Screenwriting Checklist for Filmmakers

Written by Kent Lamm, Filmmaker

Richmond, VA

Fix Your Scene With My Screenwriting Checklist

You know that feeling when you’re writing a script, and you just can’t figure out why some of your scenes suck?  Sometimes you know a scene doesn’t work, but you can’t quite figure out WHY it doesn’t work. So here are seven common pitfalls in screenwriting that can ruin any scene and any script.  Use this as a checklist to diagnose your own script’s ailments (it has saved my films more times than I can count).

1. Does your scene start too soon or end too late?

A very common mistake with novice filmmakers and writers is that they want to show you everything. The audience is smarter than that, and they don’t have that kind of patience. So, you need to show them the bare minimum to get your point across. This makes your scene more engaging for the viewer and keeps the momentum of the film going.  In a short film I made called The Flash Drive, there’s an interrogation/torture scene where this character named Alex is tied up, and he’s trying to convince a dirty cop not to kill him.  At the end, the cop decides not to kill him. So shouldn’t the end of the scene be the cop making the decision?  In this case, if we had shown the cop make the decision, it would have completely dropped the tension, and hurt the pacing of the film. Why bother? Should be also show him untie Alex, let him go, and give him a butt slap on the way out the door? All that is completely unnecessary. Instead, we showed the cop on the cusp of making the decision. He may kill Alex; he may not.  And then, we cut away.  We cut to a shot of a doorknob, and hold on it. And then finally, the Alex character opens the door, and we realize the cop made the decision to let him go.  So, by ending the scene earlier, it kept the tension high, kept the viewer on the edge of their seat, and it immediately propelled us into the next scene and the next conflict.

2. Does your scene lack conflict?

Good scenes are based on conflict. It is the most essential building block of drama.  Yet sometimes, writers find themselves needing to deliver information to their audience (also called exposition), and these scenes fall flat because they forget that they still need conflict. Exposition dumps like this actually require MORE creativity and conflict to work. A character should never give up information easily. That’s lazy writing. Other characters should have to work for it, and conflict is often the best way to do that. So imagine a scene where a guy tells his crush he doesn’t want to go to the pool with her. She asks why, and he tells her that he can’t swim. That felt way too easy right? How about instead he makes up weak excuses why he can’t go, she gets upset that he’s avoiding spending time with her, he gets defensive, and it blows up into a yelling match until out of frustration he drops the bomb that he can’t swim. Now the exposition feels earned. All thanks to a little conflict.

3. Does your scene provide more information than the audience needs?

Audiences can infer more than you think, so don’t over-explain anything. Your audiences will find it slow and insulting. In my short film Will “The Machine” a high school football coach had a job offer to coach in college, and his star player was putting that opportunity in jeopardy by acting out. But the film wasn’t about the coach, it was about the troubled player. In the end, we cut out the coach’s backstory because it was unnecessary to the story. It was enough to just get the sense that the coach was too self-centered to solve Will’s problems. This sped up the scene and allowed the audience to fill in the gaps themselves, making it more engaging.

4. Does your scene have no subtext?

Remember when I said audiences are smarter than you think? That’s why if an entire scene is only taking place on the surface, it can feel flat or boring. 

However, when there is just as much being said without words as with words, your scene will be much more interesting to watch. That’s how you write with subtext.

So think about your characters’ wants and needs, and how they’re playing out in any given scene. If they aren’t being addressed directly, they should be in the subtext.

5. Does your scene work in its context?

Sometimes the scenes before and after can make a scene unnecessary or stifle the drama.

For example, a character begs his mother for money to get a car. They get into a big fight. Finally the mother agrees, but only if the bank won’t give him a loan

The next scene, the bank refuses him a loan. 

Well, the bank scene was dead in the water from the beginning, because the mother made it unnecessary and killed the stakes. You can fix the bank scene by cutting the end of the mother scene. 

Ideally, each scene is INCREASING the stakes in the story.

6. Does your scene throw off the film’s pacing?

Pacing should always be a concern, especially for longer scripts. You establish a rhythm with your scene lengths, and it’s easy for the scenes before or after any given scene to make it feel too slow or too fast.

For example, if you have 5 super fast, quarter-page scenes and then a 3-page monologue, it’s going to feel like the pace hit a brick wall.Or maybe you have a big dialogue scene that is as short as you can make it, but it still feels too long. One option is shortening the scenes after it to rebuild the momentum. Maybe the next scene is a quarter page scene, followed by a half page scene, and boom! You’ve salvaged your pacing.

Short scenes (green and blue) rebuilding the pace between two longer scenes (yellow).

7. Does your scene lack narrative momentum?

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind for every scene. 

Is the scene propelling the story FORWARD? Does the audience feel like they’re moving forward or backward? 

Even something as innocuous as returning to a previous location can feel like you’re moving backwards to the viewer, so always keep that in mind – does the scene make the story feel like it’s barreling ahead into new territory, or retreating to familiarity? There is absolutely no room for redundancy in a film. So even if we’re just going back to an old location, it needs to be under different circumstances. 

We’re on your ride when we read your screenplay. And every scene, every line, every word does its part to propel us down the track you’re laying for us. If you are ruthless in maintaining your narrative momentum, we won’t even realize we’re on a ride at all. And those are the most fun scripts to read, and the most fun films to watch, because we truly feel swept away in the story.

Hopefully this checklist has helped you diagnose what felt wrong in your scene. Get more screenwriting and filmmaking tips on my YouTube channel, Standard Story Company.

-Kent Lamm

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Kent is a filmmaker from Richmond, Virginia. He's best known for his 2010 no-budget feature film, Bad is Bad, and his 2019 short, Will "The Machine", which both went viral with millions of views. He is based in Los Angeles, where he also runs his YouTube channel, Standard Story Company, with over 100k subscribers. His goal on YouTube is to help filmmakers improve their storytelling at any budget level.

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