Anatomy of a Winning Feature: The First Michael

By: Laura Huie

Shore Scripts created the anatomy articles in response to repeated requests to share successful scripts from our contests so that other emerging screenwriters could learn from their examples. Placing in a screenplay contest can create value for a writer’s IP and so meeting this request presented a challenge. How do you share what needs to stay private – at least for a while?

Deconstructing what made our Judges and Readers select a script for placement, rather than publishing the script in its entirety, was a way to meet this challenge. And, we think, it is even more useful to writers considering entering our contests.

We thank our former Winners and Finalists for sharing their scripts with us and allowing us to share our evaluations with a wider community. Read on to find out what, for us, makes a winning feature script.

All scripts start with a first draft, then you begin revising and editing until it becomes polished enough to submit to contests and share with film and television executives. The process may seem daunting at first, but with practice and a solid technical foundation—you’ll be there in no time.

With a standard feature screenplay ranging from 90-120 pages, the most challenging part is creating a cohesive and well-crafted plot within that chunk of time. One of the best ways to learn what makes a winning screenplay is by studying them on the page.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what makes a successful feature script, we’re going to break down THE FIRST MICHAEL by Michael Buonocore, the Grand Prize Winner from our 2022 Feature Screenplay Contest.

THE FIRST MICHAEL is a comedy film about a bumbling podcaster who chronicles his journey to Florida to confront his biological father. Soon discovering he got the wrong guy, Michael learns he’s not just on the hunt for a good Christmas story—he’s searching for the family he didn’t know he needed.

PREMISE

With any good story, you need to have a compelling concept. THE FIRST MICHAEL is a heartwarming and humorous tale with a simple yet effective premise. The flaky and angst-ridden protagonist feels suitably tested by the father-seeking premise, and the story captures the excitement around Michael’s podcast as his cult following and the pressure to deliver on the final show are regularly reinforced.

Michael and best friend/co-host Lanie’s road trip is suitably complicated and ill-fated. The long journey takes Michael back to his roots as the story delves deeper into his true self (rather than just the podcast host on a mission) and reveals his family background. Overall, for any writer diving into a new script, the concept is king, but it’s even better when paired with interesting and complex characters.

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HOOK

The opening scene of any story must grab the reader’s attention. THE FIRST MICHAEL drops us straight into a pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey, allowing us to quickly see Michael and Lanie in action and establishing character before introducing the podcast premise.

The script does a particularly good job of creating a subtle buzz around the podcast, creating a sense of this very human, undiscovered gem of a tale shared with a select group. Michael’s introspective journey is well-captured through the podcast and flashback scenes. Additionally, there’s an apt use of a close psychic distance in the writing style to help bring the reader closer to scenes where specific details are important for the audience to engage with the story.

CHARACTERS

As suggested, Michael’s high-functioning, anxious character contrasts the bold and ambitious paternity premise bringing forth a comedic result. The sensitive subject matter and difficult road toward closure make Michael endearing from the start.

Throughout his journey, Michael is significantly tested by his desire to find his father and the pressure of the impending podcast finale. Michael reaches a boiling point and shifts his priorities when forced to choose between the show and his new-found family, demonstrating the character’s growth.

What’s more, the relationship between Michael and Lanie is the heart of this script. The spiky but intimate bond hooks the reader and suits the podcast-host style well. The careful choice of flashbacks further reveals their relationship and Lanie’s sub-plot as a failing comedian also gives some much-needed vulnerability to her abrasive nature.

Moreover, the script uses its supporting/minor characters brilliantly. Firstly, the Moretti family dynamic feels genuine and varied. Their reactions to Michael’s cannoli offer (see example below) are a great example of showing character through “showing and not telling.”

DIALOGUE

Dialogue is used smartly throughout this feature, especially with the different sides of Michael’s personality. His shakiness is well-captured and is immediately evident from his hesitation to knock on Moretti’s door (see example below). This view of Michael is then contrasted by his “podcast voice,” a contrast that is balanced throughout the script and is embodied in his final decision.

PLOT/STRUCTURE

The first act of the script is effective in quickly establishing Michael and Lanie by thrusting us straight into the action, the cut to the recording studio makes for a great switch-up in tone and facilitates a lot of seamless exposition under the guise of presenting the show.

The pressure of delivering the final show is felt throughout, and the arrival of Michael’s biological family shifts the narrative focus along with Michael’s priorities, and the subsequent payoff to Lanie’s career also feels fitting. Overall, the plot is tight, concise, and has a satisfying conclusion with the full script coming in at 96 pages.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Given the central themes of family and friendship, the festive Christmas period is a great tonal setting for THE FIRST MICHAEL. The podcast set-up and odd-couple dynamic make for some interesting stakes and comedic scenes, but the underlying story of a man connecting with his biological father feel particularly unique and sentimental.

Watch Michael Buonocuore talk about his win!

YOUR TURN

Hopefully, this breakdown of a winning script will encourage you to continue writing the best draft possible.

Our Feature Contest is geared towards screenwriters looking to gain representation with a manager or agent, sell their screenplay, and get hired on writing assignments.

This contest has a proven track record of helping emerging writers achieve their goals of becoming full-time working screenwriters. Writers through our Feature Contest have gained representation, and gone on to write for Blumhouse, Netflix, Paramount, Film4, NBC, Hulu, & many others.

Moreover, Shore Scripts never sends a script out to the industry without having first obtained permission from the writer(s) to do so.

Click here to learn more about our 2023 Feature Contest and how you can enter.


Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds. 


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