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Four Questions to Test the Strength of Your Screenplay

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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This week a writer client mentioned the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the process of writing something until it’s “done”. Sound familiar?

Sometimes losing interest or hating a current project is really rooted in fear. Fear that the project isn’t good enough, that you’ve made the wrong choices with it, or that you’re wasting time on something that’s fundamentally flawed.

That feeling may be natural and common, but it doesn’t mean you have to (or want to) wallow in it for too long. So how do you get out of one of those ruts?

One thing that can help is taking an objective look at where your project is (instead of allowing your fear mind to play tricks on you). When you see what’s actually working and what’s not, it can make the path forward feel more manageable. And that might just give you the boost you need to keep going.

A 4-question screenplay test

There are four questions I like to use to quickly evaluate how a project holds together. These questions are aimed to uncover weak spots in the development that will result in problems in the screenplay, particularly the kind that readers will notice and comment on.

They are:

    1. Do the major plot points reflect the story goal?
    2. Does the main character’s arc align with the action of the plot?
    3. Do the supporting characters feel connected to the theme / thematic ideas?
    4. Can we see the setup of goal vs. the stakes vs. character’s status quo?

What each question gets at might seem self-evident, yet there’s a lot to talk about with each one. For now let’s just walk through how the questions might work on an example movie, Bridesmaids.

1. Do the major plot points reflect the story goal?

Annie’s story goal is to be best friend Lillian’s maid of honor. The major plot points show:

  1. Inciting Incident – Annie’s asked to be maid of honor
  2. Break Into 2 – Annie has met her competition and the other bridesmaids and commits to Lillian to take on maid of honor duty
  3. Midpoint – Annie ruins Lillian’s bachelorette party trip in spectacular fashion
  4. Break Into 3 – After losing her role as maid of honor and seemingly her friendship with Lillian, Annie must forge a new path. We see this as Annie says goodbye to Ted (her booty call guy) for good, which shows us she’s now taking more responsibility for her actions and trying to move forward without her best friend
  5. Climax – Annie gets an opportunity to fix her mistakes, finds the runaway bride, and is maid of honor at the wedding after all.

There’s a nice, clear line to be drawn through these plot points that shows us the pursuit of the story goal. We can rest assured there’s a strong spine holding the story up.

2. Does the main character’s arc align with the action of the plot?

Annie’s arc takes her from avoiding change or risk, to accepting change is inevitable and taking action to get the life she wants. More simply, she goes from stuck to moving forward.

The action of the plot is to compete with the perfect Helen, who is the new best friend – a representation of Lillian’s new or future life. Annie must help Lillian move forward into that new life, a phase that Annie herself is afraid to reach for.

So, Annie needs to get unstuck and start moving forward herself. By helping her best friend move into the next phase of her life, Annie will be forced to confront her own stuckness and decide what she really wants for herself. We can see how the action of the plot is targeted to challenge Annie and force change.

3. Do the supporting characters feel connected to the theme / thematic ideas?

Yes, Bridesmaids tackles this in a couple different ways. Each of the other bridesmaids shows a different version of married life. The swinging single, the unhappily married mom, the bright eyed and optimistic newlywed, and the outwardly perfect but lonely trophy wife.

These defining characteristics help these minor characters feel connected to the big picture.

We can also see how the important supporting characters challenge something internal to the main character. That conflict forces the main character to grow and learn the lesson of the theme.

  1. Officer Rhodes, the love interest, shows Annie what could be possible if she’d get out of her comfort zone and go for it.
  2. Ted demonstrates the wrong way – accepting less than she wants.
  3. And the Melissa McCarthy character offers a new world view. We see this early in the 3rd act when Melissa’s character literally kicks Annie’s butt and explains she needs to change her perspective or she’s never going to be happy.

4. Can we see the setup of goal vs. stakes vs. character’s status quo?

The “status quo” I’m referring to is what the character starts the story with. Their specific inner drive and their misbehavior (sometimes called the character’s flaw). The character has those things on page one.

So for Annie in Bridesmaids, goal vs. stakes vs. status quo looks like this:

Be Lillian’s maid of honor (competing with perfect Helen)
vs. defending Lillian’s friendship and Annie’s own self-worth
vs. avoiding risk and change, lying to herself that she’s happy

We can see how these three things are designed to come into conflict with each other. And that’s what we want, in order to force the main character to make choices that reveal what’s most important to her.


We’ve only scratched the surface here but these four questions can seriously help you evaluate a story and get back on track in just a few minutes.

And we talk more about these questions in the Idea to Outline workshop, so join me there if you’re curious to learn more and continue the discussion (new session coming soon!)

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

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