Following up on part one of the “checklist to RECOMMEND,” listed below are key coverage checklist items that, if well executed, will help you avoid the problems with more than 95 percent of the scripts out there. Remember, you are competing with established screenwriters as well as other up-and-comers, so what can you do to get your script closer to RECOMMEND?
The checklist to RECOMMEND
Write with clarity and economy
Is your script easy to follow, from line to line, scene to scene, or does it confuse the reader? Do you keep your action descriptions succinct and focused? Are your slug lines specific and reflect where the camera is at the beginning of each scene? Do characters seemingly appear from nowhere to deliver dialogue or have you indicated where they are in the scene before they speak? Without clarity even a script with a simple plot can be confusing.
Use visual details to reveal what’s relevant to the character and story. Don’t mistake visual writing with merely describing how good-looking the main character is, unless his or her good looks are relevant to the story. Don’t tell us how a character feels, show us through the character’s actions. Let your story’s theme inform your visual choices, and incorporate visual transitions that seamlessly weave your scenes together.
Is your dialogue “on the nose” or is it deep with subtext? Characters who say exactly what they’re feeling are boring, predictable, and unlikely to attract top talent to your screenplay. Remember subtext can be conveyed through character action, too.
Actor bait/compelling characters
As William Akers notes in his excellent book, Your Screenplay Sucks!, you are writing actor bait. Actors want to act, so ensure your main characters are complex and have great dialogue that will attract top actors.
Conflict and scene depth
Think about the reasons you’d want to see your story produced and apply that test to every scene, and ask yourself if every scene:
- Reveals character.
- Advances the plot.
- Contains three levels of conflict:
For more about the three levels of conflict, the best resources on the subject are Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and his Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.
Cause and effect: Avoid the nonsensical
Few things are more irritating than stories with plot holes or coincidences that drastically shift the story in some illogical way. View your story with a bird’s eye view, focusing on how your characters’ choices continually alter the plot. If you spent a lot of time outlining before writing the screenplay, you’ve probably got this covered. Still, make sure the story unravels in logical-yet-surprising fashion.
Setups and payoffs
The best and most entertaining films are dense with clever and sometimes quite subtle setups and payoffs, whether within the same scene or with lengthy gaps in between. Some of my favorite examples include “Back to the Future,” “War Games,” “Groundhog Day,” “Monster’s Inc.” Your favorite films, whatever they are, likely have great setup-and-payoff structure.
Scenes reflect genre
I’ve covered a number of “comedy” scripts that actually weren’t very funny, and some read more like dramas than comedies. It’s important to maintain the tone of your story throughout. Comedies may have their somber heart-tugging moments, but even in those cases the moments are wrapped in comedy. So is your script continually true to its genre — especially from the first page?
Rising stakes and complications: Don’t hold back
Many screenwriters are a bit too kind to their main character, and, as a result, the character is not as interesting as he or she could be. Was George Lucas kind to Luke Skywalker, or do things get progressively worse for him? Do things ever get any easier for James Bond as those stories unfold? Even in comedies the stakes are raised to the extent the main character’s life is in danger — “The Heat,” “Zoolander,” to name a few. Save your kindness for your neighbor.
The RECOMMEND checklist download and other resources
- The one-page checklist (pictured above, 200KB .pdf)
- My PowerPoint presentation on script coverage (1.9 MB .pdf)
Additional reading to help you get your script ready for what is a very competitive marketplace:
Act as your own gatekeeper and elevate your writing with these points in mind and get your script to RECOMMEND.