Thoughts From A Script Reader

Every reader, regardless if they work for a screenwriting competition, studio or producer, will go through a script with an initial check list. The first impression is everything. Much like speed dating, a few red flags determine if there will be a second date.

A few red flags that every reader will look for to determine if what they’re reading comes from a novice writer, or someone who has been well seasoned in the art.

Think of screenwriting as an art, but also as a trade. Imagine yourself a painter, someone who has spent years of study and practice to master your craft. At an art show, someone comes to you and says, “wow, you are so talented’. But certainly, the artist knows that talent only goes so far, ending up where hard work and study pick up.

Imagine you are handed a paintbrush and a canvas, would you immediately expect your first piece of work to rank up to a professional caliber? So then why do we have these expectations for our first, second or even third screenplays?

In contrast to painting, everyone has seen at least 50 to 100 movies in their lifetimes. Everyone has watched at least some TV, creating some illusion that our own consumption of entertainment has developed in us a sense of story. This notion is simply untrue.

The reality is that most screenplays written each year are not very good. We know this, because less than 1% of all screenplays submitted, are ever produced. Yet some equate these statistics to the chances of winning the lottery. Again, this is not true. The screenplays that sell are those who have gone through readers, analysts and gatekeepers alike. Unfortunately, because novice screenwriters tend to make many of the same mistakes, it becomes excruciatingly easy for a reader to spot out a new writer from a more experienced one. In response, here are the most common mistakes I have seen and a few tips each screenwriter should consider before submitting their work.

1. It’s already been done. Often times, we see a movie that is so exhilarating that we spend the next few days thinking of it. Many cinematic works have brought about life changing experiences for people. Indeed, we find art to be an expression that reflects the human experience, in many times, in ways that words cannot properly express. Yet… everyone wants to write a story about a rogue CIA agent or burnt out cop that has to complete one more task. If the studios have already exhausted a genre, chances are that they will probably prefer to find something new and original before investing in your work. The difference they will wager is obvious, a studio-based screenwriter who just wrote the last Mission Impossible versus you, someone they have never heard of before. However, studios will always look out for the next new, original idea.

2. “Not another autobiography”. Providing feedback to feature-length screenplays is difficult, when the writer has depicted their hardest, most personal life experiences on the page. Everything becomes personal. Submitting an auto-bio makes it very difficult to get a meeting, because it becomes apparent that you are interesting in having your story told, which is never in the interests of the studios.

3. The first act is made up of a 35-page dialogue sequence. Unless your name is Werner Herzog, it is important to understand basic story structure. One page of a screenplay equates to a minute on screen. And every minute is precious to the viewers, studios and producers. If you don’t know why it is important to establish a proper set up, what a break into two means, or why a midpoint establishes a sense of pacing — the reader will note it.

4. Formatting. If a reader is handed 15 screenplays for his/her weekend read, they can immediately tell which ones are from novice writers just by skimming the pages. It does not matter how great your story is, it can get thrown in the trash if it is missing a proper title page, scene headings or if it uses the wrong font.

5. Exposition. A reader can find lazy, or novice story telling by how often flashbacks and dream sequences are used. To clarify, flashbacks are not an inherently bad device to use. But when dialogue and flashback are used as expositional literary devices, it more often than not, signals that this is the work of a new writer who still has much to learn. Remember, this is a visual medium. Using flashbacks over and over again to explain why your character has a certain weakness is lazy story-telling, but it also takes readers out of the read.

6. The action lines read like prose. Remember, you are not writing a book. The key word here is brevity.

7. One-drafters. Congratulations! You’ve completed your first screenplay. Now you need to get back to work and revise it, polish it and rewrite it.

8. People don’t cry this much. Whenever I read “sheds a single tear” or “eyes fill with tears”, I myself will begin to weep for your screenplay.

9. Act breaks. Understanding how to establish a proper beginning, middle and ending for your story is a sign that you have done your homework and paid your dues working through your story beats. Readers will specifically examine your opening 15 pages; act 1 break, act 2 break and ending pages before giving your screenplay a thorough read.

10. Losing focus. Establish what your thematic premise is and stick to it. If you begin your screenplay by setting up a story about a father who is disconnected to his daughter because of his work, we should see that story line develop. Ask yourself, has your story come full circle when comparing the opening images to the closing pages?

11. Unnecessary dialogue. Everything that is put in front of a camera should have a purpose. In a similar fashion, everything that a character says, should have a purpose. A helpful exercise is to go through each scene and ask; what does this character want? Why? What is stopping them? What are they willing to do to get it? What are they hesitant to say? How come? Is there something that hinders their honesty? Etc.

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