As a produced screenwriter and script consultant, I have had the privilege of interviewing and working with dozens of studio and production company script readers. And what I've discovered are a handful of key things that they look for when judging a script - things other than overall storytelling - things that get you rejected, or seriously discredited, before they even get into the heart of your script.
Let's dive into a few of the basics:
Some of you already know these, but the question is, are you implementing them? The major signs of an amateur are:
* Fancy covers and bindings, with drawings, photos, and anything other than #5 brass brads
* More than a 120 pages (actually over 110 is more like it nowadays)
* A non-disclosure agreement (any sign of a paranoid writer scares everyone away - don't do it!)
* Any font other than 12-point Courier
* Camera directions, parenthetical phrases (that's where you tell them how the character says their lines)
* Too much ink on the pages and not enough white space
There's something I call "The Art of the Page." Besides the actual story, there is a craft to how you design your script page in order to maximize reader ease and enjoyment. As already mentioned, you want more white space than black ink. The less you write, the more they'll read. Brand that into your brain.
Think of your words like music and strive to create a rhythm that pulls the reader's eye down the page and makes them turn it. One trick is to create hooks at the bottom of the page (a question that isn't answered, a visual that leaves them hanging, etc.)
Bottom line, look at your script pages and ask, "Does that make me want to read it or scan it?" and then make the necessary adjustments to make that page more inviting.
This is about making sure your concept is fresh. That might seem like a "Duh," but you'd be amazed at how many scripts are still written like Pulp Fiction, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon. Enough already!
Crafting a great story idea is not just about high concept; it's about avoiding worn-out clichés. If you're doing another heist story, you need to make sure it has a unique twist on this tired genre. Turn it upside down, inside out, reverse and invert it until it yields a new angle on the old idea. And keep asking these questions throughout.
You might be amazed at how much your first page - even your first sentence - tells a reader about your talent, or lack of it. On that first page, you need to clearly establish the tone and genre (if it's a comedy, they better at least chuckle; if it's a thriller, they better be thrilled), begin creating your key image system or motif, hook the reader into your story, and possibly pose a central question.
The truth is, many chronic problems in your writing appear on the first page. If you can master this page, then globally export your new level of writing to the rest of the script, you will take your story to a whole new level.
Ten Page Analysis
Most of you probably know this, but it needs to be repeated - because the same mistakes keep getting made in a majority of scripts submitted. In the first 10-15 pages, you must establish your protagonist, antagonist, the central goal, the stakes, the thematic argument, and the 'inciting incident' - the event that ignites the story.
I'm not talking about formula here, I'm talking about the reality of the studio reader. Whether you like it or not, that's what they're looking for. If you don't hook them into the main story and let them know what this is going to be by page 10-15, they are likely to toss the script or start scanning it. And once they do that, it's all over.
I know you have so much important info you want to tell the reader before the plot gets started - all those character bios and backstory you labored for months creating. I only have one thing to say: CUT IT ALL OUT! If you can't set up your story and characters in the first 10-15 pages, and hook the reader, you don't know your story - or you don't have one. Yes, there are exceptions - but you're not one of them. (Of course, you might be 'one of them,' but we're not playing the lottery here; we're trying to stack the odds in your favor.)
You want to sell your script, right? Then stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a reader - because they're the gatekeepers and they will close the gate and lock your script out of the party if you don't grab them in those first 10-15 pages.
Last Page Analysis
How many times have you seen a movie that started out pretty good, sagged in the middle, and then knocked your socks off in the end? Despite the problematic second act, did you walk out of there feeling like you just saw a really good movie? Most likely you've had that experience. And what does that tell you?
The ending is everything.
Don't just let it be where your story comes to a conclusion, craft that ending so that it's where your story - and all the tension you've built up - explodes all over the page. Leave the reader laughing her butt off, crying his eyes out, cheering, or afraid to turn out the lights - and you will have a reader who recommends your script.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but that's why they pay us the big bucks, right? The key strategy here is to work until your fingers crack and bleed and your head is ready to explode - to discover that ending that blows you away. There are many questions and techniques to screenwriting, but if you dig deep enough and ask long enough, your story will reveal the best ending possible.
Don't be impatient. I recommend not even starting the script until you've nailed the ending. But if you find yourself really stuck, sometimes writing the script can jar the true ending loose from your unconscious. Just remember, it's not called the 'climax' for nothing. Without a big climax, all you're giving the reader is a bunch of foreplay!
Top Rule to Avoid Reader Rejection
There's one thing, above all, that you must always achieve in your script:
Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Audience!
Did you hear the heavenly music? I know this statement doesn't tell you what to do or how, but you must keep this in mind at all times. No matter how brilliant, poetic, visual, and commercial you think your writing is, if it bores the reader it sucks!
Don't get mad at me for saying that, I'm on your side. Your writing might actually be brilliant. But if the reader gets bored, you, your writing group, and your mother are the only ones who will be reading it. When you become an A-list writer, you can write boring masterpieces. But right now, you need to write something that sells. Again, there are exceptions to this rule - but you're not one of them!
And those, folks, are the basics. Ignore them at your writing peril.
There's another motto I want you to post above your computer that will keep this process on track for you:
"Write Like a Writer, Read Like a Reader."
When you're writing, go for it, let it rip; don't think, just pour your unconscious out; don't get it right, just get it written. But when you sit down to evaluate your script and prepare for a rewrite, read it like a development executive, marketing executive, studio reader, and script consultant - because that's the way the gatekeepers and buyers are reading it. And if you're not evaluating it that way, you are likely to miss some key issues that could cost you the opportunity of a lifetime.
Bottom line, you need to do whatever it takes to make your script look, feel, read, and smell professional. Do just that much and you'll put yourself in the top 10% of all scripts submitted.
Remember, this is a business. To be truly successful you need to embrace it like a business. A script is often called a 'blueprint.' And it's often looked at like a business proposal by execs (marketing departments at studios have a big say in what gets bought and made). So deal with your script like an architect deals with her blueprint for a multimillion dollar building or an entrepreneur deals with his business proposal for a multimillion dollar business. These pros seek professional counsel and work on their proposals until they are letter perfect - BEFORE submitting them.
You, the professional writer, must do the same. Whether you use colleagues, classes, or script consultants - and I highly recommend all of the above - you need to do whatever it takes to take your script to the highest possible level before submitting it. Like I said, just doing that much puts your script in the top 10%, because a vast majority of scripts are so poorly formatted, presented, and riddled with fixable problems that they never make it past the 'round file.'
From this moment forward, yours doesn't have to be that way ever again.
Now all that's left to do is tell a great story. Stay Inspired and Keep Writing!