ScreenplayLab Screenplay Checklist for Writers
by Robin Rowe
Aug 28, 2005
- Flawed Hero's Journey. Have a flawed hero on a quest.
Avoid ordinary people doing ordinary things. If it's about everyday
life then you could be shooting a documentary. A film should
seem bigger than life. The hero is the person who's point of
view (POV) is telling the story. The hero must be sympathetic
(generally that means likable) because it's the person who the
audience is supposed to identify with. The lead character must
lead, not be passive. A hero seeks justice, whatever that means
based on the hero's morals. The hero needs a sidekick so he has
someone to talk to in dialog. In a romantic comedy the hero should
bond with the family of the intended. The hero's journey is to
discover trust, faith, love, and honor. The villain's trip is
power and greed...and the villain cheats.
- Have Action. Be fast paced. Don't let characters walk
when they can run. Even a character-driven ensemble piece needs
action to move the story. Start with a climax and build from
there. Have action in every scene.
- Be Cinematic. Show a visual struggle. Show something
people would pay money to see. Give the cinematographer something
to work with. Don't talk about doing something. Show something
happening and have the dialog talk about it.
- Have Great Dialog. Use snappy dialog that's brief
and to the point. Avoid monologues and long non-dialog descriptions...a
screenplay is not a novel. Build the dialog on the plot and the
characters. Don't have at random dialog. The dialog is a way
to move your story forward. Don't confuse dialog with story.
A story is what happens, not mere talk.
- Be Funny. All films need humor. Be upbeat. Be quirky.
A film should be entertaining. You can be funny. If you don't
know how then take an improv class and study with comedians.
It can be learned. Carry a notebook in which you write down everything
you encounter in life that makes you laugh.
- Have Great Characters. Create clear personalities
who personify a particular virtue or vice and have a clear goal
and a clear obstacle. Focus on a few characters. Don't have more
characters than you would feel comfortable inviting to dinner.
A script with too many characters won't be able to attach stars
because their agents will reject it as a bad career choice for
lack of significant screen time. Think star vehicle. Having too
many characters will make it difficult to table read because
nobody has a table that big. It will be impossible to pitch because
it will take too long to describe the characters. If you have
too many characters you actually have no characters because there
isn't time to develop them. Note that extras (who don't talk)
don't count as characters.
- Have Great Plot. Follow industry-standard story structure
and story arcs. Set the hook by page ten. Have a three-act structure.
Have a climax. Have a happy ending...even if the happiness is
a mixed blessing. If readers say it isn't believable then make
it believable. That something "really happened once"
only counts for documentaries. The plot should work and contain
surprises. No loose ends. Avoid deus ex machina, that
is, a god-like element introduced to provide a contrived solution
to an apparently insoluble difficulty.
- Have Subplot or B Story. Screenwriter
Robert Towne says no American film can succeed without a
subplot. According to Towne, the subplot in CASABLANCA was the
romance, and the plot was the transit papers. A sitcom or TV
drama must have a B story. The B story is a story about a secondary
character that should intersect eventually with the plot-line
of the lead character. Having a B story or subplot is a standard
device to build suspense and to add variety.
- Follow Industry Standard Format. Use screenwriting
sofware such as Final Draft
or Celtx so that you have
the page layout correct. Not just the page format, industry standard
also applies to things like how characters are introduced in
the script. Don't describe characters until we see them or they
speak. Don't over-describe. Let the director do his job. Don't
under-describe. Don't make the director do your job. Don't forget
to describe characters. Spellcheck! Grammar check!
- Be Efficient and Respect Budget. Don't show anything
that doesn't advance the film. Everything should have meaning.
A feature should be about 100 pages. If you want it to go longer
then write a sequel so that everyone can get paid for your extra
pages. If you go long you will lose control of what's shown in
the finished film because it's more material to be cut later
in post. Don't use so many actors or sets that it would break
the budget. Note that an actor speaking just one word is entitled
to be paid the SAG day-rate as a principal performer and to get
residuals. A script with too many characters may be rejected
by producers as too costly.