Writers may have all of the answers, but consider for a moment that maybe there is more than one. Every person is different, and what works for one person doesn't work for another. Obviously the characters have to find answers that work for them. Emphasize the struggle, their use of their talents and abilities, discovery within themselves, and their victory. (See what Wolverine does as his final action in X-Men: The Last Stand.)

Surprises: not predictable.

Predictability is a death rattle in stories. Usually if the audience can see it coming, their interest dies. Audiences are very sophisticated, and they have seen so many stories that they know how things are generally going to happen. It takes a lot of work to keep an audience on the edge.

Unique qualities

Uniqueness in a story sells. Producers are always hungry for what is unique because audiences are always hungry for something unique. Uniqueness is the best surprise.


If it is drama - raise the stakes. Make it more important to the character by having more to gain, a more complicated path, more to lose, or more effort to reach his goal. If it is comedy - extract it from difficult situations, not witty lines.

Visual - not all dialogue, but use actions to develop the drama.

Dramatic action and physical action are two different things. Physical action is a very effective way of playing out the dramatic action instead of talking it through.

Have fun. If you aren't interested and having fun, the audience probably won't either.

About making it in the business of screenwriting

Honesty about this business helps prevent disappointment. I encourage everyone who thinks they might be interested in writing, to give it a good try, and keep in mind that it usually takes years to become good and it takes months to write and refine a good screenplay. It's typically not a field for the opportunist who wants to strike it rich with very little work, but it may be that you will rise to the top in a very competitive field.

The opportunities are growing with New Media success. From FX: "According to a report from FX, a record 536 scripted series were released last year across broadcast and streaming networks. This marks the first time in history that more than 500 scripted shows were released in a single year; it represents a 7% increase over 2018 and a 52% increase over 2013. (That's the landmark year that "House of Cards" debuted on Netflix.) The tally includes comedies, dramas, and limited series, but not reality shows, daytime dramas, or shows primarily aimed at children. Were all of those categories included, according to the New York Times, the total would have likely swelled over 1,000 shows."

That being said, there is probably more money made from "how to" books on screenwriting, than made by screenwriters, and the how to writers don't make a fortune either. It's a niche market.

The spec script is your business card, and it is important. For perspective on spec sales, the number of spec scripts written each year is estimated to be 100,000 or more. They stay in circulation, and writers keep trying to sell them, or update them to sell them. The number of movies Hollywood makes each year from spec scripts, you can count on two hands. Spec scripts are your business card, not something you are likely to sell. But it had better show what you can do.

The agent is your ticket to getting introduced. They know talent, they know who is looking for what types of scripts, and they can get in the door to introduced you through your spec script. Make the script really good. Studios won't accept spec scripts directly from writers.

Most Hollywood studios develop the stuff they make in-house, and if they have been introduced to a good writer, they often use that writer. My company, Movie Stream Productions, is the same. I already have 6 series in development - very unlikely to look at anything from others, and can't because of potential copyright violation considerations.

Back to the good news: New Media (mostly videos displayed through online streaming outlets) provides an opportunity for writers, directors, and actors, to make content and show it, and build an audience and get recognized, outside of the existing production/distribution systems. It is a very rapidly growing area, and is also competitive. YouTube is a great platform for this, as are several other outlets. Keep in mind that without advertising, you get no audience. Larger productions can sometimes make money in various distribution outlets. Audiences won't watch poor quality writing, acting, and production, but you can do quality production for very little money, and produce a longer story in shorts that are 3 to 15 minutes in length, to build an audience. Using New Media contracts, even skilled union actors can be paid $100.00 per day, and some will work for less, or even free, just to get the exposure or help your project. For more information on doing your own production, visit The Insider on my site Movie Stream Productions. Have fun and good luck!

The following link is to an excellent podcast on Scripts & Scribes dotcom from a Hollywood development exec, that affirms what I wrote above. Podcast – Donyea Rochlin

Other distribution restrictions: None

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