Paula Landry shares lessons learned from reading screenplays. To improve your writing, take the writer challenge and read a script a day for 21 days!
Writers are often readers. We learn through practice and exposure to good writing, as well as writing that needs improvement. So for those of us working in movies and TV writing, we should be reading, reading, reading scripts. As much as possible, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the progress of our own writing. It’s interesting that often we can see problems, issues and mistakes in the work of others that we overlook in our own.
My writer challenge to you, is to read a script a day for 21 days!
Are you reading enough screenplays?
Reading a script a day is tough, and how do I know? (Insert scary music cue here…)
I recently read 153 scripts over 2 months. Which roughly translates to two-and-a-half screenplays a day. I did not read every single one from beginning to end, roughly read 75% of them completely through. I don't recommend reading that many straight out of the gate, bite off one at a time.
Here’s what I learned.
Titles are hard
Really hard. If you’re struggling with a title, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Pick something obvious, and genre-appropriate. Toss it around in a word scrambler, play with synonyms and test it out on a few folks. Instead of a super obscure title, try to get something in the ballpark so a reader may remember it. And be intrigued.
First 10 pages are important
These are basically traffic lights – go, stop, read with caution. If the first 10 pages are good, I can’t wait to keep going.
When the first 10 pages are tough, I will usually stick with it for another 10-25 but it’s a metric – is this script ready to read? Did the writer read it? Several times?
I habitually read screenplays, often. My favorite scripts that I obsess over and want to learn by heart I read compulsively, as well as new scripts, scripts from other mediums and screenplays of new movies I’m excited about. I’m always looking for new writers and new voices.
While reading the blogs of agents, readers, development executives, writing coaches, and professionals who provide coverage is great, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. Reading many screenplays will teach you, in a hurry, what to do and not to do. Primarily I learned to value the reader’s time.
I was hired recently in a development capacity by an up-and-coming production company, in order to find a script for a fully financed project.
Readers & Agents & Managers & Development Executives - BRAVO
These people are my new superheroes, for their commitment and stamina in reading. I know readers and literary agents take this kind of 21-day challenge all the time, reading from up to 2-3 scripts a day, to dozens per week. If you decide to take try this, do it with an open mind, with reading glasses nearby and something comfortable to sit on (and a place to stand, and a way to read on a yoga ball, perhaps).
Ready to run this race and challenge yourself to reading one script per day for 21 days? You can do it! On your mark, set, go!
Scripts are not novels
Here’s the thing, reading a script isn’t like reading a novel or short story. It’s difficult primarily due to the format. The format isn’t eyeball-friendly, scripts – when you print them out - aren’t particularly easy to carry around like your kindle or a nice, squishy paperback. Screenplays are an ungainly size, they’re bulky. Ok so there’s that – then there’s the other thing – if you read them digitally – which is necessary, because of the spacing, and so forth, they’re just a little too weird on the page for me to be able to have an entire page for me to read (type too small) then when going line by line – it was a bit awkward when I blew it up to 150%.
I used many resources – InkTip in particular was great, NYWIFT, Stage 32, NYC Women Filmmakers Group, IFP, WGA East and many other places. I contacted friends, family, colleagues, all the film groups I belong to or know about, and the Table. My quest was to find a particular type of screenplay with specific budget and genre parameters. Here were my take-aways.
Where writers got it right
There were so many ways I was impressed with the wonderful writers I encountered. Lots of good ideas, professional follow-up, careful proofing, good dialogue, like-able characters, fresh perspectives. Solid structure. Lack of camera instructions, directorial instructions, and production design instructions. I read many projects where the writers concentrated on the writing. I liked many of the scripts I read, even though I knew the genre or budget wasn’t a fit for my client.
Where writers could improve
- Proofreading. Proofreading.
- Weak Endings
- Slow Beginnings
- Character Study type of story with skinny plot, no payoffs
- Structural and formatting gaffes– either with bold headings, all caps in strange places,
- Random description in the scene headings which belonged in a different element.
- In just a few scripts - No like-able character. Not one. Hated everyone.
So of course, I make these notes for my own writing, as well.
Proofreading – search and replace really hindered this one writer – he/she had done what was probably a minor search and replace and never read after it. Well this changed several common phrases and got me so confused at one point, I gave up! It was a script with some real promise and I was disappointed that the reader abandoned their work when they were obviously so close to the finish line. Taking this into account now I pledge to proofread and proofread, then give it to pros and let them do it for me as well. Then proofread again.
- Wrong font
- Wrong format
- Weird margins
- Cont/More/ bizarre
When saved from the script writing software to pdf you could tell that the project probably looked perfect on the software but then the person didn’t look again.
Be considerate to your reader
What does this mean? Put yourself in their shoes. So, just say no to...Misspelling / Poor grammar / Missed punctuation, run on sentences / Entire pages of action - anything that would drive you crazy! And believe, me, if you read 21 scripts in 21 days, you'll be very aware of what can make a person insane.
Entire pages of action. Ok I’m being nit picky here, but you’ve always heard it and it’s true. Don’t give me a page with the same thing all on one page. I can’t read an entire page that is 1 scene heading and volumes of “action” format. It’s like a wall of text and it makes me weary just to think about it.
You know what – it’s a visual thing – our eyes need more white spaced and to break it up. The eyeballs just get weary and when you get a screenplay that basically resembles a solid wall of words, you start to think that the script is 8,000 pages long.
Overly detailed action that takes me out of the story. I end up asking myself, what the heck all this action is about in the first place? Then I loose track. Slang and weird words can also be painful for a reader.
Slang can sometimes can be okay, but it really is about consideration. Don’t assume everyone knows a cute word or pet phrase. So this happened in several projects and it made me frustrated because – when I run into a slangy strange word – I feel stupid and it takes me out of the script. This one project used the word “gonch” and when I saw it at first – I got the context so I said to myself – ok that’s what that is, go with it and move on. Then I saw it again and again – and it started to annoy me since as near as I can tell this is a word most people don’t use. Frustrating.
- Scripts that are too long (120+ pages)
- Scripts that are too short for their genre that presume to be a feature film (54, then 72, then 83 pages)
- Too many sounds
- No sounds
Now I know why readers and development executives get bitter and hardened. It starts to feel like writers don’t care and are just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks. Guess what, if it doesn’t seem professional, it’s not going to stick. I definitely read many scripts that I thought had good stories and characters, in spite of errors, but believe me, if the formatting or something weird is taking a person outside the story – that can’t be good. The conclusion in this case, is get some help, know where you need help, and stay open to improving.
Every writer has specific strengths (do you know what your are?) and one of the reasons we get feedback is to learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, in order to keep improving. As well, it is important to GET HELP, whatever that means to you. Because it’s really hard to proofread your own work, working with a proofreader can help you see your errors. When you see them through the corrections of another, you’ll learn eventually to correct them.
So when I see a clean script with the correct format, I know a few things. The writer is serious. They’re professional. They did their homework and most likely hired someone to proof their script.
I’m heartened by all of the wonderful writers I had the fortune of reading their work and hope to do it again, for my own company, another production company, or to learn and grow in my 21 day challenge, and then to see your hard work rewarded on the red carpet!
Rock your writing!
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