The world of cinema is a captivating realm that has the power to transport audiences to different worlds and evoke myriad emotions. Behind every successful movie lies a well-crafted screenplay that is the foundation for the film’s success. From timeless classics to contemporary blockbusters, several key elements consistently appear in screenplays for successful movies. Let’s explore these shared attributes that contribute to successful movie screenplays’ enduring appeal and widespread acclaim.
Throughout this essay, I will use the first John Wick movie/screenplay as an example. For sure, it isn’t the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a movie that had all the markings of a forgettable action flick, but turned out to be much more than expected and launched a franchise. A lot of that rests on the performance of Keanu Reeves, but at it’s core it’s the screenplay that made this movie, and franchise, what it is today.
1. Compelling Characters
At the heart of every successful movie is a set of compelling characters. These characters are three-dimensional, each with their own unique personalities, motivations, and flaws. Audiences need to relate to or be intrigued by these characters, investing emotionally in their journeys. Moreover, successful screenplays often feature characters that undergo significant growth and development throughout the story, leaving a lasting impact on viewers.
John Wick shows that a character doesn’t have to be overly complex to be memorable. Perhaps it’s the fact that he isn’t complex at all that makes him so compelling. Anyone can relate with his motivations and understand why he’s doing what he does.
2. Intriguing Plot
I’m tempted to say that an original plot is the backbone of a successful movie, but we all know that isn’t the case. There are few original stories left to be told. At their core, there are only a handful of elemental plots. What successful screenplays do is put new clothing on an old plot and do it in a way that feels fresh. What a plot can do is suddenly take an unexpected left turn by incorporating unexpected twists, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and eager to discover what happens next.
John Wick does this by making the protagonist the boogie man for the men we typically think of as scary. The mafia is usually the bad guy in any story they are in. But who is the mafia afraid of? Enter John Wick. That simple premise elevates the character to almost godlike proportions.
3. Effective Dialogue
Dialogue is a powerful tool that allows characters to communicate their thoughts, emotions, and intentions. A successful screenplay incorporates dialogue that feels natural, engaging, and memorable. Each line should serve a purpose, driving the plot forward or revealing crucial aspects of the characters. Furthermore, the use of subtext and implied meaning in dialogue adds depth and complexity to the characters and their relationships, elevating the overall storytelling experience.
It’s important to remember that dialogue is communication, but it doesn’t just mean words. The body language and expressions an actor uses in concert with the tone give the dialog depth. Too many screenplays today rest solely on words and don’t give actors a chance to act. Anyone can read the lines, but a good director and screenplay can put actors in a position to shine.
John Wick has only 484 words, not lines, but words, in John Wick Chapter 1. But he says much, much more than just those 484 words.
4. Thematic Depth
Behind every successful movie lies a profound theme that resonates with audiences on a deeper level. Themes can range from love, sacrifice, and redemption to societal issues, personal growth, and the human condition. These themes give the film a sense of purpose and meaning, prompting viewers to reflect on their own lives and experiences long after leaving the theater.
This is perhaps the hardest thing to accomplish in a screenplay. How do you create a story that helps people become a better version of themselves? It is a rare accomplishment for any screenplay, and shouldn’t necessarily be a priority, but if there’s an angle to connect the everyday person with a character(s) who can be an example of how real people can change, then it’s worth the risk to take it. Success at this might be the most rewarding aspect of any screenplay.
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5. Pacing and Tension
An effective screenplay knows how to balance pacing and tension to maintain the audience’s engagement throughout the movie. Successful films often combine moments of high intensity with quieter, reflective scenes, creating a rhythm that keeps viewers invested. Additionally, the strategic use of suspense and anticipation adds layers of excitement, ensuring that audiences are emotionally invested in the outcome.
Many movies today purposely forego this aspect of storytelling and go balls-to-the-wall from start to finish. It’s a daring choice and rarely succeeds. Giving the audience a chance to catch their breath and anticipate the next scene can build tension as the viewer wonders if their mental model of what is expected will be fulfilled or will the story go in another direction.
6. Visual Storytelling
Cinema is a visual medium, and a successful screenplay takes full advantage of this fact. It presents the story in a way that engages the audience visually, utilizing vivid descriptions, dynamic action sequences, and striking imagery. A well-written screenplay communicates the director’s vision effectively, giving the film a distinct visual identity that enhances the overall experience.
Of course, John Wick leans heavily on the choreography of the action to tell a story. I remember describing the action in the John Wick Chapter 1 as a violent ballet.
7. Memorable Endings
The way a movie concludes is critical to its lasting impact. Successful screenplays often deliver endings that are emotionally satisfying, thought-provoking, or even open to interpretation. A well-crafted ending can leave a profound impression on audiences, solidifying the film’s place in cinematic history.
It’s the last bite of a meal that stays with us the longest. The same is true of a movie. The feeling we have as the credits roll will stay with us and influence our feeling about the overall movie. Who can forget the spinning top at the end of Inception? The entire audience moaned. Will the top fall over, or will it spin forever? Of course the story can’t tell us the answer. The answer is in the not knowing.
In conclusion, successful screenplays share several key elements that contribute to the enduring appeal of the movies they bring to life. From compelling characters and engaging plots to effective dialogue and thematic depth, these elements work together to create a captivating and memorable cinematic experience. As filmmakers continue to master the art of storytelling, these common attributes will undoubtedly remain fundamental to the success of future movies, captivating audiences worldwide for generations to come.
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