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Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters

Story is King

At the heart of every great screenplay or movie is a great story.

Screenwriters have to understand the art of weaving a great story as well as the art of screenwriting. Both are arts - they take skill, practice, effort and persistence to perfect. Both are achievable.

Think of Gone Girl, The Help, WALL-E, Avatar, Se7en, Crash, Traffic or any of your favorite movies. They'll all have a great story at their heart.

Forrest Gump

What is a great story?

It can be a multitude of things:

A great story is a tale... Examples
Of inspiration and overcoming adversary Erin Brockovich
Forrest Gump
The Help
The Shawshank Redemption
Of great sadness with ultimate hope Schindler's List
Of fantastic unexpected surprises and twists The Sixth Sense
Fight Club
Matchstick Men
That fully immerses and engages us in another world or reality Star Wars
Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Matrix
That frightens us The Silence of the Lambs
That makes us laugh and cry American Beauty
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Almost Famous
That makes us cry The English Patient
Born on the Fourth of July
That thrills us Bourne trilogy
Casino Royale

What makes a great story?

The Austin Film Festival asked this question to Greg Beal, Director of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting; Franklin Leonard, Founder of The Black List; and AFF Screenplay Competition Director Matt Dy.

GREG BEAL: For me, Graham Parker’s song title “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” should apply to every story. If the writer truly cares about her story, her characters and the moments of true feeling she’s conveying, it appears on the page and on screen. If she can make her characters live and laugh and survive, then I have the opportunity to live through them, feel with them and learn from them.

FRANKLIN LEONARD: A beginning, middle, and end that keeps the audience interested in what happens next, elicits emotion of some sort of emotion (anything from fear to laughter to awe to sadness), and lives the audience viewing some aspect of their lives - no matter how small - differently than they did before being exposed to it.

MATT DY: A strong story is one that takes you on a journey without realizing it. When you’re reading a truly engaging script, the words fly off the page and you’re anxious to get to the next scene rather than thumbing through to see how many pages you have left. It’s easier said than done but it’s what every writer should strive for.

The Nicholl Fellowship advises on screenplay story

The Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting has a wealth of excellent screenwriting advice on its website and Facebook page including:

No matter how we discuss or define the scoring criteria for the Academy Nicholl readers and judges, one criteria stands alone above all others - S-T-O-R-Y. Create a wonderful, intriguing story that causes readers to need to turn pages to find out what happens next - and you’ve written a script that will be noticed.

This isn’t to suggest that other criteria will be ignored when the story is good - as it is difficult to write an exceptional screenplay filled with an enticing story without engaging characters and dialogue, solid craft and execution and at least a modicum of originality - but some minor faults may be overlooked.

When we discuss story, we include a number of components - premise, subject matter, storytelling and conflict - and ask many questions, including but not limited to:

How to come up with your own great story

Study these movies and others that are known to be great. Read their screenplays from Fade In to Fade Out.

Ask yourself: what makes them great?

Understand their story and plot structure, their characters, the twists and sub-plots.

Such research when applied will make you a better storyteller.

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Related articles on this site

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Concept is Key

The Three Act Structure

The Stakes: Set Them High

Drama and Conflict

Your Script Must Emote Well

External links

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Wikipedia: List of Films Considered The Best

Wikipedia: Forrest Gump

Wikipedia: Shawshank Redemption

AFF Interview: Greg Beal, Franklin Leonard and Matt Dy

Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition

Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting - Facebook page