The Unorthodox Great Screenplay Checklist


The Unorthodox Great Screenplay Checklist

Studying screenplays is a worthy practice, but can sometimes lead to cookie-cutter scripts, without the spark of originality that defines truly great films - with that in mind, here’s the ScriptArsenal “Unorthodox Great Screenplay Checklist”. Does your screenplay fit the bill? To compile this list, ScriptArsenal found commonalities in eight of the greatest screenplays of all time (all won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars), FARGO, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, JUNO, WITNESS, GOOD WILL HUNTING, SPOTLIGHT, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and THE CRYING GAME.

  • The protagonist is dead wrong about the most important thing in their own lives. In GOOD WILL HUNTING, Matt Damon wants to stay with Ben Affleck, working a blue-collar job and watching football. Ben Affleck must tell him it would be the worst thing he could do, and a profound waste of his potential. In SPOTLIGHT, Michael Keaton realizes, and admits, that the titular Spotlight team of journalists, who have held the moral high ground throughout the story, like everyone else, were complicit in burying the scandal of the abusive priests.
  • The protagonist experiences an “unholy” encounter during their journey, which shakes the foundation of who they are. In JUNO, Ellen Page realizes Jason Bateman’s character is insinuating a romantic (and age-inappropriate) attraction to her. In WITNESS, Harrison Ford witnesses the Amish character played by Kelly McGillis semi-nude, and she knowingly allows him to, a taboo potential romance between an outsider and an Amish woman.
  • There is a worldview-altering twist, that fundamentally redefines the story. In THE CRYING GAME, Fergus discovers Dil is biologically male. In THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze. Nothing is the same after these twists.
  • Something brutally horrible happens to the characters. Edwin dies from a heroin overdose in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. In SPOTLIGHT, September 11th happens, forcing the reporter team to temporarily drop their investigation.
  • Theme drives surprising turns in the story. In LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, when Olive’s performance goes horribly wrong, the entire family joins Olive, dancing alongside her, finally unified after spending the entire film at odds with each other. In FARGO, Marge arrests Peter Stormare’s character and can’t fathom why he is so cruel. The film ends with her reassuring her husband Norm that his mallard painting, which has been selected for the three-cent postage stamp, has value as people use the stamp when the price of postage increases. They are truly happy, decent people, and the final message of the film is ultimately a positive one.

Does your screenplay include all these elements? If not, why not? If so, have you pushed those moments to as extreme of a breaking point as in these examples? Let us know in the comments below.

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