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Old 06-14-2018, 11:16 PM   #13
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Join Date: Feb 2018
Location: US
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Screenwriter's Cheat Sheet

I've always wondered what a script "doctor" or a producer did with your script. I mean, the great ones, I'm told, can take a look at your script and, somehow, be it due to divine, natural gift or an infernal contract they've signed with the Dark Prince, they know where you done fudged up!

How?! Like, for serious, how?

What do they look for? What questions do they ask? And, what are these questions that they ask consistently, for every story?

Well, fam, that's what we'll try and figure out today. Today, we're gonna put together a list of questions that you should ask yourself whenever you have a story idea, an outline, or even a finished script. Today, we're putting together the Screenwriter's Cheat Sheet!

Keep in mind, I'm putting these questions in no particular order; since, you know, they're all important and stuffs.

Is your story made for independent film or a studio production?

I open with this question because it is one of the first things I was exposed to in almost every single one of my screenwriting classes; and because, if you're reading this, you're likely an fellow ambitious whipper-snapper trying to create some serious art and not Wes Anderson.

Moving on.

You always have to consider your resources, especially if you're starting out.

If you're a college student with little capital and writing your first short film, I doubt you'll have the budget to fund a script loaded with visual effects, multiple exotic locations, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as your lead and Hans Zimmer to score.

Your best bet is to see what locations you yourself have access to with ease; i.e., your house, a park, a friend's house, etc... Or, ask your friend's permission to use their house or whatever you need and see if they're gracious enough to let you. Beyond that, you can ask local businesses, as well. If they agree to let you use their location, be very grateful and show them how much you appreciate it; just make sure you aren't taken advantage of in the process.

Then, you hit up your local schools, JCs and theaters in search of actors that want to boost up their resumes by working pro-bono. You'll find a lot of opportunity there and will build up a good list of contacts.

As far as equipment, you ask if you can rent some, or--and you'll be surprised how effective this can be-- you post on your Facebook page if anyone has insert film equipment here that you can borrow for a day-shoot. If someone steps up and offers their gear, again, be very thankful and, just as importantly, don't be a douche and damage their equipment.

Then, once you spend however long playing producer and gathering up your crew, nail down locations and set your schedules, you put your directing hat on and shoot the film in a day or two. Try not to go over that if you're just starting out.

I'm doing the art of directing and cinematography a great injustice here by skipping over them this way, but just know that they're crazy important and you'll learn a lot from jumping in a trying to practice them as a film student. They're not the point of this specific article, is all.

This is also the part where I tell you to start learning how to edit/use Adobe Premiere and After Effects. There are a ton of great YouTube channels that teach you that (check out this link, or, you can check out sites like for courses.

Bonus tip: For those of you that live in Sonoma County, getting a Sonoma County library card will grant you access to's entire library for free; which includes far more than just editing/filmmaking content. It's honestly a fucking steal.

What's the genre?

This is a question I never really consider when I write my scripts; and it always bites me in the ass. I usually end up going for the fantasy/Sin City style of gritty action without realizing it. Sometime it works, sometime it doesn't; either way, the story is affected.

Every genre has its own specific convention, and I'm going to write something on each of the major genres soon. But, consider the horror genre for now. Regardless what sub-genre it is--slasher, zombie, etc...--the story requires a "monster." Can't have a horror film without a Big Bad Wolf.

The romance genre dictates that you have a love interest to your protag, or multiple love interests, even. Believe it or not, you're love interest will probably end up being your protag's "monster"/antagonist.

Action stories need a badass, "my hands are registered weapons" lead that will probably end up in a shoot-em-up extravaganza with the bad guy.

Fantasy stories use quests, wizards, races and might heavily draw from Campbell's ever-popular mono-myth.

Superhero stories might also draw from the mono-myth, but also demand that you have superpowers, costumes, potentially a side-kick and a world-saving scheme.

Sci-fi might employ alternate timelines, spaceships aliens and/or multiple dimensions.

These are quick, surface-level examples, but you get the point.

Consider the genre your story will be in, because it will influence your world-building, character archetypes and general aesthetic.

Who is your audience?

Much like your consideration of genre, deciding your demographic will dictate, at the very least, the tone of your film, the medium in which you deliver it in, how you articulate your theme, the complexity of your plot and whether or not you can have and show butt-stuff.

Consider Batman, my dear reader; hell, we could've picked other superheroes, but Bats is the best example.

Anywho...Batman has been portrayed in comics, animated features, cartoons, glorious 1960's live-action and even MORE glorious, Christopher-Nolan-live-action. Each of these mediums is influenced by and influences both the story and the audience consuming it.

Generally, animated features will be geared towards younger audience members; but we've all seen some that deliver incredibly mature and thought provoking themes. Live-action is subject to the same spectrum that spans from goofy, yet light-hearted, to gritty-but-sprinkled-with-comedy. The point is, realizing the type of audience member you're speaking to will help you better determine the type of dramatic language to best serve as your vehicle for your story. And you want to give your story the best chance you can to be best experienced by your audience.

What is the thematic question?

Theme was a mess of mystery to me for a long time, having studied and been exposed to different 'gurus's different, even conflicting, definitions of it. But, the simplest way I can put it is:

Theme is the point of your story.

Every joke has a punch-line. Every story has a message. Every film has a point. Every telling has a theme.

If we consider your theme as the lesson you're trying to teach your audience, then your story is how you do it. Think about it, what is the best way humans learn? Seriously, take a quick second to come up with an answer.

As far as I'm concerned, it's experience.

If someone told me "war is awful," I would nod my head and go, "sure;" not really understanding the depth of meaning in those words. But, if I was dropped smack-dab in the middle of Iraq with a band of soldiers facing off against insurgents, I would have a far better, incredibly more visceral understanding of "war is awful."

Now, as writers, stories are the closest thing we have to experience. We can flat-out tell our audience the message behind our story: "War sucks donkey balls, bruh." But, it's far better for our audience if we showed them.

Now, we can't fly them to the Death Star or walk them to Mordor, but we can show them characters that can/will. We can show them who these characters are, what they care about, how they risk everything for their personal purpose, how they suffer and overcome, and, ultimately, if they succeed or fail.

What I'm trying to say is, your theme needs to be dramatized for it to be internalized and understood. That's what stories do, they show us the wisdom inherent in our actions.

"Country above self," "love conquers all," "bacon is king."

For those of you thinking that last one was a real theme, it wasn't; but it totally should be.

Your thematic question is one posed in every scene of your story; and, more than that, it's answered by your theme.

For example, if your thematic question is, "how can you best honor your family?," then your theme can/will be, "by putting their needs before your own." This should be shown to the audience through your characters actions; be it in the positive/the character did put family first, or the negative/the character didn't put family first.

Since showing the answer to the thematic question--showing the theme--is the point of you telling this story, it would make sense that the more your hero fails in accomplishing this answer, the further away they get from their goal and the more they suffer.

Let's say your hero wants to get that big promotion in their company; that's their Bull's Eye, which we'll talk about in a later question. So, they're after this big promotion, but, at a point in the film, you, the brilliant writer that you are, force them to decide between betraying their sister and guaranteeing that they'd fall into their boss's good graces, or, honor their sister and jeopardize all the work they've done towards getting that promotion.

Now, if your protag doesn't betray their family, they'll either get the job through different means or won't get the job but realize that what they really needed was something else entirely and will get that instead; depending on how you write it.

If the protag does screw their sister over, they'll have the job, but realize that having it tastes bland, even disgusting, now that they've compromised their character and shit on this all-too-important bond.

Write down your thematic question and its theme/answer and keep it in front of you at all times when you write. It'll keep your writing focused and your scenes tight.

Who is your protagonist?

Your protagonist is the character most connected to the audience. Theirs is the purpose we root for. Whatever they want to achieve, we want them to achieve. They're the character we most care about, the character who is most active/moves the storyline forward, and the character with the most screen-time. Your protagonist is your main character.

That being said, and beyond their structural/story role, your protagonist can be anyone. They can be a literal lowly ant or God herself; it doesn't matter, actually. It only matters insofar as how they relate to the story. Their story has to be the most interesting one in that story world; which implies that they themselves must be the most interesting character in that story world.

This point is crucial for two reasons. The first is for the sake of the audience. If you don't give the audience your 'best' character--in this case, the character that will evoke the most emotion in them--then you're severely underselling your story and shortchanging your audience.

The second is for your own sake as a writer. If you don't choose a character that excites you, impresses you, even surprises you during the long writing process, you're going to find yourself hard-pressed to keep writing. You're going to be spending a lot of time with this character. So much so that you'll likely get to know them more than you know anyone; maybe even yourself. So, it's a good idea to take a second to pick a character that, to you, is very fun; and to also be willing to change your main character if they don't fit this criteria.

Personally, I like to learn as much about my lead as possible: Favorite pastime, books, songs, color, music, who their idols are, their brand of humor, how they choose to solve problems, are they a toilet-paper-roll-rolls-over or rolls-under kinda know, important stuff. Butt, when it comes down to it, there are three basic elements that you must know about your protagonist. If you don't know those three, it doesn't matter if you know what your character weighed when they were born or which hand they jack-off with. If you don't know those three elements, you don't know your character.

Those three elements are: The character's Bull's Eye, their Wound, and their Flaw.

What is your protag's Bull's Eye?

Bull's Eye is a term I use to better illustrate, for myself, what other's call Outer Motivation, Goal, External Motivation, and anything that means what your hero is after.

You need to know what your hero will be chasing throughout your story because........

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