There are five questions every screenwriter ought to be able to answer about their screenplay before they show it to a reader or producer. They probably aren’t the questions you’d expect. These are questions I ask always myself about my projects when I complete a draft and before I do anything else:
What is this story about?
DON’T tell me the plot. The worst pitches I have ever hear are when writers tell me the beats of their story. No, the question I am asking you is about the theme of the film. Tell me about the message at the heart of the movie. 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
These statements tell us nothing about the characters or the plot. That’s because characters and plot are merely the vehicles to explore the idea at the heart of the film. If you can’t instantly answer the question “what is this story about?” chances are, your film isn’t really about anything.
Films need to be about something. 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.
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 people fail because they give up on their dreams? Or, is your message, people fail because failure is part of becoming successful? There are hundreds of possible responses to the theme what is the price of failure? 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). It’s what makes you unique and interesting.
Writers 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, 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 care about. They need to have something to say.
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 isn’t tested by someone shooting him. To make Superman heroic you have to test his limits. 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 the ways your protagonist’s specific vulnerabilities and weaknesses are tested, you don’t have a story.
Is this story unique to these people, at this time, and in this place?
Could I change the characters, the locations and the period of this movie and still tell the same story? If I can, 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. 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. 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.
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 cliché. 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. The central character will alter or grow. A writer ought to be able to explain how their characters’ inner lives are 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. This means they haven’t had a chance to be truly heroic. Which means you probably don’t have a story.
Screenwriter ought to be able to talk intelligently about their scripts. Writers ought to be able to answer these five questions before they write the first page. The fact so many screenwriters struggle with questions like this, tells me many writer’s process is tragically flawed. There is more to writing than structure and formatting. Writing has to be about having something to say.
For More Screenwriting Techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.