There are tens of thousands of screenplays registered with the WGA each year. Many thousands more screenplays are written, but not registered. Even more screenplays than that are works in progress. That adds up to a hell of a lot of screenplays. All vying for attention.
Screenwriters must be aware that this places an enormous strain on script readers, who often don’t have the time or capacity to read entire scripts. Since knowledge is power, screenwriters must make their pages sparkle and stand out from the pack. Around half the scripts I read are average, while around one in ten make me smile in admiration.
Here are some tips to add the WOW factor to your screenwriting:
1) Concept vs Writing
This is a topic of vigorous debate. I’ve read numerous screenplays with stellar writing of an average story. I’ve also read an equal number of high concept film and TV scripts with good, but not great writing.
Which do I prefer. Typically, I gravitate toward the latter. A brilliant story with average writing can be rewritten to screenwriting perfection. But an average “execution dependent” script… meh. You can’t do much more with it. That said, I often recommend the former to writing assignments where screenwriters can express somebody else’s concepts well.
2) First 10 lines
You read that correctly. Not first ten pages, but the first ten LINES. That’s how long it takes for a script reader to give your screenplay a thumbs up or thumbs down. Grab your reader by the throat and don’t let them go. Set the scene. Create the mood. Make their read not feel like work. Let your script reader get lost in the experience of your screenplay.
Be economical and impactful.
Experienced readers have an instinct for knowing which screenplays are worth pursuing. They are rarely surprised at page 50. If a script doesn’t attract them early on, chances are that it never will. After all, the opening pages tend to be the most rewritten.
Not attracting your reader is vastly different from your screenplay not catering to their taste. Oftentimes, a well-written script is circulated to producers who might be able to film it.
3) Start with a bang
This can be a hook, an elevated action sequence, or an establishing scene to set the locale, period, tone and genre of your story. Your bang doesn’t necessarily need to be a mega-budget CGI fest to attract your audience. It can be a tender emotional or deeply jarring moment.
4) Be unusual (not weird)
Subvert expectations. Give your reader a unique take on a familiar trope to keep them interested. Elicit the sensation of “I haven’t seen that before.”
This is not a license to swing so far for the fences that your story becomes ungrounded and alienating. Your reader doesn’t want to constantly stop to orientate themselves at some outlandish story beat. They may not continue to read if they get derailed too often. Most readers are looking for an excuse to pass on a script. Don’t give them one.
5) Voice, style and point of view
This is probably the most important and intangible aspect that add the most WOW to your screenwriting.
The intersection of this triumvirate is where your personality comes into play. This is what sets you apart from other screenwriters. This is where you take possession of a story and make your screenplay so uniquely yours that nobody else could write it. Your signature writing triumvirate is what makes you attractive to film producers and can launch your career.
It captures the essence, feeling and visualization of your screenplay before anyone has read it. Consider how the latest Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson screenplay might make you feel as you cast your eyes on the title page.