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Meet the Reader: 12 Signs of a Promising Spec Script

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Professional script readers will often claim that they can tell if a screenplay is going to be good or not after reading just a few pages. This is true–for me, anyway.

Granted, I can’t assess every single nuance of a script’s story in just five or ten or pages, but by assessing twelve specific elements, I can tell if the story, characters, and dialogue have potential and if the writer has the ability to pull off whatever it is she/he is attempting.

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Here are those 12 elements–those 12 signs of a promising spec:

  1. The script is short – between 90 and 110 pages The average length of a feature film is between 100 and 120 minutes (yes, I know that a lot of modern movies run longer than two hours, but those films are usually the result of self-indulgent directors abusing their right to final cut and does not reflect a desire on the part of the industry at large to make longer movies – studios and theater owners still prefer pictures to be two hours or less so that they can screen them as many times a day as possible and so want screenplays sized accordingly. Besides, as we all know, more often than not there’s nothing in the narrative content of these overlong films that warrant their excessive length -- for most, the extreme running time usually hurts the story, especially the pacing, rather than helps it). Given that one page of screenplay usually takes about a minute to unfold on screen (heavy action usually takes a little more time to play out; dialogue a little less), this means that a spec script should run somewhere between ninety and one hundred-twenty pages, with the industry’s current preferred average being one hundred-ten. If a script runs longer than one hundred-twenty pages, that tells me the writer doesn’t know the industry standards or, worse, thinks that he/she is an exception to them. It also tells me that the script will more than likely be overwritten, unfocused, poorly structured, and/or poorly paced, as these are the usual causes of an overlong screenplay. If, however, a spec is one hundred-twenty pages or less, then I know the writer has paid attention to industry strictures, but (more importantly) has figured out how to focus, structure, edit, and pace his/her story so that it can play out in the proper amount of time.
  2. The front cover is free of WGA registration numbers and fake production company names Yes, it is important to protect your work and the best way to do that is to both copyright it and register it with the WGA (the copyright is the key piece of protection, and the WGA registration is a very helpful backup). However, professional screenwriters don’t put registration numbers on their covers. There’s something vaguely tacky about the practice (the registration is valid whether it’s indicated on the cover or not and everyone in the industry knows it), as well as a little adversarial (putting the registration number on your cover suggests you are expecting people to attempt to steal your script and you are warning them not to try, which is not the friendliest way to approach people who you want to take a liking to you and your material). Also, many aspiring screenwriters make up fake production company names and slap them on the covers of their specs in the hope that doing so will make them seem like they are more significant players than they really are (“I can’t be a nobody – I have my own production company!”). In reality, all it does is make them look like neophytes. Most professional screenwriters do not have production companies (although many do have personal services corporations) and even if they do, they don’t put the names of those companies on their specs. Why? Because -- only the name of a company that is actually producing a script should appear on its cover and if a script is being produced, then it is no longer a spec (why would you try to get someone to option or buy your script if you have a production company? Why wouldn’t you just make it yourself?). So, if I see a WGA registration numbers and/or a fake prodco name on a spec, then I know that the writer is an amateur and so there’s a pretty good chance that the script I am about to read will be amateurish. However, if I don’t see those numbers or names, then there’s a much better chance that the piece will be professional.
  3. The first page contains a lot of white space If I open up a script and am confronted with big blocks of uninterrupted type, I know immediately that the piece is overwritten – that the author has employed an excessively flowery “literary” style in the action lines; and/or that he/she has incorporated a lot of unfilmable material (long backstories; the internal thoughts and feelings of the characters; etc.); and/or loaded the piece with tons and tons of unnecessary detail (elaborate and endless descriptions of settings, mood, characters, action, costumes, and so on). All of this overwriting means that the screenplay is going to be a chore to read. More than likely it will also overwhelm the story – I’ll be forced to pay so much attention to how the story is told that I won’t be able to focus on the tale itself. It also means that the author doesn’t know how to pace a story on the page, which is an important element of good screenwriting (ideally, the story should be presented in a way that approximates how you want it to play on screen – a series of brief, three-and-four line paragraphs can be read at a quick, energetic pace. One long, unbroken paragraph can only be read in slow, plodding fashion). However, if I am confronted with lots of short bursts of words with plenty of space in between them, then I know that the author can write concisely and precisely in ways that should make the script easier to read and the story easier to comprehend and that I am probably going to get a good sense of how a movie made from the script might play.
  4. I know who the protagonist is by page 5 The protagonist is the core element of a dramatic narrative –it is his/her actions (in pursuit of a well-defined goal) that drive the story. Therefore, the story can’t really begin until the protagonist is introduced -- everything that occurs before this is essentially wheel-spinning. Also, the Protagonist is the element that allows us to become emotionally involved in the story – if we care about the protagonist, then we will care about his/her tale. Until we know who the Protagonist is, we might be able to appreciate the story, but it’s unlikely we will become invested in it. Despite these things, many spec writers take far too long to introduce their protagonists – cluttering up their script with an overabundance of unnecessary prologues and preliminaries or introducing dozens of characters at the outset of the piece and making us wait twenty or more pages before clarifying which one is the lead. If I can identify the protagonist right off the bat, then I know that the story’s going to get off to a fast start and that I will be able to lock into it emotionally from the get-go, both of which are hallmarks of a potentially good script.
  5. The premise is clearly established by page 10 The premise is the seed from which the rest of the story grows and the narrative can’t truly begin until it is properly set up. If this is done early, rather than waiting for 20 or 50 or 100 pages as some specs do, then I know that I can put my energy into enjoying the story rather than into killing time waiting for it to show up.
  6. Something interesting/entertaining happens in the first five pages Movies are supposed to be entertaining. If something that generates laughs or excitement or intrigue turns up in a script’s opening moments, then I figure we’re off to a good start. If not – if the first five pages is nothing but exposition or mood-setting, then we’re off to a plodding start.
  7. The first ten pages contain plenty of action By action I mean dramatic action – stuff happening -- not just car chases (although car chases are fine too). If the script doesn’t begin with ten pages of two characters sitting on a couch talking (which soooo many specs do), then I know I’m in the hands of someone that knows how to tell a story in cinematic fashion.
  8. I can tell what’s going on the writing (word choice, sentence construction, spelling, grammar, punctuation, screenplay formatting, and screenwriting terminology) in some specs is so poor that I often have to go back and reread the first five or ten pages numerous times in order to comprehend what is happening. This is obviously not a good sign. If I can make it through the first decade without having to constantly rewind, then I assume that the rest will be equally smooth sailing.
  9. The dialogue is short and to the point there’s nothing worse than opening a screenplay and being faced with a single speech that goes on for a page or two or five. This is usually a sign that the writer is using dialogue to deliver exposition that he/she should be delivering visually or dramatically and/or that he/she is overstuffing the piece with irrelevant detail, musings, or digressions and/or that he/she lacks discipline, focus, and the ability to edit. None of these things bode well for the script ahead.
  10. The script doesn’t begin with a flashback (a common spec trope that always kills me – how can you flash back until you have first established something to flash back from?) or a very long crawl or card or voice over that goes on and on explaining the backstory of a piece to me. These are signs that the writer has not begun his/her story at the proper point (if we need this much information to bring us up to speed on the first age, then the writer has started the story too late and needs to back up and begin it sooner).
  11. There are no camera directions, shot descriptions, and editing instructions The absence of these things tells me that the writer is focusing on telling a story and not on trying to direct the movie on paper. These shot lists masquerading as screenplays are enormously difficult to read – you get so lost in angles and cuts and moves that the story itself goes missing.
  12. There are no coffins Amateur writers love to adorn their scripts with lots of irrelevant bells and whistles – fake posters for the movie they hope will be made from their screenplays (usually with the writing credits situated far more prominently than they would ever be on real one-sheets), illustrated covers, graphic novel adaptations, mix tapes containing the songs featured in the scripts, and specially produced promotional merchandise – key chains, postcards, bobble heads, etc. (I once received a vampire script packaged in a miniature coffin complete with the screenplay’s title on the lid and a spring-loaded bat positioned inside that would jump out when the coffin was opened). Unfortunately, in my experience, most of the scripts that accompany this junk are usually just awful, probably because the authors put more imagination and effort into their tchotchkes than they do into their screenplays. So, if I see them, I know I’m probably in for a rough ride. If I don’t, then things are already looking up.

The Writers Store's advice on writing a script is a great starting point for getting your next script off the ground. Read on for Script Reader Ray Morton's advice.

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Footnote: "A Response"

This column and its author were recently criticized in some very strident terms on a well-known screenwriting podcast. I did not listen to the podcast and do not intend to, but apparently the gist of the criticism is that I set myself up as some sort of all-wise, all-knowing screenwriting guru who lays out rules for script writing that the podcast hosts do not find valid. As regular readers of this column know, I have never presented myself as any sort of guru. I am an experienced script writer, reader and consultant and present myself only as such. And I do not much believe in any sort of screenwriting “rules” – I simply offer observations and tips based on my experience. I do not insist that I know it all or that people must do as I say – my position has always been that if you find my advice helpful, please use it and if you do not, then please feel free to ignore it. I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with anything I write, but I do not understand why the podcasters felt the need to be so vitriolic. I especially do not understand personal attacks on my character from two people who have never met me and do not know me. I also wish they had gotten their facts straight – for the record, neither this blog nor this website have anything to do with Final Draft (Script magazine used to be owned by Final Draft, Inc., but has not been for many years now) and I have no interest financial or otherwise in what brand of screenwriting software the readers of this column buy or use. Since this podcast was posted, I have received numerous messages of generous support from regular readers of this column, messages that I found to be very touching and that which I greatly appreciate. The writers of these messages have encouraged me to keep on doing what I have been doing and that is absolutely what I intend to do as long as will have me. My deepest thanks and gratitude to you all. Onward!

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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