Many scripts sent to agents, competitions, producers, or consultants, have been noted as hugely underdeveloped. They're almost hitting the mark - they've got a tight premise or a fascinating concept, interesting characters or a unique pull. However, seldom are these scripts entirely developed, strong, and rarely are they production-ready.
Usually, this is because these scripts are missing one or more of The 5Ws.
The 5Ws is an underused term necessary for developing your drama, and your idea, and stands for five key features your story should include. Despite them seeming obvious, these 5Ws are often missed, overlooked, or poorly-thought-out.
So, before you set to work on your script, take a look at your story. Take a look at your idea, your concept, and your world - and make sure that it answers the 5Ws of:
Firstly, this is the most straightforward but often least developed of The Ws.
What is your story? What genre is it? What is it about at its core?
Is it a family drama? Is it an underdog tale? Is it the next big superhero blockbuster?
A lot of scripts I've read recently have started as one thing and ended entirely differently. For example - a story without a What is evident when your script begins as a quirky rom-com and turns into a war thriller by the third act.
Develop your Story
Get yourself a notepad or a piece of scrap paper and before you set off planning characters and dialogue and structure, write down what you want to write as concisely as possible.
Think about what kind of story you're planning to write, and when you have your What, go into more detail. Tighten your idea by crafting a Logline - that is, one or two sentences designed to tell your story concisely, and uniquely.
You can check out my previous blog about Loglines here.
Where is your story set? This is more important than you think, as an intriguing or unusual setting can add so much depth and character to your story.
How do your characters interact with the setting? What does it mean to them? How do they feel about their world?
Often, I'm finding myself reading scripts with no identity on its Where and thinking to myself, this could be set anywhere. The setting is flat, uninspired, or I've seen it all before.
Use your setting to ground your world, add layers and personality, but most importantly - make your story seem unique and developed.
On a similar subject, When your story takes place is also very important and often overlooked. Your time period is crucial to developing your characters - how they think, how they interact, what they wear, what their ideals are - even how the world feels, looks like, and what is possible in its boundaries.
Think about programmes such as Stranger Things, which borrows from the 80s to benefit the plot, its characters, and to ground the other-worldly series in a recognisable, instantly stylish and relatable world.
Consider when you're writing your script:
Does this need to be set in the present day? Do I have to create a contemporary drama, or can I develop and layer this story by researching and implementing the style, tone, ideals, and atmosphere of a different time period?
Impact on Story
At its core, the story of Peaky Blinders is a family working together to build their relationships and their criminal empire. This is also the story of The Borgias and The Sopranos. A significant difference between them is that these beloved programmes feel particularly unique due to the periods in which they are set, and how their stories are enhanced by their When.
We see similar struggles between the family in Peaky Blinders and The Sopranos, but the former struggles with lawlessness in the early 20th Century and the latter with law and life in modern times. They are similar in story but separated by time and all that their respective periods encompass. Think how different, or how impossible The Sopranos would be if it took place in the 15th Century. Or would it just be The Borgias?
Who comes in two parts.
Firstly - Who are your characters? Who populates your world? Who tells your story?
Many scripts are identified immediately as being under-developed through their inclusion of under-developed, unrealistic or unrelatable characters.
If I'm reading through your script and can't discern a character's profession, relationship to another, motivations, wants or needs, or why I should care about them, something is wrong.
Know your protagonist, your antagonist and your supporting characters, work out their arcs and work out what makes them who they are. What makes them tick? Why are they interesting? Why do we want to watch them? Why are we rooting for the protagonist, or why do we hate the antagonist?
From whose Point of View is this story taking place? Who is the central character?
If you're struggling to work out who is central to your story and who your protagonist is, use the Harry Potter method of writing out the main idea of your plot after a character's name, and seeing if it fits.
Most commonly, your main character - your protagonist - is whose eyes we see the world through, who we follow most closely, and who changes the most throughout the story.
Secondly, the question of Who is important when looking at your script as a whole.
Who is this story for? Who is your target audience? Is this a story for families? Or kids? Or fans of crime dramas? Or people who liked something similar?
When you're writing your story - yes, definitely write for yourself - but think about who else will enjoy your creation. Harry Potter's target audience would arguably be different from Peaky Blinders', just as Peaky Blinders' audience may be different from The Borgias'.
An agent or a producer's question when looking at a script will be,
'Is this marketable? Who will watch this?'
If you've written a story and you can't identify who would watch it on screen, go back to the beginning and figure out What your story actually is. It might be that you've lost your way mid-way through a script, and the story you want to tell, its tone, its genre, and its world, has become muddled.
This leads on to Why.
Why are you writing this story? Why are you writing it now? What does this story mean to you, and what do you want it to mean to someone else?
Does your story feature a particular issue you want to express to an audience, satirise or comment on? Is there a gap in the market for this story?
Usually, the most unique scripts express a strong Why in their pages and can easily be identified. It may be that I've never seen the concept before, or that I have seen it before but the story has been told in a new, unusual or underrepresented voice.
I'm not just talking about diversity - I'm talking about character. We've been treated to more films in recent times from the antagonist's perspective, or we've viewed the world through the eyes of a supporting character. There is always an interesting and unique angle. Even if you're writing in a familiar setting, or a using familiar period, there is a new idea or story to share, because it's yours.
Think about Why your story can be unique. All you need to do is develop, inject some personality and some you into it, and be passionate about your ideas.
Using The 5Ws
So, if you're about to write your masterpiece, or you've written it already but are unsure of it, double-check that your story includes The 5Ws of
What is the story?
Where is it set?
When is it set?
Who is in it and Who is it for?
Why are you writing it?
A straightforward and simple fix, and some more attention to detail, may be all it takes to begin developing your script, bring the best out in it, and ultimately hit the mark.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor, and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing, and Researching the Media. Besides consulting on scripts, Eden writes content for radio, stage, and online, and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.