When hashing out a story’s structure, the first two ‘tentpoles’ to look for are the inciting incident and the Dark Point — i.e. when the protagonist is given a chance to change, and when she fails in the attempt.
Comedies often work better when they take their core conflict, and the protagonist’s goal, completely seriously. If everything is a big joke, why believe in the story?
The longer you draw out a mystery, the better the payoff has to be.
Don’t let your scenes sputter out like candles in a poorly ventilated room. If a scene feels too long, or ends too softly, here’s what you do: work backwards from the end, find the most dramatic line/funniest joke, and end it there.
Don’t bury non-verbal jokes inside your action paragraphs. When reading quickly, they’re easy to miss. Give important jokes a new line and a paragraph of their own.
Family gatherings are goldmines of dramatic conflict, for obvious reasons. Plus, this is one kind of scene in which you can get away with bringing up previously unmentioned conflicts and grudges. Real families have them, so we’ll accept that your characters’ families do too.
Never pitch an idea you don’t believe in, or that isn’t right for the listener, just to make up the numbers. It’s better to be “that writer with only one idea” than “that writer with one good idea and three lame ones”.
When trying to make your idea more high concept, it helps to take one extra step. Have the danger threaten a whole city instead of just a suburb; make the protagonist a Senator instead of a local politician. One step like this can open up dozens of possibilities.
If you don’t have a manager or producer to write development notes for you, put on your producer’s hat, sit down with your latest draft and write your own notes. Be detailed, honest and brutal with yourself — because one day, other people will be.
Look at your Act One. Do you have two or three scenes in a row of characters meeting each other, introducing themselves or talking about what great old friends they are? Then you know what needs to be cut.
It’s much more satisfying when the protagonist solves, charms or fights her own way out of a problem, rather than being helped out by fate or other characters.
Use metaphor and analogy appropriate to the concept of your script. “Like a guided missile” or “like a deer in headlights” don’t fit with a Renaissance period piece.
Some days the words just won’t come, and being a writer seems like a terrible idea. On those days there’s nothing you can do but go to bed, set your alarm, wake up the next morning and get back to work.
When writing dialogue about a criminal alibi, please come up with something more original than: “I was at home watching the Giants game.” “Oh yeah — who won?”
Characters can’t just be pushed around by plot. Early in your script, prove to us that your protagonist has agency of her own by letting her make an unexpected decision.
When deciding what to cut in the rewrite, your job isn’t to look for what’s bad. The most beautiful dialogue in the world could be a total pacing killer. Your job is to cut the bits that slow down the story, whether they’re brilliantly written or not.
Your protagonist’s past is not the key to their character arc. Their present is. The most important events in their emotional journey need to take place in your script’s timeline, not before it.
Your script should be a cathedral: beautiful inside and out, with a lot of open space supported by a few perfectly-placed arcs and pillars.
Early in the outline stage, figure out where all your big set-pieces (gun fights, heist sequences, emotional meltdowns etc.) are. There should be at least four of them. If you struggle with traditional turning points, try outlining around these set-pieces instead.
Emotional moments go down smoother when accompanied by a tiny bit of humor. A completely serious tone may eventually cause the reader to feel mentally exhausted.