Before you submit your script for coverage or critique, make sure your work is void of things that annoy script readers! Professional script reader, Brian O'Malley, shares insights into things script readers hate to see in a screenplay.
My company, Screenplay Readers, does script coverage. Which, as you might imagine, means we read a lot of screenplays. 13,000 or so over the last two decades, as a matter of fact. (Argh! My eyes!)
And all that script coverage and script reading requires one key item: A team of talented human beings.
Please note the operative word there: human beings. I mention it to point out the fact that we're not script reading cyborgs. We're not machines.
That is, we script readers, just like you, are made of flesh and blood. As such, we experience, just like you, any of the emotions non-script readers do.
These include feelings like joy, excitement, and, yes, even getting miffed by little things a screenwriter will do in the spec script she's asked us to read and critique.
Well, think angry, but not super-angry.
Annoyed, but not super-annoyed.
Think Andy Rooney, the late curmudgeon of 60 Minutes fame, when he'd set off on a 2-minute monologue about the ridiculousness of paying for bottled water. That's being miffed.
Missing your green light because the person ahead of you is texting. Miss the green light once, and that's being miffed.
Miss it twice in a row, and for the same reason, and well, you've got a problem. Because little "miffs" can add up. Just like spec scripts can end up in trash bins.
So what exactly miffs us, as script readers? Big things, of course. Bad characters, bad concept, bad writing in general.
But what about those little things? Or those seemingly little things, which, like the traffic light metaphor, can add up to big problems?
I wanted to get the downlow from the readers on my staff. So I recently polled my team of script readers — all working writers and filmmakers in their own right — asking them "What little things tick you off the most when you're reading a screenplay for script coverage?"
And here's what they told me, below.
Perhaps there's one or two of these little things you're doing to "miff" us and other script readers and agents and producers and development people you're sending your script to. By enumerating them thus, perhaps we can help you slay a few of these before you send out your next draft:
Little Technical Things that Miff Script Readers
- "Scripts without page numbers." — Script Reader KD
I thought we'd start off with a ridiculously mild miff, but one we get a lot of. We also get a lot of scripts with a slew of extra pages at the end, all blank, or blank except for a (CONT'D) at the bottom, or awkward middle, of the pages. Are you feeling your inner Andy Rooney heat up yet?
- "Ever notice how if you type 'FADE IN' into Final Draft it automatically aligns it to the left, whereas if you type 'FADE OUT,' it automatically aligns to the right? For me, if a script has 'FADE IN' aligned to the right on the opening page, it is a tipoff that the script is the work of an amateur." — Script Reader BH
Ouch. Talk about tiny. Is this a dealbreaker for 99.999% of script readers who encounter this phenomenon? No, but it illustrates how certain seemingly innocuous presentational choices can put off a person reading your script.
- "Introducing a character in dialogue and that character's name is in CAPS." — BH
Introducing a character in all caps in the action/description text? Totally legit. In dialogue? Nein! Constantly using all caps whenever referring to the character? Nein! Nein! Nein! (If you're counting, that's a total of 27.)
- "Having a major character being called by a general name (MAN, WOMAN) for several pages until their name is finally revealed to the reader." — BH
Err on the side of clarity. Never confuse the script reader. Let the director confuse the audience when the film is released, let the marketing people confuse people by putting up billboards with Adam Sandler's face on it next to a Netflix logo, but your blueprint — your screenplay — should never be confusing.
When Overwriting Miffs a Script Reader
- "Quoting other movies. I think the reason why this happens so often is because filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Tarantino popularized the trend, and other writers want to achieve their kind of success. I try to tell them that this tactic is too distracting because it tends to make the reader think of those other movies when they should be concentrating on the story at hand." — Script Reader AZ
Reader AZ is right on the money with this one. I believe this maxim was first written down in Ezekiel 25:17.
- "Too much wardrobe description. If the clothes don't have a specific purpose in relation to the core story, I don't want to read them. I don't mind if it's clear that the main character is a leather jacket kind of guy/gal, but why do I need to know what everyone else is wearing?" — KD
- "Excessive use of multiple exclamation points or question marks e.g. !!!!!! ?????? !?!?!?" — KD
- "Overuse of "we" in the description. The screenwriter is not sitting next to the script reader while the script is being read so 'we' are not experiencing anything together. A 'we' here and there is tolerable, but an abundance of these ejects me out of the story entirely." — BH
- "Using the action/description text to speak directly to the script reader in the hopes of inspiring a specific emotional reaction. Let the story do that." —BH
AKA Addressing the script reader directly, e.g. "Dear reader, I'm going for a scene similar to the one in The Emoji Movie, where Bruce Willis lights his hair on fire with a flamethrower." Use context. Use imagery. Use the written word. Don't rely on personal notes to the reader, unless it's as a last resort.
- "Walls of action/descriptive text. Break those suckers up." — BH
Eye fatigue is real. You try reading 10+ scripts per week and see if you enjoy seeing big blocks of text on every page of a screenplay. Miff, miff, miff.
- "Including scene headings that are too long to fit on one line." — BH
For example, this...
INT. LOS ANGELES CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL - SUNSET BOULEVARD - LOS ANGELES - AFTER THE FLOOD - BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE - DUSK
... should really just be this:
INT. CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL - DAY
- "Including an excess of flashbacks in the story's first ten minutes. Congratulations! You're watering down the audience's emotional investment in what is taking place in the present." — BH
I like to say "To hell with the backstory. Give me the front story."
- "Overuse of parentheticals. If you have to write 'sadly,' 'angrily,' etc. before every line of dialogue, your dialogue isn't working." — DL2
Parentheticals should be used only in moments when you feel (A) a specific line of dialogue can be read in a variety of ways, but must be read by the actor in a specific way, and (B) that specific way isn't made clear by the context.
When Being Tone-deaf or Insensitive Miffs a Script Reader
Finally, there's a small subset of "uber-miffs" — little miffs that may be hard to call a screenwriter out on, but nonetheless add up in a way that really put a reader off.
And it's no surprise they all share a common thread: offending or marginalizing specific portions of humanity.
Granted, most screenwriters don't sit down at their typing machine with the goal of offending people, but for many who may live in racially or culturally homogenous regions of the world, the wide and wonderful diversity of peoples, thoughts, and cultures that make up the human race might not be a "language" that they're extremely fluent in. As a result, those screenwriters, amateur or pro, run the risk of being perceived as sexist, or racist, or even just overly-privileged, or out of touch.
- "I get it, you’re a guy, you’re a new writer, and your characters are flat. But god, when every female character is described as 'stunning,' 'beautiful,' or 'gorgeous,' it's infuriating. It’s like the writer isn't even trying to hide the objectification. And it can get pretty bad. One script I read for Screenplay Readers literally ended with the female lead saying to the male journalist protagonist: 'Well, you got everything you wanted. This big boobed girl and your story.' I almost threw my laptop against a wall." — Script Reader TA
- "Including character descriptions that could be interpreted as sexist, racist, or insensitive." — Script Reader BH
AMANDA (20's) — normal, pretty — sits next to her friend, SALLY (20's) — beautiful and intelligent with red hair and a great figure. Next to them sits LATISHA (20's) — black and speaks ebonics.
"Normal?" What's "normal?" Here, it implies that not-black is somehow "normal." Not to mention, if you're describing Latisha as "black," why aren't the other girls described as "white?" And the word "ebonics?" Really?
- "My #1 pet peeve is describing a female character as 'she would be beautiful / stunning / smoking hot if she took her glasses off / let her hair down.' Because that is what matters, apparently." — Script Reader DL2
- "Female characters are often written - even by women - as if their entire function is appearance-related, and often with more ageism than is directed at men. This isn't malicious or conscious but often a very canny indication of the fact that female characters in the story are going to be one-dimensional. The only thing I hate more is the misguided attempt to fix that by replacing it with something like: 'ALICE, 22, pretty but clever' or 'ALICE, 42 but still attractive.' " — Script Reader JB
- "Characters that are portrayed as old, frail, unable to look after themselves... But are as young as 50/60/70. There are plenty of 'old' people out there living very able and active lives. Why must anyone over 50 always be portrayed as decrepit?" —Script Reader MG2
- "'British' characters being posh... e.g. 'nuff said! Innit!' Same goes for other nationalities that become token comedy characters." — MG2
- "As a writer and analyst born and raised in Africa, I often find the way my continent is portrayed by American and UK writers to be vague, badly researched and sometimes unintentionally racist. It often seems to be a theater for the foreign egos of protagonists. Locals are frequently stereotyped or described in ways that are offensive nowadays, or as a collective. Nobody would dare say 'Screaming Jew' but you'll often read things like 'Screaming Bantu.' An interesting world is important, but make sure you know it. A fantasy version of a real place can very off-putting to a reader who knows better. I absolutely hate the movie Madagascar for this reason." — JB
So on top of needing to have a script with a great concept and a great bunch of characters and amazing scenes, remember this:
Your screenplay also needs to avoid miffing the script reader, either by little, seemingly unimportant things that add up, or by subtle clues that lead us to believe you're not a good human.
Because if you do, you'll miss that green light for sure.
If you want to get your script made, you need to be able to take feedback and do the rewrites. Our ScriptXpert team wants to help!
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