Did y'all ever play HEARTS as a kid? It's a card game from wayyyyy back in the day. Before Playstations existed, and iPhone apps were just a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. When the only games a new computer came with were solitaire, free cell, and, if you were lucky, chess.
For those of you who don't know what the hell I'm talking about, the rules are simple: everyone gets dealt a card from a deck until none are left. Then, people pass a card to the left and discard something. At the end of the round, every player with a heart gets one point. The winner is the person who has the least number of points at the end.
Easy, right? Well, there's one additional wrinkle. The Queen of Spades.
If that lady of the night lands in your hand, and you can't get rid of her, you get 13 points. Which, if your goal is to have the fewest points, is a tough pill to swallow. In 99% of cases, you don't want that wench to find you.
Unless ... you can "shoot the moon," that is.
Shooting the moon means that at the end of the round, you have all available hearts in your hand plus the Queen of Spades. If that happens, you get zero points, and all your opponents get 26. It's basically the "uno reverse" card in real time. It's an extremely risky strategy that can pay off massively if you do it right.
The reason I'm telling you this is not because I'm lonely and need friends to play antiquated card games with ...
No, I promise. I really do have a lively and fulfilling social life. (Please believe me).
It's because I read a script recently. A script that I kinda-sorta love, if I'm being honest. And it's a script that each and every one of you can learn from.
It started as all my reading assignments do. I got sent a batch of material for feedback in one of Pipeline's contests. I perused the loglines deciding which to read first when I stumbled across one that was ...
I'm going to repeat that to make sure you all heard me ... this script was one hundred and forty-seven pages long.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: the first thing every reader does when getting a new script is look at how long it is. Before we ever glance at the first word, an opinion is formed about your work right then and there.
Will this read be easy? Or hard?
Is this script going to be fast? Or slow?
Do I like this writer? Or don't I?
Am I going to enjoy the next two hours of my life? Or am I going to be wishing that fire ants were crawling through my underwear because anything would be better than what I'm currently doing?
Like it or not, this is how readers think. The longer your script is, the more work a reader has to do. And everybody likes it when they don't have to do as much work. That's human nature.
So, I immediately pushed that one to the very back of the list. I would get to it, of course ... But definitely not right now (side note: this is one of the [many] perks of writing a short screenplay. Your stuff gets read faster).
But let's make this easy and fast forward a few weeks—to a time when all the other scripts in my stack had been covered, and I just had this behemoth of a story standing between me and the relaxing weekend I was desperately ready for. So I dug in and started page one, sure that I was going to loathe what was about to come ...
And dammit if I wasn't completely blown away. By the time I turned the final page, I'd quasi fallen in love with the freaking thing.
Now before I move on, let me address the elephant in the room here: yes, I acknowledge that the last article I wrote for Pipeline Artists (literally it was published last month) was all about page count. I went on a rant about why you need to keep scripts short for your sake, otherwise you're shooting yourself in the foot.
And yet here I am, talking about my love for a nearly 150-page monster!
I get it ... it sounds hypocritical. But here's the thing:
This script shot the moon.
It took the queen of spades (aka, a page count of 147) ... something that would normally be the kiss of death to ANYONE ... and still managed to make me like it. Because it did everything else right (aka—it collected all the other hearts in the game). It's a risky strategy, but one that paid off in this particular instance.
Before I continue, let me be crystal fucking clear to you all: I am not advocating for you to start writing 150-page scripts. That would be a (Bernie Sanders impression) huge mistake. In fact, my biggest note to this writer was "you need to cut this down." But what I am saying is that it's possible to have a bloated script that is entertaining and engaging if you do everything else right.
There is a path forward for longer screenplays, but it requires a level of technical excellence that I'm not seeing in many scribes these days.
So let's talk about how this happened. I want to cover precisely what this script did that allowed it to be so successful. Because I firmly believe if more scripts followed this formula, the overall quality of 99% of spec screenplays would be vastly improved.
1) THE MAIN CHARACTER HAD A GOAL
"Gee, Spike. You're really starting off with the hard-to-find advice here, huh?" you say, with biting sarcasm and a massive eye roll.
You've heard this one before, I'm sure. But if this message was getting through to people, then more scripts I read would have this element. And it's damn important for your story!
One of the main things I loved about this script is that the protagonist had something that she wanted. The main character was a teenage girl who really wanted a specific career. Unfortunately, my editors have told me I need to be vague on the details since this since it’s a script that was submitted to us (totally fair), but I can tell you that it’s a traditionally male-dominated field. This gave the protagonist a path to follow … and the story a clear sense of direction.
But even more than that ...
2) THE PROTAGONIST WANTED THIS GOAL VERY, VERY (EMPHASIS ON VERY) BADLY
... she wanted it so ... fucking ... bad.
You could see it in the way she chased after her goal. How she argued with people standing in her way when she thought things were unfair. How she spoke with her family about her dreams for the future. This desire to live out her dream resonated off every page.
She wasn't just like "oh, yeah. It would be nice to get this, but I'll be fine if I don't." No. It was clear that the ONLY path that would lead this girl to happiness in her future was this career. If something matters that much to your characters, it'll likely rub off on your readers.
3) THE EMOTION WAS A FOCAL POINT OF THE STORY
This is another element of writing that I don't see enough scribes utilizing. Characters must show their feelings visibly, powerfully, and as often as possible if the reader is to have any chance of feeling them, too.
Go back to what I just wrote in #2 ... When the protagonist argues with people, what emotions is she showing?
Annoyance, for one. Anger, for another. Frustration, too.
And when she's struggling to accomplish what she has set out to do, what emotion is that showing?
More annoyance. More anger. More frustration.
This writer constantly brought his protagonist's feelings to the forefront. And that made is super easy for me to connect with her on a human level. It made her feel real. And it made me forget that I was reading a script at times.
4) THE PROTAGONIST STRUGGLED TO GET WHAT SHE WANTED
Way too many scripts forget about this. And I think there's a few reasons this happens:
A) The writer loves their protagonist way too much and doesn't want anything bad to happen to them. Therefore, whatever problems they encounter get solved almost instantly, leaving nothing to cause drama. Or ...
B) People don't read enough scripts and forget that tension and conflict are, without a doubt, the best way to keep your reader entertained and engrossed in your story.
Whatever the cause, I loved seeing the protagonist work for her goal. Again, it made her seem human, and it made the small victories on the road to success feel like they mattered. It all worked extremely well.
5) THE ROMANCE SUBPLOT WAS SUPER CUTE AND ALSO SERVED A PURPOSE
Very few stories can survive without a subplot of some kind, and this script was no different. However, unlike many scripts that include stuff that doesn't impact the A story, this one actually worked well! The two supported each other, which is not something I see often.
The B story for this screenplay was all about this blossoming romance with a similarly aged boy. This dynamic gave the heroine an outlet to talk about her frustrations and feelings in an organic way, while developing their friendship (which, equally, involved a lot of emotion). The subplot mattered and was a necessary piece of the A story. These two stories wove together perfectly.
In far too many instances, I'll see subplots that don't feel connected at all to the main narrative. It comes across as disjointed and out of place. But also ...
6) THE LOVE INTERESTS HAD A CLEAR REASON TO LIKE EACH OTHER
This times a thousand!
The protagonist was a high-strung mess for most of the second act. She was always yelling and screaming and beating herself up. But her budding crush calmed her down and brought her back to Earth. She was his outlet for social connection.
It was clear WHY they needed each other, and it worked so well!
Wayyyyy too often, I'll read scripts where it makes no sense on the page why two people are together. Or were ever together. We'll see a relationship on the rocks, and I'll think you all should just break up. You're not good for each other. But they never do. Because the story NEEDS them to stay together. The problem with this, though, is that it breeds inauthenticity into the narrative.
Something just doesn't feel right.
If you're writing two characters who are falling in love, then I implore you, think deeply about why they fall in love. And make that reasoning clear to the reader. What specifically does each person gain from being around the other? This makes the whole relationship feel real.
7) THE STORY CULMINATED IN A BIG, CLIMACTIC SHOWDOWN THAT FELT EARNED
Again, because the protagonist wanted this goal very badly, and because she had struggled to earn her way there, when she ends up in a situation where she has the chance to prove herself at the end of the script, none of that felt inauthentic. In fact, it felt like this was exactly where the story needed to go. The foundation for this narrative had been properly built over time.
8) THE STORY WAS CLEARLY ABOUT SOMETHING
Every story is made better with a clear and obvious theme. Literally every story.
I'll read plenty of scripts that I think are "meh." They're fine, but ultimately the read is unfulfilling. And why is that you ask?
Because at the end of the day, there was no deeper message to what I just read. It was just trying to be mindless entertainment. Sure, the structure was solid, and the characters were fine, but what was the point?
I'm not going to say that the theme of this script was super deep or profound. The story had a happy ending.
But you know what? It didn't have to be. Because even a story with the message of "you can achieve anything you set your mind to" is good enough for me.
I don't really care what your theme is. You just must have one.
So, let's review what we've learned today:
A) don't write scripts that are super long.
B) if you do write a script that's super long, make sure your fundamentals are firmly in place and locked in.
C) I have an amazing social life. With a girlfriend and everything.
You just don't know her. She goes to another school. In Canada.
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature illustration by Jorm Sangsorn (Adobe)