10 Direct Questions to Ask Yourself About That Script You're Writing
November 3, 2023
It was tough to finish that mammoth of a spec script, but you did it – congrats! And now that you have a completed draft of a screenplay, what do you do next? We sat down with UCLA Extension screenwriting instructor Beverly Gray, who focuses on guiding advanced screenwriters with her class “One-on-One Feature Film Rewrite.” She has also consulted as a story editor on over 170 features.
Here are the ten things she says you should be asking yourself after you finish that first draft.
Question #1: What, exactly, are you trying to do?
“Do you want to be funny? Do you want to make a change in the world? What is it you think you’d like to do?” Gray asks her students at the start of her workshop.
Is your answer a multi-hyphenate – “comedy-drama-historical-parody”? Or does it sound as clumsy as Miles’ (Paul Giamatti) description of his languishing novel in Sideways? You might want to narrow it down. To one genre. And work on the ol’ logline.
This exercise provides focus for your script and wedges out unnecessary plot twists that are causing all those confused looks on your friends’ faces.
Question #2: Do you actually care about this concept?
Or, as Gray frames it, “Is your story deeply felt?”
There’s a balance here. Gray believes you must care very much for your story and characters, but writing about your own life can be difficult. Especially if you have endured difficult circumstances. In that case, it can be too deeply felt, and you might need to take a step back until you can “see” the story’s true value.
“I helped out with one particular screenplay recently, a true story in which something really tragic happened,” Gray says, “and you felt from the first page that this woman who wrote it was still really hurting. And it’s very hard to give someone guidance who’s just feeling a lot of pain. It’s hard to make them better aesthetically when they are still dealing with a lot of raw emotions.”
Question #3: Is your script a comedy that clocks in at 162 pages, or roughly 2.7 hours?
You might have a problem.
While Gray balks at naming specific script lengths for each film genre – “All of that is silly,” she says – she advises her students to try to keep scripts under 120 pages/2 hours.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what to cut, Gray says, “Set it aside for a while, to cool you off. Then, just be really tough on yourself. Anything that isn’t character-revealing, that isn’t plot advancing, then you don’t need it.
“You come to realize that other people will like you a lot more if there’s a lot less of you,” she says.
Question #4: Does it possess – at least loosely – a three-act storytelling structure?
Gray, who originally came from the world of literature and theater, recognizes a variety of storytelling structures – three acts, five acts, a 1,000-page novel. But the successful stories all have something in common.
“I’ve always thought of a screenplay as a roller coaster ride,” she says. “You know there’s going to be the up up up, then down. Then it gets harder to climb the next time, and then you think you’ve really gotten someplace pretty high – then the plunge. And then you save the biggest high and lowest low until the end.”
Question #5: Do your main characters have clear motivations?
Specifically, in most screenplays, the protagonist drives the plot with their motivations. The antagonist(s) stands in the way.
What does your main character want? How are they going to get it? Who is going to stop them?
It’s connected to the emotional stakes of the script. “What is this character going to lose if it doesn’t come out right?” Gray says. “It could be money, it could be love, it could be a sense of self-worth.”
Question #6: Does the script contain what Gray calls “colorful particulars”?
This is where the age-old adage “write what you know” comes into play.
“If you’re writing about a world, then the world has to come alive for you,” she says. “Enough to show the reader what the screen experience is going to be.”
As a for-instance, Bull Durham, the poignant romantic comedy set in the world of minor-league baseball, was written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former bush-league infielder. It has been praised for Shelton’s realistic, mud-stained, heavy-drinking, hard-loving portrayal of minor league life.
So, do you know your script’s world as intimately as Bull Durham’s Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) knew Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and Ebbie Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins)?
Question #7: Are your scenes the right length?
Sure, this can be annoying. Some scenes are long, some are not. And what about your set pieces? Why are people always trying to pigeonhole your creativity?
But think of the reader and the audience. Gray promises that they will like you more if, to the best of your ability, most of your scenes are between three to five pages.
Question #8: Do your main characters experience significant change over the course of the story?
Gray points out the transformation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in the genre-defining Vince Gilligan series Breaking Bad. White starts off as a “good person,” even “meek and mild.”
But when faced with incredibly difficult circumstances, “He discovers another side of himself that he didn’t know was there,” Gray says. “The evolution was fascinating – someone who started out being a nice person, and still has some shreds of that, but who really enjoys being quite a bad person.”
Question #9: Does it contain a universal truth?
“If you have a message, call Western Union,” goes the old saying. In other words, don’t clobber the audience over the head with your message, view, or theme. Still: have one.
“Your script has got to say something, and it might be as simple as ‘love conquers all’ or ‘you can’t always get what you want,’” Gray says. “It can’t be a bunch of people running around. There’s got to be some kind of point to it.”
Pixar famously offers a guide to their form of storytelling, and they believe that most of the time the screenwriter won't see the story’s theme until they have finished a draft or two. Then, it’s time to rewrite.
Question #10: OK, now the really tough one: How many typos or grammatical mistakes are in the script?
Yes, this is serious. Your “creative” spelling and grammar might unconsciously reflect how you feel about your story – i.e., that you don’t have much respect for it. If you don’t want to put in the time or effort to spell words correctly, after all, why should a script reader with 50 other specs to get through take you seriously?
“What you write is going to be read by a whole lot of people, and at least some of them are going to be English majors or people who care about the English language,” Gray says.
And for crying out loud, do more than spellcheck. Check for homophones or similarly spelled words. Gray tells a quite funny story about the time she read a story pitch about a Vietnam battle. One line described a scene of “wonton destruction.” The correct spelling is “wanton.”
“Immediately, my mind went to the Vietcong and Americans lined up in the battlefield throwing dumplings at each other,” she says. “If my mind is that distracted, I'm not in your story anymore.”
Read More: 5 Tips to Better Spelling and Grammar
Written by: Jamie AllenJamie Allen is a writer based in Los Angeles. He's the creator of the Squirrel Census, a science, design, and storytelling project that was featured in The New York Times and other outlets.