There are five questions that every screenwriter ought to be able to answer about their screenplay before they even consider showing it to someone else. And, they probably aren’t the questions you’d expect. So, in this article, I want to share these the five key questions I always ask myself about my projects:
- What is this story about?
I am NOT asking you to tell me the plot. In fact, the worst film pitches I ever heard, are the ones when I asked a writer what their film is about, and they recited a tedious list of the beats of their story. No, the question I am asking you is about the theme of the film, and that means talking about the message at the heart of the movie. So, for instance, you might answer:
this film is about what happens when a person chooses their dream over their career
this film is about whether a man can redeem himself by choosing his family rather than violence
this film is about the protective power and instincts of motherhood
this film is about why love fails
this film is about the price of doing the right thing
this film is about failure
As you can see, these statements tell you nothing about either the characters or the plot. That’s because the characters and the plot are merely the vehicles for exploring the idea at the heart of the film. And, if you can’t instantly answer the question “what is this story about?” then chances are that your film isn’t really about anything.
Films need to be about something, and screenwriters need to be clear about what their story is about. Without a clear answer to this question, the script will be hollow and disconnected from the audience.
2. What idea am I selling to this audience?
If all good stories have a theme, such as what is the price of failure? Then, what are you saying about that very human question? Is the message of your film, people fail because they give up on their dreams? Or, is your message, people fail because failure is part of becoming successful? Actually, there are hundreds of possible responses to the central theme what is the price of failure? And, your unique answer is the thing that makes your screenplay different from another writer’s. The answer to this question is your USP (unique selling point) as the writer. It what makes you unique and interesting.
People who can’t answer the question, what idea am I selling to this audience? aren’t going to write great stories. When people write without a clear position on their story’s theme one of two things happen, either their story is about nothing (see above), or they end up with a poor copy of someone else’s ideas.
A screenwriter needs to know what they are writing about, the theme, and at the same time, they need to understand what it is they want to say about the questions raised by that theme.
3. How is the protagonist’s vulnerability exposed in this script?
A hero is only heroic if they overcome that which can not be overcome. The things that can’t be overcome aren’t the same for everyone. Superman, for instance, isn’t tested by someone shooting him with a gun. To make Superman heroic you have to test his limits. Or, in other words, you have to expose his vulnerabilities. Good characters have unique and clear vulnerabilities. Good scripts test the protagonist by exposing their vulnerabilities.
This is a really simple and core test for any story. If you can’t list off the ways in which your protagonist’s specific vulnerabilities and weaknesses are tested in your story, you don’t have a story.
4. Is this story unique to these people, at this time, and in this place?
Or in other words, could I change the characters, the locations and the period of this movie and still tell the same story? If I can, then the script isn’t ready to be sent out.
If your story is ready to show, the characters, locations and the time-period will be integral to the plot. If your location is a generic warehouse, your antagonist is a generic gangster, and your hero is a generic good man with a gun, then your script probably has real problems. If you could shoot your script in either Tokyo, Manchester or Belgrave without altering the story, then the script isn’t cinema and your story is nowhere ready to show. Characters don’t just interact with each other, they interact with places, cultures and normative behaviour of the places they are placed. Which means that a ready-to-show to script is one where there is an unbreakable bond between these specific characters, this specific place and this period in time. If you alter any one of the factors, a good script should collapse and require a page-one rewrite.
5. At the end of the film, what will I know about these people I didn’t know at the start?
The initial introduction of a character should almost be a cliche´. We should be able to get a clear idea of what type of person they are, instantly. However, as the film unfolds we should learn more about who they are and often the central character will have altered or grown in some way. A writer ought to be able to explain how their characters are exposed and their inner lives revealed to the audience.
If you have a completed screenplay and you want to know whether it is ready to show, you ought to be able to tell me, without even thinking about it, what is revealed about your characters in the course of this story. If you can’t it is because you haven’t exposed or tested their vulnerabilities, which means they haven’t had a chance to be truly heroic, which means you probably don’t have a story.
There are a lot of questions a screenwriter ought to be able to answer about their script before they submit it for someone to read. These five are key because, in my opinion, they are questions that writers ought to be able to answer before they write the first page. The fact that so many screenwriters struggle with questions like this, indicates to me that current thinking about how we teach screenwriting is tragically flawed. Basically, there is more to writing than structure and formatting and real writing is about having something to say and an understanding of the links between people, the places they find themselves and the culture exerting pressure on them.