The problem lies in the fact, that a screenplay is just the blueprint of a movie. A very important one, for sure, but still “just“ the basis. So what this means is, that the screenplay in itself is never meant to be a finished product, but the movie is. Even editing the movie is a kind of rewriting process.
BUT don’t fear, help is just a few paragraphs away.
I try to give a brief but concise answer to a very complex matter. I still won’t be able to touch on everything in this post! The goal here is to provide an orientation.
For me, the following checklist serves as a guideline, to make sure, I laid the foundation right:
- Character arc
Let the hero lead!
What defines a character? The goal. The choices.
You don’t need to feel sympathy for a character, but you need to feel empathy, otherwise the reader won’t care about what happens to the hero.
Make sure the characters are dimensional. How? Add a characters paradox: A conflict within the character. Show the characters in contrast to others. May this be in believes, morals, behaviorisms etc.
Make the hero active! Most important part. He/she has to do all the work. Don’t let other character dictate the hero. How to achieve this: By being proactive. Search for clues, explore and let the hero be the driving force behind every decision. What you want to check on, is the outer goal. Is it clear enough? Does everyone know, where the journey is going?
Make sure the Antagonist is as bad as possible. Give him/her the same agenda as the protagonist, only from a different point of view. For instance, if the water supply is short, let your hero come up with a formula on how to make sure everyone gets their water and let the protagonist use the shortage of water to make a quick buck. They are both addressing the same issue of the shortage and that the water needs to be rationed, but have different whys.
A common mistake is that the stakes are to low for the hero. Make him/her suffer and go through hell!
2. Character arcs
Story is transformation.
A character doesn’t need to change in a 180 degrees kind of way, but you need to make sure, that the character undergoes a transformation. As cliche’ as it might sound, but what it comes down to is, the hero has to learn s.th. in order to transform into a new him/her.
Use this to make sure you touched on all the stages of a character arc:
Give your characters, especially your hero, visible flaws to overcome. The mightier the better. Remember, let the reader explore the flaws, never tell them what the hero’s flaws are. Just show!
Come in late – very late!
Don’t start the scene with something like: Hello, my name is. Jump to the conflict.
Present obstacles to the characters goals. Make sure the stakes are raised from scene to scene. Pick up the pace at the end of act 2.
Show choices that the hero needs to make in order to get what he/she wants. Make them drastic, even a matter of life and death.
Don’t hit the same emotional note twice in a scene.
Here’s how a scene can be structured:
show a problem
Eliminate ramblings and conversation!
Skim trough the screenplay and always ask yourself, can this be shown in the action, than rather told in the dialogue?
Use subtext: Stating a different want, but hiding the actual need.
Not every scene needs subtext, but if a scene feels, as if you’ve seen this scene a million times before, than it’s time to add subtext. Let the reader figure it out what everyone is really talking about.
How to make the dialogues sound less cliche’? Use values, morals, likes or dislikes and again subtext. This will give the characters an own voice.
Every dialogue is a kind of action. Reveal backstory, personal likes or dislikes, moral statements to drive the story forward.
Every dialogue that doesn’t reveal something you didn’t already know, needs to go!
Make it worth the readers time.
If you want to interest producers, agents, managers of even any reader, you better make sure your story is structured. But I don’t mean in a three act structure, or five acts, or whatever. I simply mean, organized in a way, that makes it easy to follow, because there is a catharsis in sight.
So your structure should be:
Weather you use this in a three act structure, a save the cat beat sheet or whatever, is truly up to you, but stick to Aristotle’s Pity, Fear and Catharsis and you will be fine.
If it doesn’t interest you, why should it matter to others?
Write about your fears. Make it primal.
Start at the lowest point in the hero’s life. Make it very, very hard for the hero to rise out of the ashes.
Think about settings a lot. Where can I locate my story to make it fresh and appealing? Where can I place the scene, to add even more conflict to it?
The truth of the matter is: If you read you story and you don’t get exited, chances are, that others won’t too. So write until it surprises you. Get all the stereotypical characters, settings etc. out of the way and then take risks. The higher the risk you take, the better the pay off for the reader!
I truly hope, this very brief checklist gives you an orientation, when to know if your screenplay is ready.
Go with your gut on this one. If you are honest to yourself, you know, when it’s right!
This is also a little appetizer for my upcoming book: 10 shortcuts to great screenwriting
Look out for that!