Top down view of an open screenplay on a desk with a clapperboard and fountain pen, red theater curtains in the background

What Makes a Good Screenplay? 10 Essential Elements for Screenwriting Success

Around 700 screenplays are submitted to the Academy each year hoping to be considered for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar category.

But only around 5% will make the shortlist (LA Times). With such fierce competition, what separates the incredible scripts that get greenlit and go into production from the mediocre ones that end up in the trash?

While creative expression and artistry certainly come into play when judging a script, most successful Hollywood movies still adhere to essential elements of strong screenwriting craft.

Clear structure, compelling characters, immersive scenes, and brilliant dialogue combine to create screenplays that immediately leap off the page into the minds of readers.

So what exactly makes for a memorable, production-ready screenplay in those magical 100-125 pages? Let’s examine the 10 key elements that are the hallmarks of any script worthy of the big screen.

  1. Strong, Relatable Protagonist

At the heart of every great screenplay is a compelling central character that instantly draws in readers and audience members.

This protagonist serves as the emotional anchor guiding us through the story. They don’t necessarily have to be heroic or even likable.

But we have to care about what happens to them and become invested in their quest. An intriguing protagonist usually exhibits these traits:

  • The complex backstory provides motivation and explains the behavior.
  • Clear desire line with tangible external goals and inner needs.
  • Flaws, quirks, and contradictions that give depth.
  • Arcs and evolves over the course of the story.

An example is Elliott in E.T. We understand his family situation informs his emotional isolation. His desire for connection leads him to befriend E.T. And his innate goodness shines through his compassion for the alien.

Great protagonists reflect universal human experiences and emotions. When crafting a compelling lead, consider their wounds, motivations, and what makes them sympathetic. Audiences have to care if they win or lose.

  1. Clear, Focused Storyline

While complex characters are crucial, a screenplay’s plot provides the map to guide us on their journey. A compelling storyline often contains these key elements:

  • Linear structure with cause and effect logic.
  • Few subplots or diversions from the main thread.
  • Steadily builds stakes, suspense, and urgency.
  • Centers on one major dramatic question or conflict.
  • Draws from common patterns and archetypes.

Casablanca is a prime example, focused entirely on Rick’s internal conflict over helping Ilsa escape the Nazis. Every scene relates to the central storyline. The romance, the letters of transit, Renault showing up – they all tie back to the core narrative question.

When developing a screenplay idea, identify the heart of the story right away. What’s the one-sentence logline? Build outward from there, ensuring each new element feeds back into the main thread. Avoid letting subplots or minor characters take over. Streamline.

  1. Memorable Dialogue

Sharp dialogue brings characters instantly to life. It unveils personality quirks, backgrounds, desires, and conflicts. Dialogue advances the story, reveals exposition, and gives readers a “feel” for each person’s voice. Consider these dialogue tips:

  • Each character has unique speech patterns, vocabulary, and delivery.
  • Dialogue should sound natural but convey information.
  • Use subtext and unspoken tension to reveal a deeper meaning.
  • Let actions complement dialogue to show rather than tell.
  • Avoid on-the-nose lines simply reinforcing plot points.

The snappy exchanges between Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia on The Golden Girls reveal so much about their personalities. Dorothy’s sarcasm plays against Rose’s sweet naiveté. The barbs thrown at each other unveil their tangled history as friends.

Read your dialogue aloud. Does it flow smoothly? Does it capture the character’s voice? Remember, dialogue advances the story as much as any action line.

  1. Vivid Scene Descriptions

Painting a cinematic picture through descriptive scene settings and action lines is another screenwriting must. Consider:

  • Use all five senses – sights, smells, textures, tastes, sounds.
  • Select details that pop, not lengthy blocks of dense description.
  • Personify settings to help convey emotion.
  • Use metaphors, similes, and resonant imagery where possible.
  • Favor tight, punchy sentences over winding passages.
  • Opt for active voice and strong verbs over passive constructions.

The opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark instantly pulls us into the lost Peruvian temple, setting an ominous, mysterious tone:

“The dense, lush rain forests of South America. Somewhere in the Andes mountains. Sheer cliffs and ominous fog shroud the landscape. This is deep, unexplored territory.”

Immerse readers in each scene using crisp, vivid details. Take them on a cinematic journey.

  1. Appropriate Length

Screenplays must conform to industry standards for formatting and length. While acceptable page counts vary by genre, these general ranges apply:

  • Dramas/Thrillers: 90-120 pages
  • Comedies: 85-110 pages
  • Horror: 85-100 pages
  • Romantic Comedies: 90-110 pages
  • Animation: 75-90 pages

Avoid padding scenes or dialogue simply to add pages. Be concise. Let the story determine proper length. Short films and indie productions have more leeway at lower page counts. But for commercial prospects, err on the side of tighter structure.

Use page breaks between scenes judiciously. “Page economy” in screenwriting means making the most of each page and avoiding dense blocks of text. Reviewers prefer “quick reads”.

  1. Underlying Theme/Message

Even pure entertainment genres benefit from a resonant theme or message beneath the surface. Some examples:

  • Action/Thrillers: Triumph of good vs. evil.
  • Comedies: Bringing mismatched people together, finding meaning in chaos.
  • Dramas: Overcoming adversity, flawed characters seeking redemption.
  • Romances: The transformative power of love, accepting our own worthiness.

The theme isn’t the same as plot or moral. It’s the universal human experience or truth that resonates throughout the story. In Die Hard, John McClane’s theme is “overcoming all odds to save his marriage.”

Define your theme early and ensure story milestones tie back to expressing it. Themes make stories emotionally meaningful.

  1. Correct Format

Screenplays follow a very specific format with each element in precise order:

  • Scene sluglines: INT or EXT, location, day or night.
  • Action lines: Description of setting, character actions.
  • Character intros: Character name (age) the first time seen.
  • Dialogue: Character name in ALL CAPS preceeding.
  • Transitions: CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO.
  • Parentheticals: (sarcastically), (beat) to direct-acting.
  • Dual dialogue: Character names on alternate left and right margins.

Resources like WriterDuet or FinalDraft properly format with industry-standard margins, fonts, and indents when writing or importing a script. Read produced screenplays to study format. Follow conventions.

A properly formatted screenplay ensures a professional presentation. Reviewers immediately notice amateur mistakes.

  1. Clear Three-Act Structure

Solid screenplay structure follows the three-act model:

  • Act 1: Set up of protagonist, world, dramatic question (25% of script)
  • Act 2: Confrontation, character development, escalating conflicts (50%)
  • Act 3: Climax and resolution to dramatic question (25%)

Within this:

  • The inciting incident in Act 1 propels story events.
  • Midpoint marks shift from Act 2A to Act 2B (point of no return).
  • All three acts build to tentpole story moments.

Casablanca aligns perfectly:

  • Act 1: Rick’s backstory and isolation in Casablanca.
  • Act 2A: Rick and Ilsa’s renewed relationship, letters of transit surface.
  • Midpoint: Ilsa asks Rick for the letters at the cafe.
  • Act 2B: Growing pressure from Nazis, Victor Laszlo’s escape plan.
  • Act 3: Climax at the airport when Rick lets Ilsa escape with Laszlo.

Execute a clear three-act structure with cause-and-effect scene progression. Each act builds in stakes and urgency.

  1. Show, Don’t Tell

Films are a visual medium. The mantra “show don’t tell” means revealing story and character details through action, dialogue, and imagery rather than explicit explanation.

For example:

Telling: “John was incredibly nervous for his big speech.”

Showing: “John paces backstage, reviewing notecards with shaking hands as he takes deep breaths.”

Great screenwriting means using scenes, details, and behaviors to reveal information organically. Trust the reader to infer meaning from how characters act and react.

Show critical story moments rather than summarizing events indirectly through dialogue. Transport readers into pivotal scenes to experience the drama firsthand.

The opening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Cliff Booth’s confrontation with Bruce Lee rather than just having him mention it later. We get to see the tense build-up and payoff rather than a second-hand account.

Great screenwriters put readers in the shoes of characters for pivotal story moments. Some ways to apply “show don’t tell”:

  • Act out intense conversations to determine organic blocking and behavior.
  • Visualize settings vividly and describe relevant sights, sounds, and smells.
  • Craft evocative scene intros/transitions to immerse readers.
  • Avoid on-the-nose dialogue that explicitly states emotions.
  • Replace explanations of backstory with in-scene flashbacks.
  • Use reaction shots to demonstrate how events affect characters.

Showing dramatic, hilarious, frightening, or heartfelt moments allows the audience to connect and experience the story viscerally.


Crafting a compelling screenplay is part art and part skill. While subjective elements like dialogue polish and character depth distinguish the truly great scripts, respecting film structure and the reader experience is foundational.

Use the essential elements outlined here as your blueprint. Then layer on your unique voice and creativity. Revise, get feedback, and refine until your screenplay leaps off the page.

Motivated writers with a commitment to their craft can elevate their scripts from mediocre first drafts to hot prospects. Mastering the fundamentals while exercising creative flair results in screenplays with the power to come to life on the big screen.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 elements of a screenplay?

The 5 essential elements of a screenplay are:

  1. Story and Plot Structure
  2. Character Development
  3. Scene Description
  4. Dialogue
  5. Screenplay Format

What are the three C’s of screenwriting?

The three C’s of screenwriting are:

  1. Clarity – The story and characters’ objectives should be clear
  2. Concision – Avoid excessive detail and description
  3. Conflict – Dramatic conflicts that the protagonist must overcome

What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?

The #1 rule when writing a screenplay is to show, don’t tell. Reveal story and character details through action, dialogue, and imagery rather than explicit explanation.

What makes a script stand out?

Scripts stand out through compelling protagonists, memorable dialogue, vivid scene descriptions, clear structure, and an engaging concept/premise.

What is the difference between a script and a screenplay?

A script and screenplay are essentially the same thing – the written dramatic work that provides the basis for producing a film. The terms are used interchangeably.

What is the difference between a screenplay and a script?

There is no difference between a screenplay and a script. The terms refer to the same written dramatic work that provides the blueprint for a film production.

What is the golden rule of screenwriting?

The golden rule of screenwriting is to always maintain the audience’s interest. Every scene and line of dialogue should advance the story and be relevant.

What is the hardest part of writing a screenplay?

The hardest part is usually developing a compelling, focused storyline along with multidimensional characters. Avoiding tangents and subplots is also difficult.

What are the pillars of screenwriting?

The pillars of screenwriting are structure, character, theme, conflict, and dialogue – the key foundational elements that hold up a successful, well-crafted screenplay.

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