There are many different aspects to a good screenplay and its complexity. Essentially, there are the themes, the genre or genres, the story, the characters, and the structure. In this report, I aim to cover all of these to the best of my ability and explain why it is that the screenplays of today don’t necessarily follow specific structures and are still capable of being made into blockbuster movies.
Starting off with the theme, there is a main idea that the story, in total, plays upon. There are many themes and a complex story will often include multiple in one work so as to build a sophisticated world and sophisticated characters. Some themes may be as simple as conquering a fear or as dark as dealing with rape or murder. Often, a theme can be the conflict or contrast between two ideas. Good and evil, freedom and slavery, fear and bravery, anguish and acceptance, happiness and depression, truth and falsity. These are just some of many examples that can be made. This is not to say that singular themes do not exist. There is love, war, comedy, space, adventure, history, and many more themes that may not necessarily contrast with other themes.
In order to spice up a story to make the characters more interesting or just make the overall ideas more gripping, a story might introduce multiple themes at once. Sometimes they may be beyond the screenwriter’s page such as the darkness and lightness in certain shots in the movie, but they may be written in to add more texture.
Many times, the themes can overlap. A main character may be trying to save someone from the noose after they’ve been wrongfully accused of murder all the while struggling with a crippling fear of confrontation. There are eight obvious contrasting themes at work here: fear and bravery, life and death, justice and injustice, good and bad. Because of this, much of the story is all the better for it. There is, however, a limit to the themes being utilized in the sense of importance. If you have too many themes, you may confuse your audience and may be trying to tell too much at once.
Another aspect of any screenplay is the genre or genres. Just like the themes involved in a movie, there can be plural genres as well as just one. There are science fiction, fantasy, romantic, horror, comedy, mystery, and true-story movies, just to name a few. For instance, the movie, Forrest Gump was realistic fiction because it utilized real events and slightly altered them to serve the story’s purpose: telling the life of a fictional character named Forrest Gump. The point of the movie was not necessarily to change the past to what could have happened but to show an audience the past from the perspective of a character that was lovable so that they can understand the lessons and hardships this character underwent, along with many Americans during that time.
For instance, the Harry Potter series and movies are considered both mystery and fantasy. They are works of fiction based upon a world of fantasy, but the audience, as well as the characters, must solve a mystery in every movie and novel. Again, much like themes, the greater the complexity of the film, the more likely the story will use one or more genres. Even if it is just to serve the function of building a more interesting character, world, or as a useful plot device, a new genre might be included. What would be more interesting, if there are two strictly platonic characters on a space station together trying to solve a mystery or a story in which those two characters were in love and had to solve a mystery? This is the plot of Passengers.
Characters are possibly the writer’s most useful and complicated resource. A character is what a story needs. As Robert McKee puts it, “If you see someone drenched in a downpour, this has somewhat more meaning than just a damp street” (pp. 33). What this means is that when something just happens, it’s an event, but if something happens to someone, especially someone we can empathize with, it becomes more purposeful and resonates with the audience a little more. Every story needs a main character and supporting characters can not only make the story better but possibly phenomenal.
For instance, the title of the movie Finding Nemo may have had Nemo’s name in it, however, the main character would have to be Marlin. He undergoes the major tasks required to find his son. He has the greatest motive, has a point of no return, undergoes a dramatic change in his character, has a moment of no hope, and then at the climax, learns his lesson and returns home having changed. Nemo may undergo much of the same points, however, it is Marlin’s journey that is the main focus of the film.
Still, the story would be totally incomplete if Dory and Nemo were never introduced. See, it is Nemo that is captured as a result of his defiance toward his overprotective father. It is also Dory who keeps Marlin positive enough to proceed on the journey in times of hopelessness and distress. Without supporting characters, there would not have been a story.
Also, every protagonist needs to have an antagonist of some kind. Sometimes this can be external, other times this can be internal. Any obstacle can serve as an antagonist: A mountain to climb, a villain to defeat, an internal flaw within the character to overcome. Often, the villain can make the story. An example of this would be the Joker in The Dark Knight. He brings out the worst in other characters, moving the plot forward, causing unexpected turns. He also leaves a hint of mystery about who he is and why he has the motives that he does, something which draws the audience in and leaves us wanting more of him. However, it is his complete polarized contrast with Batman that makes him the perfect embodiment of “antagonist.” As he says to Batman, “You complete me” (Nolan).
The best characters deal with more than one antagonist at once. Typically, an interesting main character has motive, obstacles, and change. Using the example I used before, a character trying to save his friend from being hanged unjustly is less impactful than a character who must save his friend and overcome his fear of confrontation. The audience has more to root for when there are more struggles within a character and to see that character overcome such struggles is all the more inspiring.
The story structure is something that that does not have a specific formula that guarantees an award-winning movie. Nearly every screenplay, however, takes place in three acts; a format established by Aristotle over 2,000 years ago. Included in both movies that use a three act structure or don’t are other recreated structures that definitely can be recycled and have proven to be very successful. However, this does not mean that because you’ve used this structure everything will be great and your will be screenplay well-received.
The Hero’s Journey is definitely one example of a well-structure, much recycled plot. In it, the hero, the main character, is called to action from a life of normalcy (or whatever was considered normal for her or him). Then, they are put in a new situation they are unfamiliar with after passing some sort of point of no return. Following this, they are pushed into a circumstance in which there is no hope. They reclaim their hope, gain something, and defeat their enemy in the climax and return to a state of normalcy with something changed.
If any of that sounds familiar, that is because the previously mentioned film, Finding Nemo follows that structure. So does Shrek , The Princess Bride, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Toy Story, and Spider-Man 2 just to name a few. It is so widely used and proven to be successful that there are very few well-received films that don’t use it.
That is what is included in making a great screenplay work. At least, these are the essentials. All works differ, or at least they should if they want to be original. This becomes a common theme nowadays: reboots and screen adaptations. Recently, the kind of complex, well-thought out storylines have begun to disappear. In their place have been movies generated to make money while trying to awe an audience. “Twenty-first century transmedia franchises such as the various Marvel Cinematic Universes bear the trappings of the familiar and thus have the cultural currency to assert themselves prominently within a highly competitive entertainment market” (Taylor, pp. 3).
“Arguably, the most important development during the last two decades in cultural studies has been the increasing focus on adaptation…” (Palmer, pp. 87). This being said, it is worth mentioning that some recent blockbuster movies do not actually follow a plot similar to the Hero’s Journey and don’t actually have a discernible main character; something that Robert McKee explicitly states he is vehemently against in his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
Today, there are so many movies that are either remakes, sequels, or film adaptations. Now, this is not new in the case of film adaptations, seeing as all of Stanley Kubrick’s films were based off of books and many great movies have been inspired by or based on books. However, it is the excessive amounts of remakes and sequels today that draw the attention of many film critics and audiences. As more and more franchise movies are made, it is easy to forget where they started. Some deviate from what lessons we have learned about story on screen from a century of cinema. Many fill themselves with humor rather than deeper reflections and belittle dramatic, plot-defining moments with bathos: a technique in which comedic relief is used to disarm a moment of tension.
The problem is that as Aaron Sorkin said in his Master Class, “Rules are what make art beautiful,” and today, we are ignoring those rules and are thus given a long list of “passable movies” (Nerdwriter1) that sacrifice plot and consistency in characters’ personalities and motives for comedy. Original ideas for films seem scarce in an industry currently dominated by massive and well-known franchises.
So is there hope for a screenwriter with original ideas? Will the movie industry ever return to the way it was when the original movies the current franchises are based off of were made? All I can say is that I hope so. The tools for writing a great screenplay included in this report may be all that is needed to fix things and set the cogs of the creative engine back into motion.
The second most important thing to do to in order to write a screenplay is to study other screenplays and watch the movies. Read teleplays if television is your forte. Study the different screenplay drafts of your favorite movies. But above all, write, write, write.
Nerdwriter1. “The Epidemic of Passable Movies.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Dec. 2016,
I used this video because I believe that the author of it has a unique term of phrase for movies that are ultimately unsatisfying because they sacrifice consistency and plot of comedic relief. The creator, Evan Puschak, has a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking and has a Youtube channel dedicated to analyzing art and movies.
Roach, Jay, director. Trumbo. ShivHans Pictures, Everyman Pictures, Groundswell Productions, 2015.
Lasseter, John, director. Toy Story. Pixar Animation Studios, Walt
Disney Pictures, 1995.
Raimi, Sam, director. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures, Marvel Enterprises, and Laura Ziskin Productions, 2004.
Reiner, Rob, director. The Princess Bride. Act III Communications, Buttercup Films Ltd., and The Princess Bride Ltd., 1987.
Lucas, George, director. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.
Stanton , Andrew and Lee Unkrich, directors. Finding Nemo. Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.
Adamson, Andrew and Vicky Jenson, directors. Shrek. DreamWorks Pictures, 2001.
Tyldum, Morten, director. Passengers. Sony Pictures, 2017.
Nolan, Christopher, director. The Dark Knight. Warner Brothers, 2009.
I chose to include this movie because I believe that it has an exceptional example of what a villain should look like. The actor who portrayed The Joker in The Dark Knight won an Oscar for “Best supporting role.” Christopher Nolan is a professional director who is responsible for directing 14 movies and producing 15 movies.
Palmer, R Barton; Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, Numbers 1.1, 1.2 (Intellect),
Richard J. Hand and Katja Krebs, eds, Adaptation, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1 March 2009, Pages 87–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/adaptation/app001
I chose this academic journal because it focused on how many movies today are mostly
adaptations. The journal’s main thesis related to the later paragraphs of my report and thus served its purpose.
Taylor, Aaron. “Avengers Dissemble! Transmedia Superhero Franchises and Cultic
Management.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, vol. 7, no. 2, July, 2014, pp. 181–94
I used this article because it goes into heavy detail about Marvel movies and how they
impact the film industry. It is an academic journal dedicated to review the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what strategies it employs to make money off of audiences.
Yorke, John. “What Makes a Great Screenplay?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15
This article gives a brilliant summary of what a good screenplay contains, describing each essential part of a plot in short, detailed sections. I use it because of the well written explanations of common plot points and structure used in popular and successful storylines. The author, John Yorke is a British television producer of the popular series, EastEnders, the author of two books: Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them and Into the Woods: A Five Act Window Into Story.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
This book is one of the most highly regarded books on screenwriting in particular. It includes criticisms of modern day writing included in unsuccessful movies, gives widely used, well received advice for writers, and acts as a collection of elements used in making renowned storylines. Robert McKee is a former professor at the University of Southern California. McKee’s former students include over 65 Academy Award winners, 200 Emmy Award winners, 100 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 50 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners, the British Book of the Year Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
Aristotle, et al. Poetics ; and, Rhetoric. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.
In the “Poetics” section, Aristotle talks about the mastery of comedy and tragedy and the overall structure of a story. I chose this because it pertains to the essentials of writing a good plot. This book has been referenced by many people in the screenwriting industry including Robert McKee and Aaron Sorkin, as well as John Yorke. Aristotle is a philosopher who wrote many original and highly used works in his day.
Grove, Elliot. “10 Common Elements Of Award Winning Screenplays.” Raindance, 11 July
Elliot Grove has written three books on screenwriting, is the founder of the Raindance Film Festival and has been awarded a PhD in filmmaking. I chose this article because it is written by someone reputable and gives very brief examples of the things that make good screenplays successful. The title pretty much describes exactly what the article is about.
Sorkin, Aaron. “MasterClass Online Classes.” MasterClass,
Aaron Sorkin is the writer behind the award winning TV drama The West Wing and the movie A Few Good Men. I chose to reference his teachings in his Master Class because he talks about what it takes to be a screenwriter. As a successful screenwriter, he comes across as a reliable source.