The Heart of Your Screenplay
By Lovinder Gill
(This is an excerpt from his book Scriptcake Secrets: The Top 10 Mistakes Novice Screenwriters Make and How to Fix Them)
A big mistake I see screenwriters make is to write a screenplay based on an underdeveloped idea. This is a script killer! If they have not studied the craft of screenwriting, this is a fundamental rule that they unknowingly break before they even begin to write.
This is a surefire way to ruin a screenplay before it even has a chance to succeed. It may look like a screenplay and be formatted like a screenplay, but at the end of the day, it’s not a screenplay if the story is underdeveloped. There needs to be a point to your story; there needs to be heart in it. The protagonist has to learn a lesson. This is, usually, a lesson you learned that you are bringing to life on the page.
Think about when you see an athlete complete an impossible task. You say to yourself, “That took a lot of heart.” When someone becomes successful, it’s because they put their heart and soul into their work.
Heart is what made them get up every day for years and train. Heart is what made them get out and hustle every day to make their dreams come true. Heart is what’s going to make your screenplay resonate with people.
A great screenplay must have heart. Many Hollywood readers will only read about ten pages of a screenplay because that’s all it takes to tell if it has an emotional story or not. If there is heart, they’ll read more; if there isn’t, they’ll move on to the next screenplay in their huge stack of scripts.
A fully developed, emotional idea is the lifeblood of your story. Unfortunately, most screenwriters think about the genre or the special effects and action sequences or comedic moments before they have a fully developed idea. Those all have their place in a screenplay and will come in time, but without a heart, your story is dead before it is even born.
I once did a story consultation in a screenwriting group where we read part of a script that had a futuristic train in it. There was quite a bit of explanation about how the train worked through magnetic resistance or something like that.
To be fair, it sounded pretty cool, but it had nothing to do with the story. I wasn’t entirely sure, though, because I don’t think I knew what the story was about. I’m all for coming up with cool elements in your script, but without an emotional through-line, it doesn’t mean anything.
There is a cool train in the movie and TV series, Snowpiercer, but there is also a deep, emotional story about the difference between the socioeconomic classes. Starting with a cool train doesn’t mean anything. Add it later as a futuristic conceptual element that enhances a story about socioeconomic class warfare on a frozen planet and it means a lot.
The battle between different socioeconomic classes is a universal theme that has been explored in all kinds of movies, such as Titanic, Parasite, Us, The Wolf of Wall Street, Sorry to Bother You, and The Pursuit of Happyness.
The cool thing is that you can take an emotional idea for a story between economic classes and put it in any world—on a train, on a ship, in a South Korean city, in a horror movie, in the business world, or in a racial drama.
All of these movies were highly successful because they were well developed, emotional stories set in entertaining concepts. If there were ever any kind of equation to writing a successful screenplay, that’s probably it.
Write well-developed, emotional stories set in entertaining concepts. If you come up with your emotional story first and develop it, you can take your time to find the right concept to fit your story. However, if you come up with your concept first, it is very difficult to find an emotional story that fits, organically, within it.
It is very difficult to come up with an emotional point for a concept without an emotional story, yet that’s what most novice screenwriters try to do. They come up with a high-concept idea and then try to insert some modicum of emotion into it, leaving the audience unsatisfied.
It’s empty. Hollow. Meaningless. I don’t care what screenwriting book you use to structure your screenplay: without an emotional story, you are lost. You can have nine questions, 15 points, 22 steps—it doesn’t matter.
Without an emotional story, your screenplay is full of things happening for no reason, and that gets old and boring very fast. It’s hard to care for a movie if you don’t care about the characters.
Don’t get me wrong; structure is a necessity, but if you follow only structure, you’re basically constructing the exact same screenplay as everyone else who has read the same book you have. Structure is scientific and consistent; the story is emotional and unique.
You need both to make a great screenplay.