Script Coverage Chronicles – October 2019: In Screenwriting You Need to Play Offense and Defense to Win the Game

Screenwriters love to come up with that “big moment” – the kind audiences talk about for years. 

To use a football metaphor, a big cinematic moment is the equivalent of a sixty-yard Hail Mary pass.  It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you score huge unexpected points.

As screenwriters, we absolutely need to go on the offensive and score points with our audiences, with compelling story beats, hilarious gags and climactic twists.

But we also have to remember to play defense.  That means not losing points with audiences by doing things that annoy or upset them or otherwise throw them out of the story.

If you give up too many points on defense, your script will end up losing the metaphorical game – even if you’ve done some great things offensively.

As a new way of thinking about the screenwriting craft, here are two non-exhaustive lists of offensive and defensive “screen plays”:

Offensive Plays

You score points with your audience for these:

  • A small surprise
  • A unique visual
  • A vivid setting
  • An unexpected line of dialogue
  • A funny line 
  • A line viewers respond to emotionally
  • A surprising character action
  • A charming character
  • A hilarious gag
  • A small moment viewers respond to emotionally
  • A third act twist that actually works
  • A big moment viewers respond to emotionally

Note that emotion scores you lots of points.  Moviegoers are a pretty sappy lot.

Defensive Plays

An imaginary opposing team scores points when you don’t execute on these:

  • No overplayed jokes
  • No clunker gags or lines
  • Nothing in the wrong tone
  • Nothing unclear
  • No plot holes
  • Nothing illogical 
  • Nothing too unrealistic
  • Nothing too long 
  • No overuse of coincidence
  • Nothing too derivative
  • Nothing too weird or off putting 

A “shutout screenplay” – one that makes absolutely no defensive missteps – probably doesn’t exist. 

The key is to play your strongest defensive game in support of your narrative offense.

One More Thing: Special Teams

In football, there’s a third set of players, special teams.  These players punt and handle other sometimes undervalued functions, the execution of which are all actually crucial to winning a game.

In screenwriting, the “special teams” plays are formatting, grammar and spelling.  These aren’t the most glamorous aspects of the screenwriting game, but they can – and do – affect a screenplay’s fate.

In the sport of screenwriting, all three matter: offense, defense and special teams.  

May the best script win.