I’ve used this list to evaluate my favorite stories and my own work. The result: my favorite stories all pass and my own work always fall short. This tells me what I’m doing wrong.
The goal is simple: Try to answer yes as often as possible. Of course, every story is unique and no story that I’ve evaluated has answered yes to all 140 questions, nor should it. Check out the Checklist Roadtests over there in the sidebar, to see how lots of great movies did. If you want to try it yourself, a downloadable version of this list as a word document is available here.
(This list is primarily for stand-alone stories such asscreenplays, novels and plays, but don’t worry, there’s a separate “pilot” checklist for the first episode of continuing stories such as TV series, book series, web series, and comics)
PART 1: CONCEPT
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life?
Does the story present a unique central relationship?
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Does this challenge become something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
PART 2: CHARACTER
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or out-of-character, or compassionate, or oddball, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless,and revealed early on?
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal in the first half?
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future?
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Does the hero have one or two untenable great flaws that we empathize with? (but…)
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength that we admire?
Is the hero curious?
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Does the hero have general rules for living he or she clings to (either stated or implied)?
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Is the hero already actively pursuing a goal (which is usually false, quixotic, or very elusive) when we first meet him or her?
PART 3: STRUCTURE (assuming that the story is about the solving of a large problem)
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Do the stakes,pace and motivation all escalate at this point?
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
PART 4: SCENEWORK
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
The Conflict: Is this a compelling collision of competing agendas?
Are the characters cagy (or in denial)about their own feelings?
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
PART 5: DIALOGUE
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
PART 6: TONE
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
PART 7: THEME
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Whew! So how did your story do? Go check out the Checklist Roadtests to see how some great stories line up.