A successful screenwriter needs to understand what brings an audience into the cinema in the first place. Audiences look for a variety of qualities in a film, depending on their own personal tastes and desires. Some people go to the movies to see sex and violence or thrills and spills, while others hope to walk away with the belief that love and beauty still exist in the world. Some are looking for a solution to their everyday problems, while many more are simply looking for liberation from their mundane daily reality. For this reason, you need to know what kind of audience “belongs” to your material. You need to know what makes that audience tick. Unless the audience invests in your story, the screenplay simply will not have any muscle.
Your first duty as a screenwriter is to create a story that will reach your chosen audience. Inspiration for such a screenplay can be found almost anywhere: in the library, in folktales and urban myths; in the ongoing drama of everyday life. Since going to the movies is like entering a parallel universe, as creator of that world’s blueprint, you have the power to craft an entire reality. (That’s the fun part.) But you also have the awesome responsibility of developing the entire backbone of a film that an army of people with a mountain of money will someday be working to bring to life.
By asking yourself some essential questions along the way, the task of writing a great screenplay won’t seem so daunting. What makes a good story? The journey of the everyman struggling against some insurmountable dilemma has been driving plots since cave dwellers began painting their bison hunts. By ritually enacting or rehearsing human problems in an artistic realm, artists not only allow us to relive the excitement of the moment, they help us come up with solutions for real-life challenges.
Even if your movie is populated with A-List actors, a messy storyline will disappoint or even anger a paying audience. They’ll give it bad “word of mouth,” and will tell their friends not to bother seeing it. An elegant story is the writer’s first priority. A story should also be timely. This means it must be relevant to today’s audience and to current issues. It’s important for the writer to be in touch with the zeitgeist or spirit of the times. In fact, the writer must be slightly ahead of the times. Considering that it takes a few years to get a script into production after it has been sold, the writer must actually have a grip on what tomorrow’s mood may be. To ensure his or her place in an ever-changing market, the writer needs to be on the crest of the new wave of oncoming ideas. (If you see a bandwagon, stay off it!) At the very least, a story needs a clearly identified main character, as well as clear outlines and themes to “hook” the audience and get their interest. We refer to these key structures as the four Ps: Plot, Protagonist, dramatic Problem and Premise.