MATILDA (1996), Screenplay by Robin Swicord

The Recipe to Creating a Feature Script That Audiences Can’t Get Enough Of

To write a film that attracts an audience, you must satisfy the reason that they watch films in the first place. In the words of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, Matilda) in her Master Class on Adapting a Screenplay From Source Material, “Our yearning for a tremendous release of emotion, for catharsis, is why we watch movies. The truest thing that we can know about drama is that catharsis follows from the deliberate work of the dramatist, us. We construct the audience's experience.” There are several different ingredients that all must work together to create this immersive, cathartic experience for an audience, and it’s your job as a writer to utilize them.

Ingredient #1: Theme

The first thing to consider is your story’s theme. This will serve as a North Star to guide your writing journey. Swicord prompts you to ask yourself, “What am I writing about? Yes, there's an overarching story that moves from plot point to plot point, but what meaning do I want to convey by telling this story? What do I want the audience to feel and be thinking about when the end credits roll?” She suggests finding your theme by reflecting and journaling about your connections, similarities, and differences with your protagonist and the story. You then have this “magic letter,” as Swicord calls it, to look to for guidance when facing challenging obstacles as you write.


Themes resonate deeply with us because they speak to our shared human experience. On a deep, sometimes subconscious, level, the theme is a place where the audience connects to the story. To illustrate this, Swicord cites Italo Calvino’s work on universal themes and mentions well-known films that contain these themes. Her examples include:


  • The departure from home - Lady Bird
  • The trials of growing up - Moonlight
  • The attainment of maturity - Little Women
  • The proof of one's humanity - When They See Us
  • The arbitrary division of people - City of God, Parasite, Hidden Figures
  • Love unrecognized when first encountered, and then, no sooner experienced than lost - When Harry Met Sally, The English Patient
  • Having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces - The Matrix, Groundhog Day
  • The liberation of self, only by liberating others - Milk, Selma
  • The persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication - Matilda, Slumdog Millionaire (And almost every film ever)

Swicord explains the strongest themes are the ones that move us greatly and can create the catharsis described above. Through this release of emotion, we are able to unlock parts of ourselves.

WAKEFIELD (2016), Written for the Screen and Directed by Robin Swicord

Ingredient #2: Character Transformation

The next ingredients in telling a successful story are, “The infinite possibilities of mutation. The sense that anything can happen is what you want in your storytelling. That your protagonist is open to transformation, and in fact, unconsciously or not, we have come here to the story in order to see this person change.” If your character does not change, however, the world around them should.


To do this, the story should unfold out of your protagonist's contending qualities and habitual actions. Meaning, they should have vulnerable and conflicted parts of themselves, and the story should be caused by the actions they repeatedly take in connection with these qualities. Each scene must inevitably be born out of a scene before, hence creating causality. (Read more from Swicord about creating compelling characters and the causality of dramatic storytelling here.)

Ingredient #3: Story Structure

Swicord teaches that to create an emotional payoff, it is helpful to package theme and character in the container of story structure. According to Swicord, “The qualities of act one are the setting up and the setting out the awakening of longing or purpose.” An important component of this awakening is that the protagonist’s “normal” is disrupted which prompts them to set out on a journey.


In act two, “There is an early insurmountable difficulty that gets presented and obstacles that come up.” And then, “After the mid part of the movie, there's the simplifying.” Swicord explains, “The midpoint is the point that gives great new meaning. The protagonist's desire increases for reasons that are tied directly to the somatic and emotional strata of the story. In late act two is the shedding and the simplifying. You have to give up some of your expectations and desires. You realize, ‘I have to discard some of what I've been carrying. I have to do things differently,’ and this begins the contention, for real, with the things that's inside themselves.” Further, “Somewhere in act two there's going to be the recognition of something important that actually increases suffering and sets up act three.”


Finally, “Act three completes the unfinished business of act one and often contains something unexpected...but often that unexpected thing is the thing that illuminates the whole film, as you look back.” It all comes back to the journey you’re taking an audience on, which is set up by generally following this traditional three-act structure.

To have catharsis, you have to create stakes. People have to want something very badly for the protagonist.

Robin Swicord

Ingredient #4: Dramatic Elements

In the marriage of structure and dramatic elements, you create the opportunity to evoke catharsis in your audience. The first element of drama is desire. Desire is almost like the connective tissue between the story arc and other elements of drama. Your protagonist’s wants are a catalyst for plot.


Another element of drama is suffering. Swicord explains, “We can see suffering in every movie. Some are suffering, suffering, suffering, interrupted by moments of sacrifice and then transformation. Sacrifice and transformation are also elements of drama.” Contemplation is another element of drama. “Contemplation is a moment of quiet, where the character is grappling with something in order to move on to the next. It isn't just a rest for the audience, it's an active moment where we often see a shift.” Revelation, the sixth element of drama, “is a moment of recognition or understanding or when something is revealed to the audience that the protagonist has known and we have not.” The final element of drama that Swicord discusses is what Aristotle called “spectacle.” Spectacle is the engaging world of the story that your audience is transported to.


Swicord believes, “If you think of these elements of drama as being just elements in an algorithm, you can infinitely construct stories that rely on these elements of drama. No two will be alike, because there's so many different ways that you can use all of these elements.” Just using these elements, however, will not make for a compelling story; “It's also in how you sequence the events and actions, because remember, we are constructing the experience for the audience. To construct it so that people have catharsis, you have to create stakes. People have to want something very badly for the protagonist.”

WHEN THEY SEE US (2019), Teleplay by Robin Swicord

Ingredient #5: Stakes & Boundaries

The first thing that Swicord highlights when discussing stakes is that the story must feel “real.” Meaning, there needs to be authenticity to the story, and you should not simply add unrealistic emotions for effect. She notes there also must be an, “immediacy, the sense of ‘I can do no other’ contained in the realness of this. You want every action to count. Each action can only happen now.”


Besides happening for a legitimate reason, the character’s actions should, “violate a known established boundary. Boundaries in story also help us create stakes; We want penalties and jeopardy built into the actions; We want to anticipate the coming harm.” Additionally, in cases when the characters are able to escape, it should be a close call. Swicord explains that this is because, “It's our job to create anxiety in people and to control it. There's a gyre of these increasing stakes of suffering that brings the audience into an exalted state of hoping against hope that things are going to turn out the way that they want it to, that there will be this change, a transformation in the protagonist that brings about some kind of ending that feels truthful and yet gives us that that emotional release.”


Boundaries are an effective way to manipulate the anxiety of the audience, and Swicord gives a few examples: “Money is a boundary, ‘we don't have enough money.’ Time is a boundary, ‘we don't have a lot of time here.’” Other boundaries Swicord speaks about are: access, location, ability or know-how, a lack of language or mobility, labor (is the protagonist alone or do they have help?), censorship, and rigid beliefs (such as religious ones). Playing with these boundaries exerts pressure on your characters and, in turn, heightens the stakes. Along the same lines, “When you shift a boundary, the story automatically changes. So when you're stuck, explore what would happen if you change just one boundary.”


It is one thing to have stakes and boundaries in your story, but how you sequence them is also of critical importance for creating catharsis. You want your audience yearning to know how the story will end up. To do this, Swicord suggests creating, “dramatic stakes for the protagonist through hierarchies. Hierarchies of suffering, hierarchies of sacrifice, hierarchies of desire, hierarchies of transformation or revelation. You always want to move from small to big because that is going to create dramatic stakes.” Further, she asserts, “If you move from small to big something wonderful happens, which is that the audience will take a ride with you that sets them up for a very rewarding act three.


If you follow Swicord's rich recipe for developing a film, you will be able to tell an entertaining story that connects to the audience deeply and sends them on an emotional journey, building to a pinnacle moment of cathartic release that they will want to return to time and again.


Watch the Full Master Class: Adapting a Screenplay From Source Material