Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ultimate Story Checklist v5!

Welcome to version 5 of The Ultimate Story Checklist, completely rewritten and newly subdivided!

The goal is simple: Answer these questions and try to answer yes to as many as possible.

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 falls short. This tells me what I’m doing wrong.

Of course, every story is unique and no story that I’ve evaluated has answered yes to all 140 questions, nor should it. Listed over there in the sidebar, you'll see more than a movies that I subjected to the checklist, and the scores for this version range from 114/140 to 131/140. For your own work, if you can get over 100, you’re probably doing pretty well.

(This list is primarily for stand-alone stories such as screenplays, novels and plays, but don’t worry, theres 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?
 Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?

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?

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?

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 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 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)?
 Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 …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?
 Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?

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?
 Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?

2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
 Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
 Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
 Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?

3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
 Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
 Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
 Do the stakes,pace and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?

4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
 Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 By the time the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed.

Part 4: Scenework

The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
 Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?

The Conflict: Is this a compelling collision of competing agendas?  
 Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?

The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
 As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)

Part 5: Dialogue

Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
 Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say (and doing things they wouldn’t do)?
 Do the characters listen poorly?
 Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?

Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
 Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Are there additional characters with default argument tactics?

Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
 Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?

Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
 Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

Part 6: Tone

Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
 Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
 Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
 Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Is the nature of the stakes (lethal or social?) established early and maintained throughout?

Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
 Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Part 7: Theme

Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
 Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?

Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
 Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Do all of the actions have real consequences?

Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
 Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?

Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
 Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some smaller plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?

Whew! So how did your story do? Go check out the Checklist Roadtests to see how some great stories line up.

24 comments:

And Your Little Dog Too said...

Excellent! This post is the distallation of just about everything in Cockeyed Caravan.

James Kennedy said...

Stop now. Close up the blog. You're never going to top this.

In the future, this will be the Six Sigma of screenwriting.

HOLY COW

Brillianto.

Shallee said...

Ooh, I love this! I'm so bookmarking this for help with my edits! Thanks so much for sharing.

Teddy Pasternak said...

Great stuff. Thanks a million for sharing.

Sara O'Leary said...

Terribly useful checklist!

j.s. said...

I'm one of those who've been urging you to write a book about writing, but now it seems to me that even if you do, it would be hard to top the usefulness of this site itself or this very entry, with its exhaustive hyperlinked checklist. Excellent work! Thanks again for sharing it with everyone.

Matt Bird said...

Sure, J.S., but this could be the table of contents and each corresponding entry would be a two-page chapter. Oh, I'm thinking ahead...

The problem, of course, is that no one wants to read a screenwriting book by someone without a produced credit. I'll probably have to wait until one of my scripts floating around out there actually gets made. And wait... And wait...

Christine Tyler said...

I am overwhelmed with awesome.

I need to breathe into a paper bag and return later.

Kat O'Keeffe said...

This is brilliant.

Jeff Moskowitz said...

Wow. Should I become a working screenwriter one day it will be on the back of this blog and this post.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I love the way this post raises the bar by saying, "Shoot for writing greatness." It's rare to read any tips -- let alone such coherent ones -- about how to work at the most advanced end of the craft.

Crystal said...

Bookmarked.

Golden.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who can't download this doc?

Matt Bird said...

Hopefully fixed.

CS Perryess said...

Wow. That's thorough.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

How can I give you money?!

Caravan Vergelijken said...

So true. Bookmarked and stored for storywriting purposes in the future!

Heidi Haaland said...

Hello! Late to the party, but ditto all of the above. I sat down with a story I'm working on, but haven't yet started writing, and went through all the questions. I wondered at first at the length and detail of the list, if it would be skewed toward a certain genre or scale of film, but whether someone is working on a tent pole picture or a modest indie film, this checklist is an excellent diagnostic tool. Especially when you don't have an answer. That's where it really shines.

Anonymous said...

You are a very generous man! Heard you on Narrative Breakdown and had to come check out your blog. Thanks so much for all the help.

Anonymous said...

I doubt you'd see this comment since it's quite late BUT thank you so much for sharing this checklist with everyone. I wanted to download it to my Scrivener but couldn't, so decided to go through everything. Took me two days to do that and now I've got to the end, there's a surprise waiting for me! A downloadable doc! Thanks!


Crystal said...

OMG. Amazing. Again.

Thank you so very, very much.

Alex Orrelle said...

Matt Bird! I just heard you on The Narrative Breakdown and came here to read your checklist. Your writing on writing is excellent: It's practical, economical and fun. Bravo and thank you from your new inspired reader, Alex.

George Speed said...

wow... you're killing me... but what a wonderful way to die... I'd rather die in the sanctity of my desk instead of at the hands of a producer... you have given all of us a chance...
You have made it very difficult for myself lean back and try to say "well I think that's good enough"...
I can't find any holes to poke at...
Thank you for your efforts, knowledge and kindness...
Namaste Speedo

Patrick said...

I second James Kennedy, close the blog. Thanks for sharing this. Maybe it's your shot at greatness?

I still sense that it will serious-ize my comedy.

How can I keep that from happening besides remaining true to my wild side while putting my protagonists through your chops?