Lessons from a script reader

Over the past several months I have served as a volunteer reader for scripts entered in the inaugural Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition. I am working on a spec feature script and a tv pilot, so the experience of reading and reviewing scripts in the competition afforded an excellent opportunity to learn my craft. And it’s been a rewarding endeavor, to be sure.

The first 30 pages of each script are crucial. As a reader, I was tasked with identifying the premise of each script (who and what the script is about) and determining how compelling the story was. Key ingredients in the grading process were the characters introduced and the use of dialogue.

What stood out, more often than not, were the missteps that kept the scripts from reaching the next level of review.

Below are some insights into scripts, as well as some things to watch out for:

Flashbacks. A character’s backstory is certainly important to fleshing out their motivations, wants and needs, but flashbacks to me are a huge distraction. Too many writers are relying on flashbacks as a crutch. Frankly, I found flashbacks as unnecessary interruptions in the flow of the main story. They slow the momentum, seem obtrusive, and don’t always add much in the way of depth to a story or character. Heck, I’ve read scripts where there are flashbacks after the first paragraph. Can we not establish the character in the present for a few minutes before jumping backwards? If flashbacks are needed, then look at something like Saving Mr. Banks as a way to do them right. In that movie, the flashbacks were a story unto themselves. The story in the past lent deep meaning to the main character and why she wouldn’t sell her story to Mr. Disney.

Too many characters. Focus on establishing the main character, his or her current situation and wants, followed by the inciting incident and how that might impact that character’s goals. Remember, stories are about the transformation of character from one state to another. By inserting character after character into the script, no matter how small a role they have, it takes away from the story you should be telling. I read one script in which there were ten named characters within the first four pages, followed by a dozen more by page twenty. When you have to look at a list of characters or keep scrolling back to remember who’s who, that ruins the momentum of the story. That loses the reader. That dooms the script.

Establish your characters quickly. Don’t wait until page 30 to introduce a character’s romantic interest, confidant or mentor, protagonist or antagonist.

Write believable dialogue. Make certain dialogue sounds unique to each character and that their own personalities/motivations come through. Try not to be too simple or direct. Use some subtext, i.e., not always stating what is meant but inferring it. But don’t go overboard. I’ve read a lot of scripts where the writer suffers from the delusion that they are Quentin Tarrantino. That can come across as being too writerly and unnatural sounding. Be careful of loaded informational dialogue that tells more than it shows.

Avoid use of camera directions. That’s the job of the director. Follow the character and his actions, and the director will follow you. Let your script flow naturally.

Avoid too much setup. I’ve read a lot of scripts that take page after page to establish characters, build worlds or situations, etc. The story doesn’t get going until after page 30. If your character’s goals and inciting incident aren’t clear at this point, or earlier, your script isn’t going to make it to the next reader.

Find an original plot/idea. So many script writers are clearly chasing trends. Zombies. Seniors coping with Alzheimer’s or other end of life diseases. Young adult vampires. Super heroes. This superhero phase is going to fade, trust me. Marvel and DC Comics destroyed my love for their characters by pushing out title after title in the 1990s. They’re back at it again now (DC publishes 52 books every month alone, if not more) and Marvel has more than 100 titles. It’s too many to keep track of and it’s ridiculous to even try. Now with more and more superhero movies on the horizon (a half dozen planned for this year alone) there are few fresh superhero stories to be told. It’s become comical. [Addendum: I say all that, and yet it’s interesting to note that one of the winning screenplays in the NaFF competition was Heroman, a story about, you guessed it, a washed up superhero. So what do I know?]

Realize that your scripts will cost money to produce. Yes, we all want to write the next summer blockbuster. But face it, if you are just starting out it’s extremely unlikely that any studio will plop down a hundred million dollars to produce your movie. You have no cred. You have no track record. They’re going to go with the proven commodity. And if your script includes car chases, special-effects laden fights on the moon or in deep space, the script is going to be seen as unproducable and it’s going to be thrown on the slush pile. Keep it simple, and focus on the story.

Pay attention to three-act structure. You may hate it, you may think it’s formulaic and confining. Fine. But if you’re just starting out, you better know how to write a script using three-act structure before you decide to break the rules. Script readers are looking for three-act structure, and if it’s not there your script, despite all its gloriously fresh ideas, will be tossed.

Get coverage on your script. There are plenty of outlets that will read and provide coverage for you. Yes, for a price, but it will be worth it in the long run. The coverage can point to structural problems, plot holes, etc. that you can address now before they doom your script. [Addendum: It would also be useful to join a local screenwriters group, if you have access to one. I am now attending meetings of the Tennessee Screenwriters Association where I hope to build new connections, continue to learn my craft and, hopefully, receive valuable feedback.]

Lastly, for God’s sake, check your spelling and your grammar. Punctuation and spelling were not instant reasons for disqualification with NaFF. But you can bet they were noticed and that somewhere in the back of readers’ minds when making their decision, it factored into the equation. Sloppy mistakes signal that the script isn’t up to professional standards and the writer wasn’t either. Misspellings, missing commas and apostrophes, and inconsistencies in characters (names, ages, for instance) matter.

To write a good script, you’ve got to read scripts. Good and bad. See what works, what doesn’t. Go to LA Screenwriter for links to scripts, including Oscar-award winners Her, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more.

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