Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do - Script Magazine

Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do

Ray Morton is frequently asked how he goes about the task of assessing and analyzing a screenplay. He explains his process of evaluating a script.
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Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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I am frequently asked how I go about the task of assessing and analyzing a screenplay, so I thought it might be interesting and (hopefully) informative to do a column explaining my process.

Obviously, the first thing I do is read the script. I always do this in one sitting so I can experience the story from beginning to end in a single go, the same way the audience would experience it if the script was made into a movie. This helps me get a sense of how the script will play as a film.

I keep a yellow pad with me as I read so I can jot down things that jump out at me as I go: a great concept, scene, joke, twist, line, or bit of action; an obvious mistake or problem; something that’s not clear or I don’t understand; a technical or formatting issue. I don’t spend a lot of time on these jottings; they’re just notes I use for future reference when I craft my analysis.

I only read the script once. If I am analyzing a piece for a producer or a production company or a screenwriting contest, I only look at a piece one time because that’s all I have time for (and, frankly, all that I am paid to do). If I am consulting with a private client, I only go over a screenplay once because that’s all any production company reader, producer, development person, or creative exec is going to do, and I need to experience the piece the way they will if I am going to be able to give my client good and helpful advice. If something isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense on the initial read, then I have to let my client know that so she/he can fix the problem so the entire piece will land the first time around, since that’s the only chance they are going to get to make an impression with their script.

I know some writers don’t like this -- I once had a client become furious with me because he felt I missed what he considered to be the main point of his screenplay. I had to go back and reread one particular section four times before I finally found the one line he felt crystallized his work (it didn’t). He did not buy my argument that his script needed to work without readers having to flip back and forth numerous times because no industry professional was ever going to do this. He also didn’t buy my argument that a script had to work all the way through the first time because viewers of any movie made from it would not be able to rewind the piece (at least not in the theater) several times to figure out something if it was confusing or unclear. He just thought I was a lazy dumbass.

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Once I finish the script, I put it down and walk away for a while. I go off and do something physical or relatively mindless, such as go for a walk or run errands or clean the bathroom, and I use that time to clarify my overall impressions of the script. Did I like it or didn’t I? Was the story interesting? Was it funny or scary or romantic or exciting or whatever else it was supposed to be? Did it keep my attention all the way through or was I bored? Did I care about the characters? Most of all -- was I moved? The last is the single most important factor in my analysis of a screenplay. I read a ton of scripts and most of them do absolutely nothing for me, so if one provokes a strong emotional reaction – if it makes me happy or if it makes me cry or if it makes me angry or if it scares me to death – then I know there’s something special going on and am apt to give it a “Consider” and possibly even a “Recommend” even if the piece has problems because, for me, movies are ultimately about emotion and any script that can inspire one is going to be worth any of the work required to get it into shape. Conversely, a script can be perfectly conceived and executed, with no problems or rough edges of any sort, but if it doesn’t move me in some significant way, then I am probably going to pass.

Once I’ve mulled things over for a bit, it’s time to get to work. If the assignment requires a synopsis (the coverage that I do for producers and production companies usually does. Private coverage usually doesn’t), then I do that first. Writing synopses is by far my least favorite part of the assessment process. Why? Because to be useful, a synopsis has to be clear and simple and it needs to make sense. This is easy enough to accomplish when the script itself is clear and simple and makes sense. However, a large majority of the specs I read do not make sense – they are confused and convoluted and unfocused; they lack clear premises, logical cause-and-effect, and an identifiable structure. Trying to wrestle an effective one or two-page summation out of these nightmares is a real bear – it can often take hours to make something understandable out of something that inherently isn’t and before long I find myself resenting the writer because I am putting more time and effort into shaping a coherent narrative for his/her work than he/she ever did.

Once the synopsis is out of the way, then I begin the analysis proper. I break my assessment down into six different categories:

  • Premise: Does the script have one? (You’d be surprised by how many don’t). Does it have more than one? (This is a common problem in many specs I read – way too many ideas thrown into the mix, which leads to a lack of conceptual focus and cohesion.) Is the premise interesting? Is it believable?
  • Story: Is there one? (Note to writers: a bunch of scenes stuck together in the same set of pages is not the same thing as a story.) Is it based on the premise? (A lot of specs spend a lot of time setting up a specific concept and then go off and tell a completely unrelated tale.) Is it interesting? Interesting enough to hold my attention for 90 – 120 pages? Is it properly dramatized? (Is the story told through dramatic incident and action rather than just through dialogue?) Is it cinematic? (Is it told through images, action, and dialogue and not just dialogue alone?) Is it well constructed? (Are there three acts? An impressive inciting incident? Rising action that leads to an inevitable climax and resolution? All that good stuff?) Is it well paced? Are the plot twists both surprising and logical? Are the plot twists surprising or just confusing? Are the storytelling devices (flashbacks, narration, non-linear storytelling, etc.) thematically and narratively relevant, or are they just gimmicks? Does the ending properly resolve the script’s central problem and its conflicts? Is the ending satisfying?
  • Characters: Do I like them (or at the very least sympathize with them)? Enough to want to spend two hours with them? Do they serve strong, clear roles in the plot or are they superfluous to the narrative? Do they seem like real people or are they just stock clichés? Are they well developed or one note? Are the characters consistent throughout the piece or do they change constantly to fit the needs of the plot? Are their arcs interesting, appropriate for the story, properly developed, and satisfyingly resolved? Are the relationships between the characters interesting and believable.
  • Dialogue: Do the characters talk the way people actually talk? If the speeches are stylized, is the stylization effective or just pretentious? Do the lines express character, wit, poetry, humor, insight, or philosophy or are they just vehicles for clumsy exposition? Are they crisp and sharp, or do they go for pages and pages and pages?
  • Writing: Are the descriptions clear, evocative, and effective, or are they opaque, flowery, and clumsy? Is the writer working doing all he/she can do to relate the story to the reader as efficiently and enthusiastically as possible or does he/she put all his/her effort into a smart-alecky writing style that is momentarily amusing but adds nothing to the actual story being told. Are the stage directions crisp or overly wordy? Are there big, giant blocks of text? (Warning: if there are – especially on page 1 – then I’m already looking for a reason to stop reading). Is the screenplay formatting and terminology correct? Are the technical aspects of the writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) solid?

I then do an overall evaluation of the entire piece, summarizing its strong and weak points and offering an assessment of the script’s potential commercial appeal based on current market conditions and trends. To complete the coverage, I fill out the cover sheet, which includes a checklist in which I rate the various aspects of the script on a scale from Poor to Excellent.

The last box I check is the one that indicates my opinion as to what should be done with the script. There are three possible options:

  • PASS: this means that I don’t think the producer/production company I am reading for should proceed with the script – that the subject matter is not suitable for the producer/prodco’s needs and/or that the execution of the script is flawed enough that it wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and money it would take to get the piece in shape. I check this box for approximately 95% of the scripts I evaluate.
  • CONSIDER: this means that the script is promising enough – either in concept, execution, or both – that it is worth giving some thought to proceed with-- but problematic enough that it’s going to take time, effort, and money to get it to work. I’d say I’ve checked this box for approximately 4% of the scripts I have read in the fifteen-plus years I have been doing this, although I’ve checked it less in recent years because most of my clients (and the industry as a whole) are less willing to put the time and effort and (especially) money into honing promising-but-flawed material these days. With development budgets being cut drastically all over town, they’re looking for projects that are as camera ready as possible.
  • RECOMMEND: this means that I think both the subject matter and the execution of the script are slam dunks and that the producer/prodco should go forward with the piece immediately and without reservation. Since checking this box means that I feel that the producer/company should commit a significant amount of its resources to this particular script, this is a suggestion I make only sparingly -- I have probably wholeheartedly recommended only five or six screenplays in the past decade and a half (the good news is, the majority of those eventually got made, which means my track record is pretty good).

It’s a subjective process, to be sure, but hopefully one supported by education (both academic and real world), experience, some smarts and some heart, and a sincere desire to do good work that will be useful for writers, producers, and the screenplays themselves.

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