Screenplay Checklist: How to Avoid the Reject Pile

  • Filmsourcing-screenplay-checklist

    So you’ve nailed your kick-ass screenplay and you’re ready to send your baby into the world – or are you? After reading hundreds of screenplays by new writers I’ve found there are 8 common mistakes that can send their hard work on the reject pile – even if the idea is good. Give your project a fighting chance by going through this screenplay checklist.

    1. Your Formatting is Correct

    Nothing shouts “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” like an incorrectly formatted screenplay. But more importantly, it makes for a difficult read. This is the situation – the folks reading your screenplay are likely to be busy. No one, and I mean no one, will thank you for a script that they have to struggle through and frankly, unless your story is the surface of the sun hot, they’re not going to bother. There’s plenty of info on formatting all over the web.

    2. The Premise is Focused and Clear

    focusWhat is the basic idea of your screenplay? And I’m not talking theme. I’m talking what is it about at the most simple level. If you can’t write the basic idea in a simple sentence or two then chances are you’re not ready to start writing the script yet. Some screenplays read like the writer had so many great ideas they couldn’t bear to leave any of them out. One tell-tale sign of an unclear premise is that the story has a number of weighty subplots that draw the reader away from the main plot (and main character) for long periods of time. Decide which of your ideas excite you the most and park the story strands that don’t serve or explore that main idea.

    3. The Screenplay is the Appropriate Length

    Sure there are plenty of screenplays that are 120 + long but unless you’re already a well-known filmmaker/screenwriter with a track record (which would be surprising if you are reading this article) aim to have your screenplay in the 90-110 pages territory.

    4. Your Protagonist is Active

    If your protagonist isn’t active then you have a passive protagonist. This is a main character who is all talk and no trousers. Simply put – he or she doesn’t take action or make decisions that have repercussions. It could be that the protagonist’s goal or desire hasn’t been clearly defined or that his or her failure to achieve said goal has no significant repercussions i.e. there are no stakes. It may also be that the protagonist’s internal world hasn’t been examined well enough. A tell-tale sign of a PP is when the writer is forced to keep throwing numerous external factors at the protagonist in order to keep the story going.

    5. There’s a Clear Core Conflict

    conflict-200x200There’s not much point telling a story that doesn’t contain conflict. Conflict is the reason the story is being told and it provides the engine that drives it. The core conflict in a story needs to be simple and tangible. In short – someone wants something but someone or something else is preventing them from having it.

    6. The Characters Sound Different

    People all sound different so your characters should too. The rhythm, pace, and language of the characters’ dialogue should be distinctive and reflect who they are, what they’re feeling and what they’re trying to present to the world.

    7. The Dialogue is Realistic and Necessary

    Huge blocks of dialogue or a big speech on every page will kill the reader’s will to live. It not only makes the character feel unnatural it also smacks of the writer trying to make a point by using characters as mouth pieces. Besides which, people just don’t talk that way – they talk in a range of ways depending on how they’re feeling, who they are, where they are and who they’re with. An excellent way to cut back on extraneous dialogue is to read the screenplay out loud – it becomes obvious very quickly when the characters are rambling on. Or even better, look for places where you can replace dialogue with the character’s action that we can see.

    8. The Story Has a Heart

    heartThe screenplay might be a cool story but if it is written entirely from the intellect – it’s hard to engage with the characters much less care about them. Audiences like stories that make them feel something – and so do readers whether they’re a funding body assessor, director, producer or your best actor friend. It’s the writer’s job to elicit emotion from the reader and it doesn’t matter which one. Work out how you want the audience to feel in any given scene and make it so.

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    Kathryn Burnett

    New Zealand based Kathryn Burnett is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, script development consultant and workshop facilitator who has worked in film and television for 20 years. She has significant television, short and feature film credits and wrote the multi-award-winning short film “Shelved”. In 2011, she created a series of ideation training workshops and has been helping organisations and individuals be their creative best ever since.

    Wanna fire up your next project? Sign up for Kathryn's excellent Creative Action Plan on her website.

    Screenplay Checklist:

    • Your Formatting is Correct
    • The Premise is Focused and Clear
    • The Screenplay Is the Appropriate Length
    • Your Protagonist is Active
    • There’s a Clear Core Conflict
    • The Characters Sound Different
    • The Dialogue is Realistic and Necessary
    • The Story Has a Heart


    Hang it on Your Wall

    Download a printable PDF for your writing nook to always remind you of these basics. Available to Filmsourcing members.


Kathryn Burnett is an award-winning screenwriter, script consultant and playwright. She runs a popular workshop especially for new writers – Beginner’s Guide To Screenwriting.