7 Lessons To Learn From 2014’s Blacklist Scripts

7 Lessons To Learn From 2014’s Blacklist Scripts

Any aspiring writer will often be told to study the greats. With screenwriting, you’ll be directed to the works of William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, and Shane Black.

Of course, this is sound advice, but you’ll quickly realize that those four writers are in a league of their own. They are able to pull off writing styles, dialogue, and gimmicks that you aren’t capable of or allowed to do as a budding writer (good luck pulling off Sorkin’s page-length monologues).

The Black List offers writers a rare opportunity to see what techniques and styles are working for today’s professionals. The Black List writers are competent and successful, but aren’t operating at the legendary status of the aforementioned screenwriters.

Reading these scripts will give you a glimpse at the spec market landscape. It will show you how your script should look on the page, what types of stories are getting noticed, and what characters are attracting attention.

Reading “the classics” is informative and important, but the Black List will show you what professional scripts look like from writers who are in the trenches of today’s spec market and fighting to get noticed.

Here are seven takeaways from selected Black List scripts:

1) Write For the Reader: The Babysitter

Logline: A lonely twelve-year-old boy in love with his babysitter discovers some hard truths about life, love, and murder.

Some writers approach a screenplay the same way one might tackle a term paper: Long paragraphs. Dry sentences. And a whole lot of filler.

Brian Duffield has made his name by writing with the reader in mind. If you want your script to make it to the big screen, it’s going to have to appeal to a whole lot of people on the page first.

Brian has sold five specs during his career. One of the keys to his success is that his scripts are very readable.  

Readability is determined by several variables: economy of words, the length of the screenplay itself, the way the words are structured on the page, and the style that it’s written in.

Brian’s script The Babysitter, which made 2014’s Black List, is a breezy 87 pages.  When describing a character that is promiscuous, he simply says, “This is Jessie. She’d f*** you.”

And perhaps most importantly, his writing style is fun. When a plot twist occurs, he devotes a whole page to a single sentence: “WHAT THE F***”. This writing style won’t work for everyone, but it’s touches like these that convey tone, entertain the reader, and helps Duffield differentiate his scripts from the stacks of scripts that executives sift through on a daily basis.

2) Give Personality to Every Character: Cartoon Girl

Logline: When a young boy finds out that the cartoon character he’s in love with is based on a real girl, he drags his single father on a road trip to track her down.

When you’re writing a story with a full roster of characters, it’s in your best interest to make even the minor characters stand out.

“This is Joe St. Clair (11). His height is more Simon than Garfunkel. Be patient, young Joe. Puberty will come. But not yet.”

“Laura (11) is aggressive, but it can’t be her fault. Sometimes you can just look at a person and know that their parents are jerks”.

“IKE (30’s, redneck with really expensive cowboy boots).”

This is how writer Randall Green ensures that his readers remember all of his characters. Not only are these specific, interesting details to remember them by, but these idiosyncrasies also make his screenplay pop, bringing life to the characters and to the page.

3) Throw the Kitchen Sink at Your Protagonist: Beef

Logline: “A manager at a small town fast food restaurant must use every resource available to come up with 10 grand in 24 hours after losing a bet”.

The logline for Beef isn’t going to start a studio bidding war, but it’s the plotting by writer Jeff Lock that brought this screenplay to the studio’s attention.

The main character’s plan is to sell as much beef from his store as he can and then have one of his buddies rob the store and split the proceeds with him. Jeff Lock stacks obstacle after obstacle on top of his protagonist’s scheme, making the journey to his character’s goal as difficult as possible.

The main character isn’t getting enough customers to make the restaurant worth robbing. So he has to call in favors from local sports teams and clubs. But then he doesn’t have enough beef. So he has to call one of the other franchises. But they don’t want to give him the beef. During all the chaos at his restaurant, one of his chef’s die.  And then his buddy comes to rob the restaurant at the wrong time.

Jeff Lock throws the kitchen sink at his protagonist, helping elevate a rather pedestrian black comedy into a Fargo-esque crowd pleaser. So if you are committed to a premise that doesn’t jump off the page, focus on putting as much pressure onto your protagonist as possible.

4) Give Universal Themes a Twist: Plus One

Logline: Looking for love and realizing that all her friends are married, Rachel discovers that her only remaining wingwoman is a loud and oversharing wildcard.

Many scripts are so focused on plotting or set pieces that they often try to simplify the theme to something that’s as easy to digest as possible.

The Fast & the Furious franchise pushes the idea of family because it’s a universal theme and easy to convey. And the writer understands that people buy tickets to see cars crashing into skyscrapers, not scenes that are meditations on the meaning of life.

If you want to get your story to stand out, it may help to freshen up an older theme. It could send your story down roads less traveled.

April Prosser’s Plus One is a standard romantic comedy that deals with women who decide to rush into relationships because they are pushing 30.

Rushing into love isn’t a new theme, but Prosser specifically tackles women who view marriage as a milestone.  

Her decision to tweak a standard theme elevates the script above the usual trappings of the romantic comedy genre. SPOILER: The girl doesn’t get the guy in the end. None of the female characters do.

By just twisting her theme, Prosser is able to have fresh character arcs, an unexpected ending, and a story that feels like it actually has something new and meaningful to offer.  

5) Conflict, Conflict, Conflict: Morgan

Logline: A corporate risk management consultant is summoned to a remote research lab to determine whether or not to terminate an artificial being.

From the moment Morgan begins, there is tension as to whether the protagonist is there to kill the robot. Most of the characters view the robot as a scientific miracle; others see it as a cold-blooded murderer.

The best conflicts are similar to bad divorces. You need your characters on opposite ends of an issue with no intention of budging. The story progression can move these two viewpoints closer together or cement them firmly into place.

Make your characters as opposite of each other as you can and the tension and conflict will come naturally in your story.

6) Write Challenging Characters: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

Logline: An eccentric millionaire abducts his daughter and travels the country switching identities and eluding the police as his ex-wife unravels his past and endless stream of lies.

Great characters, not great stories, are what often earn movies the green light because the film industry is all about packaging.

If the story is great, but the characters don’t stand out, it’ll be hard to find an A-lister who wants to do the project. In turn, a subpar story can land a bankable actor if it offers a challenging role.

Julie & Julia wasn’t a very compelling story, but Meryl Streep was excited about the prospect of playing the six-foot, shrill-voiced Julia Child.

In the case of The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, the main character elevates the story above typical crime dramas. The protagonist is colored by his eccentricities: he’s fond of board games, lives to quote his favorite movies, and dispenses facts and knowledge with brazen confidence. But for all of his charms, the character is chilling and dangerous.

The protagonist is a challenge, and would be an easy sell to a bankable actor.

This is something to consider when writing a screenplay. Beyond fulfilling your storytelling needs, layered characters give your script a better chance of coming to fruition.

7) Simplify the Concept, Complicate the Characters: In The Deep

Logline: A lone surfer attacked by a shark and stranded on a reef must find a way back to shore before succumbing to her injuries.

There is a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character begins explain the inner-workings of his financial scam.

But midsentence, he realizes you don’t really care. You just want him to get on with the story.  In writing, this is important to remember.

In The Deep is about a woman trying to get back to shore after losing her leg to a shark. It doesn’t take much time to set up what her goal is and what is at stake.

The writer devotes the time he’s saved with his simple set-up to developing his protagonist. Why is this woman on the beach alone? Why isn’t she in school? What does her tattoo symbolize? Why is she so reckless?

Many action films feel the need to explain away why the fate of the world depends on MacGuffin X.  The truth is that no one cares about the intimate details.

In the same way Gravity doesn’t bother showing what NASA is up to while Sandra Bullock is fighting for her life, In the Deep doesn’t waste its energy giving background on the shark. In years past, films like Armageddon and Jaws filled in plot details that today’s audience might consider irrelevant.

The action/thriller/horror scripts of today are leaner, meaner, and more focused. Making the story as simple as you can allows for stronger, more interesting characters.