Screenwriting Basics: The Reader’s Perspective

So, you wrote a script. You’ve birthed the baby. You’re feeling awesome. You tell yourself repeatedly, “I rock!” – since nobody else is going to.

Then you send your script out – and that rock comes hurling back toward the earth faster than you can blink.

Following is a list of some things to consider before letting baby go. I have come up with this list because this is basically the quick list of very broad strokes I run through when I am writing coverage on a script, providing story notes, or evaluating that script for competition.

1. Formatting and Proofreading

This might shock you, but most people don’t proof their scripts as closely as they should. I was blessed with a gem the other day that had eight errors in the first three lines alone. Buy a copy of “The Screenwriter’s Bible” and check every stylistic device in your script and make sure it is formatted correctly. If your grammar isn’t stellar, there is no shame in having a friend proof it or in hiring someone to proof it before it goes out. The reality is that scripts can and will be disqualified from competitions if they have errors, so be responsible and submit professional work.

2. Subject Matter

This might also shock you, but many ideas that I read are not fundamentally cinematic. Of course, movies come in all shapes and sizes – but these are stories that are for the big screen, meant to be viewed by millions of people. That translates to universal themes that will be embraced by the masses. If your material is basically a play – two, three, four characters sitting in primarily one location, talking (no matter how fascinating you may think your dialogue is) – it’s likely not cinematic. Although, it might make a very good play and then you should write that. Alternatively, if you’re dealing with obscure subject matter – say, young man has a sex change operation to take revenge on another woman as an adult (you may be laughing, but read this script as well) – realize that this is obscure (i.e., perhaps not the experience of the masses) and then work to really bring out the elements within the story that are universal. Don’t forget – people are looking for scripts that can be made into movies. People want a concept that they can celebrate – something that feels like it might get made. The smaller and more obscure your subject matter, the less likely you’re going to get a “wow.”

3. Genre

Every genre has its own conventions. In my opinion, this actually has less to do with the conventions of writing and structure than with audience expectation. Genre is about setting and defining the expectations of the audience. For example, if you think you’re in a straight thriller and then all of a sudden an alien pops onto the screen (which is more SciFi), and it wasn’t established that the movie was really a SciFi, then most people will think, “what the hell.” Study your genre. Choose a handful of films within your genre that are similar to what you’re writing, beat them out, know the structure and then work within the parameters of that genre in crafting your own screenplay. Do not assume that you can write that amazing script that breaks all the rules and starts out as a romantic comedy, but then becomes a straight action, then a broad comedy, then a SciFi. I can assure you, in this case, the reader will mostly be annoyed, rather than wowed, and it will be a little more difficult for that reader to figure out what’s wrong with the project and give you notes.

4. The Logical World

I cannot say this enough: avoid confusion at every turn. It is always better to err on the side of being clear rather than being confused and convoluted. Take pains to avoid being confusing. Many writers feel that their work is clean on the page – and yet, if any other person in the universe were to read that script, they would be confused. Have other writers read your work and let you know if something is confusing. I read a script recently that was a political thriller, and the writer went to such lengths to create red herrings and avoid actually writing about what was going on, that he completely forgot to write about what was going on – and I was hopelessly confused. I had no idea what his story was about. The world that you’re creating must have its own logical rules – do not break them, do not manipulate them, do not bend them. If you do, that means the reader will be confused. You are giving the reader a reason to pass. You must intimately know the rules of your world. Hey, I love fantasy and stories that play with reality as we know it – but if you’re going to take me to that place, then teach me the laws of that universe and be consistent.

5. Story

Story is tricky. As a reader, I will admit honestly that if I come across a script that has an amazing “high concept” story – even if the quality of writing isn’t stellar – then I will likely recommend this script, because the concept is good enough to float it. But, most scripts aren’t this high concept. Most scripts must rely on a well-crafted story that escalates in intrigue and intensity. Even if you’re writing a small character drama, your story must build in emotional intensity in order to keep the reader interested in turning the page. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean that other people have to love it. That part comes with blood, sweat and tears – yours, or your characters’.

6. Character & Location

Read, read, read great scripts to find out how to introduce your characters. ALL of your name characters need to be properly introduced. And, an introduction doesn’t just mean what color hair your character has or how they dress. You might know in your head these things, but if you just write, STAN, 8, and nothing else, then I won’t know anything else when I read your script – which means nothing. Literally. I will have nothing to go on. In addition, characters are most successfully introduced in a scene where we meet them and cut to the quick of who they are as an individual. It isn’t about saying that Jack is “a leader” when we meet him and yet he’s sitting in the back of a classroom doing nothing. Show us he’s a leader by putting him in an active situation where he takes control and others follow. As they say, first impressions say it all. Make sure when you introduce your character, you are creating the lasting impression that you want to be creating. Make it easier on the reader and give your characters unique names: do not name your 2 male protagonists Ron and Rob. That is simply confusing. And, yes, your characters need an arc – and not only the protagonist. Everyone needs a reason why they make the specific choices in life – a character arc goes a long way to explaining why. As far as location goes, most writers don’t pay attention to location. But, yet, a family in New Orleans is living a completely different life than a family in Boston. A story set in Los Angeles will have an entirely different flavor than a story set in Seattle. Know your characters and the place well enough to let us know where we are. Location informs characters. Also, use establishing shots – set up the specific locations in your script, because it gives them depth and meaning.

7. Dialogue

Each person speaks in a unique way. We all have expressions, slang, accents, cadence – special ways in which we communicate. A lot of your character can come through in their voice – so you don’t have to write it in the action lines. If you actually know your characters well enough – including where they’re from – simply the way in which they speak can tell the reader volumes. Use that to your advantage. But, remember – your whole script cannot just be people talking. Dialogue is a vehicle through which you communicate the story of your script. The dialogue cannot substitute for story itself.

8. Theme

Stories become universal because of their underlying themes – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, etc. Cool for you if you write an awesome space racing movie – but what is its theme? Theme is a wonderful way to tie a story together and elevate it above the level of something ordinary, common. All great films have a strong theme – and your script needs one as well. Your theme should be present in every scene. Knowing your theme will help you construct your outline, come up with your character arcs, create resonant scenes and moments, and help leave the reader with something memorable.

I would assume that every reader has his/her own short list of things they look for. It might not look exactly like mine, but I’m sure they cover all the major points. Actually, if we’re writing expanded coverage, we’re pretty much required to hit all the major points. So, after you’ve written your baby, go back and look at your material using these eight points. If you actually address all of these points in your material with professionalism, you will be a cut above the competition.

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