30 Questions To Ask A Screenplay

by on May 1, 2011

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Red Tick Checklist

Here is a 30-question checklist that lets screenwriters assess their own work, and helps producers and script readers articulate why a screenplay is or is not working.

Gut reaction

1. Did you enjoy reading it? Or were you constantly looking at the page numbers and thinking, “Are we there yet?” Were you moved by the ending? By anything?

Concept

2. Does the film have a big, original idea? What is it?

3. Who is the protagonist? Who drives the story?

4. Who is the hero? Who is most changed? Who takes decisive action at the Climax?

5. What does the protagonist want? What is the External Goal? Is it a clear “finish line”?

6. What’s stopping them from getting it? Why is it difficult? Who are the antagonists?

7. What’s at stake? Are the stakes high enough to keep us interested?

8. Is the logline compelling?

9. Is it a strong concept? Does it create a sense of anticipation? Will anyone go see this film? How could it be marketed? Is its budget reasonable given its potential audience?

Genre

10. Is it a genre film? If so, does it meet the audience’s expectations of the genre? If not, will they hail it as a new landmark in cinema or throw popcorn at the screen?

Story world

11. Has the writer created a unique and authentic story world? Is it a place the audience will want to spend time?

Characters

12. Is the protagonist/hero richly characterised? What adjectives describe them? Do they have contradictions? Are they “very” anything? Are their traits revealed through conflict?

13. Are they engaging? Which scene makes us connect with the protagonist/hero?

14. What is the hero’s character flaw? Which scene in Act 1 reveals their flaw to us? Are they blind to their flaw?

15. Is the antagonist a worthy match for the protagonist/hero?

Structure – Act 1

16. Is there a clear inciting incident/call to adventure? Does it happen early enough (preferably before page 25) or were you getting bored waiting for something to happen?

17. Does the hero want this “adventure” or is it a karmic challenge (ie the last thing they want)? Will it test the hero’s flaw?

18. Does the Act 1 Turning Point create a sense that the story is now truly under way? Is the hero committed to the goal? Does it pose a dramatic question we want to have answered? Does it happen early enough (preferably before page 25)?

Structure – Act 2

19. Does the protagonist now actively pursue their goal or “Want” against stiff opposition?

20. As well as the throughline where the hero pursues their external goal or Want, is there a character/subplot that develops the hero’s inner “Need”?

21. Is the hero confronted with their flaw, generally by their antagonist, around the midpoint (page 50-60)?

22. Does the story escalate across Act 2, or is it episodic, with each sequence having little or no dramatic consequences for the following sequences?

23. What is the Crisis at the end of Act 2? Does it force the Hero to their darkest hour? Are they faced with a dilemma that where they must choose btw want and need? Do we feel a sense of unbearable tension and desperately want to see how it’s to be resolved?

Structure – Act 3

24. At the Act 3 climax, does the hero face their ultimate test? Do they face their greatest antagonist?

25. Does the hero act to resolve the situation? Or are they saved by external forces? Do they have to make a sacrifice (possibly giving up their Want to get their Need)?

26. Does the hero prove to us through their actions that they’ve been transformed? Are they able to do something here they could not have done in Act 1?

27. Is it an emotionally satisfying ending? Do you feel a sense of catharsis or release at the Climax? Are you moved by their decisive and transformative action?

Dialogue

28. Does the dialogue sound authentic? Or is the character just a mouthpiece for the writer? Does it create drama or is it just talk? Is there too much exposition (description of backstory or events that happen off-screen? If there is voiceover, does it enhance or detract from the drama?

Dramatic Premise

29. What is the dramatic or moral premise? What does the writer have to say? Does the script dramatise two alternative points of view? Does the drama “prove” the writer’s point of view?

Recommendation

30. Would you “Recommend” the project or “Pass”? Are the script’s failings fixable? Would you make the film if you had to mortgage your house to do it?

Download a PDF of 30 Questions to Ask a Screenplay

Please add me to the Cracking Yarns mailing list
When is my next 2-day screenwriting course?

Related screenwriting articles

A new character-driven Hero’s Journey
Where I disagree with the Hero’s Journey
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago
The King’s Speech – Hero’s Journey analysis
Juno – Hero’s Journey and Hero’s Emotional Journey analysis

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Green May 2, 2011 at 11:48 am

I think that it’s one thing to know what questions to ask, but another entirely to answer honestly. That’s hard.

eg
Q24 –> At the Act 3 climax, does the hero face their ultimate test? Do they face their greatest antagonist?
A (12 months ago) –> uhm yeah. Probably. Sort of, actually yes because he sits there and really work through that problem because they are, in fact, their own greatest antagonist. So yeah I totally nailed.

A suggested 31st question?
Did you answer all previous 30 questions honestly?

Peter Tosh May 3, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Oh Allen, you’ve done it again…
This reads like an excerpt from ‘Screen Writing For Dummies Revised.’ If someone were to follow these rules verbatim their screenplay would lose the excitement of an original story. Assimilating story structure to a deluge of mediocre, pandering tripe can’t be something you truly advocate.
Why rest on tarnished laurels and cater to a lowest common denominator? Why must film be regimented to the point that it resembles a paint-by-number? How can you condone these teaching when there is so much evidence illuminating the contrary?

To quote a true auteur, “Academia is the death of cinema. It’s the very opposite of passion.”

Respectfully,
Peter Tosh

Allen Palmer May 3, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Over there on Planet Auteur, craft is scorned, structure is just the thing that stops your upstairs neighbour from crashing through the ceiling, and great screenplays arrive fully formed on gift-wrapped lightning bolts.

Meanwhile, back here on Planet Earth, we realise that the iconoclastic Coen Brothers’ first film was the classically structured Blood Simple, that artistic genius seems to be more prevalent in those who have taken the time to first acquire an artisan’s knowledge of their craft (e.g. Scorsese, Tarantino) and that the great screenplays tend to arrive only after long gestations and painful births.

Rules alone won’t deliver you a great screenplay. But ignorance of them is a no-more reliable route.

Peter Tosh May 6, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Blood Simple as a first effort is entertaining, but as the name indicates it’s simple. Although they have made some amazing films, this is not one of them. Calling on the Cohen Brothers is a taciturn way of making your point.
As far of the world of cinema is concerned there are copious better examples of directors and screen writers making something truly beautiful and unique on their first attempt, e.g. Badlands, The Seventh Continent, Gummo, Signs of life, Fando y Lis.
To say ‘craft is scorned’ by Auteur cinema… are you making generalizations that are unsubstantiated? Probably.
I guess it’s kind of like you preaching rules to people to make their stories better. If you follow these rules, where are your results? There is no palpable evidence to support that your teachings are reliable from your body of work. And to charge people to teach them what they could read for a fraction of the cost in any mediocre filmmaking book is a sham.
Auteurs are the ones pushing the medium, while you hold it back. For every good film you could name with perfect structure I could name two terrible films that have your school of though.

Peace,

Peter Tosh

Allen Palmer May 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Peter, I would hate to think that sharing your insights here was keeping you from creating groundbreaking cinema elsewhere so don’t feel obliged to hang around on our account. We poor hacks will just try to bumble along in your absence. You won’t change my thinking. I won’t change yours – nor do I feel any desire to. Why don’t we just agree to disagree and pursue our different approaches. I know I don’t have time to waste sharing my opinions with people who don’t want to listen, and I’m sure you don’t either. Adios.

Peter Tosh May 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Allen… Your breaking my heart.

Kryz June 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

Hi Allen.

Thankyou for this post. I’ve found a great use for it. Now when I ask friends and coleagues to look over my rough drafts of my screenplay I refer them to this list. Has turned some vauge loose feedback into something more useable.

Jeremy Dylan October 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm

It is perhaps worth noting that while there are many very good films that deviate in some significant way from traditional structure, it’s perhaps those deviations that are holding them back from becoming great films.

I’m speaking of the film where you leave going ‘Oh man, I loved that movie. The characters were awesome, the dialogue was killer and the cinematography rocked. Ending wasn’t great, but man the score was memorable’.

They’re the kinds of films that usually come up when people try to argue that structure is evil.

Leave a Comment

*

Previous post:

Next post: