NOTES FROM A BELEAGUERED SCRIPT READER
During times I'm not being paid to write but want to continue living indoors, I work as a script reader for production cos that have made movies you've heard of and also coverage services that give notes to unrepped writers. Here are some general impressions that might be useful to someone thinking about writing a spec feature or pilot.
- •Things that read like hallmarks of an amateur: a WGA registration number or a fake/vanity film prod co name on the cover sheetThese things are red flags for most readers that they're not dealing with a pro, i.e., you're not ready for the big leagues. And the notion that people's ideas are being stolen is just not true, at least not in any meaningful way. It's much cheaper/easier for a prod co to option your work than to steal the idea and hire someone to write another script and then face an expensive lawsuit. And harsh truth - most newbie scripts are simply terrible and no one wants your idea.
- •A script not formatted to industry standards is a strike against youYes, what should matter is your story and characters. But readers plow through multiple scripts a day and readability is important - a poorly formatted script means we're hunting for character names and trying to figure out where a scene is set when we don't get a proper heading and it eats up time. Basic screenwriting format guides are also READILY available for free online so it means a writer hasn't taken the time to learn the easiest part of the process and it suggests laziness.
- •Don't send in an unfinished draft - either to a contest, producer or trusted friend/readerThe old adage that you only have one chance at a first impression is especially true in Hollywood where people make instant judgment calls (see above re format/red flags.) Notes to yourself, things like "(I'll finish this scene later)" aren't cool as it disrespects the time of your reader. Your draft should be as good as you can possibly get it on your own - a finished and polished product. Seeing "first draft" on the cover page is also an eyebrow raiser - even pros' first drafts are terrible.
- •Be up on industry trends and pilot season pickups - read the tradesSubmitting a script for a concept that's JUST been done is mostly pointless. Yes, everything has already been done, but your project should feel as fresh or "new take on" as possible. (But also hang onto that script as in TV you can use it for a staffing sample and a movie concept can probably be revisited after a hot minute.)
- •If you get a note that your underlying concept feels flawed, you have to stop and seriously consider if this might be the caseThis sucks. It sucks to hear a your project fundamentally isn't working as it means your next draft is likely a page-one rewrite. But you have to consider it's a possibility. It's pointless to keep working on a script where basic story elements just don't work (like the reader doesn't buy your setup/entry to the plot, or your mystery isn't mysterious enough). Learn to recognize when to stop beating the dead horse and head back to the barn for a new one.
- •For whatever reason, fantasy and hard scifi scripts from newbie/amateur writers tend to be incomprehensibleYou might have a very clear picture of your fictional world in your head, but a reader is going in cold. Help them understand what the hell is going on. You're going to need a fuck ton of exposition and you're going to have to find an interesting/natural way to deliver it. Good luck!
- •There are a few openings for stories that we've seen so often they now feel like the trope-iest tropes that ever tropedIncluding but not limited to: your protag running from or about to die at the hands of an unknown assailant (then flash back to X days/weeks earlier), your protag getting ready for their day (snooooooze), a pan of the items/pictures in a protag's house that gives us a bare bones picture of who they are. Try something else. Your reader is now bored on p1.
- •Male screenwriters can be really cavalier with rape as a plot point. Fucking stop itThis is something I've rarely if ever seen a female writer do, so this note is for the dudes. Yes, rape is scary and it adds conflict to a story. But it's lazy writing when the rape is just tacked onto an assault (and it's creepy as fuck when you go into graphic detail of how it goes down) and then ignored as part of the character's continuing arc. Think long and hard about why you're having a character raped. #Rapecultureiswhen writers treat rape as a quick plot beat.
- •Male screenwriters: it's also creepy as fuck when you go into too much detail about a female character's physical appearanceThe only time it's truly relevant to know what kind of underwear a character is wearing or if she's braless is when it's relevant to the plot, like (for some reason) those panties cause something to happen in a scene. Also, FYI, most women don't lounge around the house alone in their thong panties and actresses will be grossed out when you spend a paragraph detailing the size of a characters breasts and what their curves are like. You're defining a character by her appearance. Stop it.
- •Personally, I find shots and angles and music selection for a scene annoyingIt's really not your job as a writer (director has final say on this) and too many of these make for a distracting read.
- •Take heed of these suggestions, or notI'm just one reader. But readers are gatekeepers to the industry, so if there's an easy way not to irritate us (like proofreading your script), why not do it? And keep in mind this fact: there are more pro players in the NFL than there are writers in the WGA that are paid to write features. This shit is hard and if you get harsh notes from a reader, it's most likely because the competition is FIERCE (especially when you're trying to break in), not because they're bitter.