Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ultimate Story Checklist v4!

Totally revised and updated in Oct. 2013...Now ultimater than ever!
After consuming way too many movies, TV shows, novels, plays, narrative non-fiction books, etc., I concluded that most successful stand-alone stories can answer “yes” to most of these questions.

Of course, every story is unique and breaks a few rules...but it’s important to know which ones you’re breaking!  If you want to play along with your own work, there’s a downloadable version here.  (And there’s now a separate list for creating TV shows and other continuing stories!)

Part 1: Is this a strong concept for a story?
  1. Is this a unique twist on a classic type of story?
  2. Does the concept contain a fundamental ironic contradiction?
  3. Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
  4. Is this an extreme situation based on a common emotional dilemma (rather than injecting extreme emotions into common situations)?
  5. Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes? 
  6. Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a story before?
  7. Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
  8. Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, rather than the hero’s life in general?
  9. Are the plot and the character arcs married to each other (The plot is the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to hero’s question)?
  10. Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the plot?
  11. Is this challenge something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
  12. Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
  13. Does this story show us an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
  14. Is there a “Holy Crap!” scene? (to create word of mouth)?
  15. Does the story contain a twist that is not obvious from the beginning?
  16. Is the story marketable without revealing the twist?
  17. Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the twist?
  18. Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
  19. In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
  20. Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
  21. Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
Part 2: Is this a compelling character?
  1. Does the hero have a great strength?
  2. Is that strength the flip side of a great flaw?
  3. Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
  4. Does the hero have a goal already in the first scene (which is usually a false goal)?
  5. Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
  6. Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
  7. Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
  8. Does the hero have a social anxiety?
  9. Does the hero have a private fear?
  10. Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
  11. Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
  12. Does the hero have a default personality trait?
  13. Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
  14. Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
  15. Does the hero have decision-making authority?
  16. Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
  17. Is the hero curious?
  18. Is the hero generally resourceful?
  19. Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
  20. Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
  21. Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this problem strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
  22. Does the hero engage in physical exertion early on?
  23. Does the hero engage in reversible behavior (so that we will instantly see that he or she has changed when we see a contrasting behavior later on)?
Part 3: Does the structure portray problem-solving in a way that rings true?
  1. When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
  2. Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
  3. Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
  4. Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
  5. Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
  6. Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
  7. Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
  8. 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?
  9. Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
  10. Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
  11. Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
  12. Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
  13. By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
  14. Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are? 
  15. Are the stakes raised as the pace increases and the motivation escalates? 
  16. Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
  17. Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
  18. Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis? 
  19. After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
  20. Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
  21. Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
  22. Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
  23. Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
  24. Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the hero’s original problem is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)?
Part 4: Is this powerful dialogue?
  1. Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
  2. Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
  3. Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
  4. Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
  5. Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
  6. Do the characters listen poorly?
  7. Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
  8. Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
  9. Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
  10. Does the dialogue mirror the syntax of real talk, but not the dialect?
  11. Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the setting?
  12. Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
  13. Does each character have a distinct voice? (Can you always tell who is speaking without looking at the names?)
  14. Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
  15. Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
  16. Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
  17. Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with yes, no, well, or the other character’s name)?
  18. Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
  19. Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
  20. Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
  21. Are there more rejecting-bad-advice scenes than taking-good-advice scenes?
  22. Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Part 5: Does the story manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations?
  1. Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to buy and recommend this type of story?
  2. 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)?
  3. Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
  4. Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
  5. Does the story establish and maintain a consistent mood, separate from the genre? 
  6. 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?
  7. Are there other open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
  8. Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)? 
  9. Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances? 
  10. Does the story follow the general structure of its genre
  11. Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others? 
  12. Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story? 
Part 6: Does the story have a meaningful theme?
  1. Can the theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
  2. Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
  3. Does the story reflect the way the world works?
  4. Is the story based more on observations than ideas?
  5. Is an open thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half?
  6. Does the story create its own sense of right and wrong?
  7. Does the story focus more on the ethical breaches than moral breaches?
  8. Does the story have something authentic to say about this setting?
  9. Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
  10. Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
  11. Are many small details throughout tied into the theme?
  12. Are there characters whose situations foreshadow various fates that might await the hero? 
  13. Do all of the actions have real consequences?
  14. In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy?
  15. Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
  16. Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
  17. If the heroes triumph, do they triumph by morally ascending, not descending?
  18. Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Part 7: Is each scene the best it can be?
  1. Is this scene a character event, not just a plot event?
  2. Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may shift)?
  3. Were false and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
  4. Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
  5. Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
  6. Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or even the middle)?
  7. Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
  8. Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
  9. Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
  10. Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
  11. Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext?
  12. Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
  13. Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
  14. Is there re-blocking?
  15. Is there literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
  16. Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
  17. If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
  18. Are previously-asked questions answered?
  19. Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
  20. 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?
  21. Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
  22. Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
So that’s it!  This never version has been totally re-written because it’s informed by the book I’m writing on this topic.  More updates on that soon!


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.



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...



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...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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.

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.