There is a time for freeform screenwriting free of judgment or structure. There is also a time when you need to hone your structure, especially in your later drafts. Many screenwriters fail because their scripts meander in different directions without focus, emotional resonance, or a logical plot. Here are a few writing questions you should answer to tighten your screenplays:
What Are You Trying To Say?
I’m still surprised at how many film and TV scripts I read, which aren’t about anything in particular. There might be some exciting scenes at a football stadium or a car chase, but they are disconnected and don’t amount to a satisfying story.
This might sound obvious, but you really need to know what your story is about at its emotional and thematic core. What is the central question? What are you exploring? This is a much deeper dive than simply describing the key plot points. A screenplay about an alien invasion is fine for a movie poster, but it won’t serve your story very well.
Dive deep into your story thematically. Why did you choose to write this script and why now above all others? When you are writing, think about the motivation behind your story. You might argue that you fear the unknown and don’t feel comfortable around people you don’t know or understand. This has a deeply personal emotional resonance. This mindset should drive every scene you write.
But it won’t necessarily work in a pitch. This is more of a mechanical approach to your story so the executive can visualize an entire movie. Therefore, you must identify the main characters – the protagonist, the antagonist – and the conflict. Your internal fear of the unknown will manifest on every page so long as you are aware of it.
What’s Your Screenplay About?
This question is an extension of the previous question. Your script should be about a specific story. Not some vague concept like an alien invasion, but about aliens invading earth to steal our resources to power their planet after they have exhausted their own fuel supplies.
This question also relates to the theme, not just to plot. Your screenplay can only be about one thing. If you’re exploring your fear of the unknown via an alien invasion, you can’t switch to a story about protecting Earth’s resources.
Quite often I read scripts that begin about one thing and veer to another. This occurs when the writer isn’t clear on their story and they change it after they start writing. In freeform writing, this is fine, but you cannot submit a screenplay to industry professionals that doesn’t have a singular story.
If you can’t select what your screenplay is about, choose the story that speaks to you the loudest. If you have two or more equally strong themes, you might need to consider writing them as separate screenplays.
One script. One story.
Who Owns The Story?
This refers to the who is the main character. The story is told from their point of view. Even in ensemble or Rashomon screenplays, there must be a central character who acts as the nucleus around which the other characters revolve.
If your story is told from one character’s perspective and then changes, your story loses focus and momentum. Your reader must recalibrate their attention to the new story dynamics. Unless this is a stylistic device, don’t do it.
The main character must have a perspective, a view of the world and a set of beliefs, assumptions and moral codes to drive their journey.
What’s Their Goal?
Again, this might sound obvious. But far too many scripts I read are about characters observing, reacting, and contemplating life events. I don’t know why. Your character’s actions must serve a definite end goal. And they must relentlessly pursue that goal until the last page. They shouldn’t change their goal halfway through the script unless it’s a bigger, more significant goal.
Goals are broken into two categories, internal and external. External goals are mandatory. They must be specific and potentially achievable, but not too easily. These drive the story.
If your character only has an internal goal such as getting over the death of a loved one, your story will lag. It needs to be coupled with an external goal such as saving the planet from an alien invasion or finding a distraction or other tangible way to grieve.
Every scene must either bring the protagonist closer to their goal or take them further away from it. Mix these up to maintain story tension.
Who’s Stopping Them?
We need to know who the obstacle character is. That’s why the antagonist exists. To foil the protagonist at every turn.
It’s also important to note that antagonists don’t exist for the sake of it. In their minds, they are the protagonists. They have their own goals which they relentlessly pursue. The obstacles to the protagonist’s goal need to be significant. They can’t merely cause minor setbacks for the main character. They must test them.
What Are The Stakes?
Stakes come down to one fundamental question. What are the consequences of each character not achieving their goals? The stakes must be a matter of life or death, literally or metaphorically. And the stakes must escalate too. Right through to the end.