Merry Grissom has been a script reader long enough to have done approximately 1,000 script coverages. Here is just a taste of what she has learned in the process.
1. Use the proper format, spell-check and proofread your script. Then have a friend do it.
When people assisting producers or directors get a script that is riddled with typos or formatted incorrectly, they toss it out. If you don’t have enough respect for their time to present them with a professional, easy-to-read document, they have no compunction about missing out on your story. There are, literally, thousands of people behind you in line.
Before you start writing a script, get screenwriting software. There are several good options on the market, and a few mediocre-pretty good options that you can get for free if you don’t want to/can’t make the financial commitment. Get the software, and use it.
Once you’ve written your script, run a spell-check on it. Then proofread it. Then proofread it again. Then give it to a friend who is thorough and (best case scenario) a tiny bit OCD, and have them proofread it. It’s easy to miss things when you’ve been staring at a document for days/weeks/months. A fresh set of eyes can pick up on that time you used “bare” instead of “bear”, and the fact that you’re using apostrophes incorrectly on “its”.
2. Show, don’t tell.
I so badly wanted to leave this off, because it’s such an annoying mantra. Unfortunately, it’s consistently an issue with writers. There are variations on this one.
First, there is the literal, plot-driven version.
Alex runs into the room, breathless.
You guys! I was outside on my run, and I saw some woman
grab a little kid! They were talking, and then she just grabbed
her and threw her in the car and drove off!
Alex rounds the corner, finishing his morning run. Pulled up to the sidewalk is an idling ’67 Mustang that’s seen better days. A TRASHY BLONDE WOMAN (late 20s) leans against the car with the door open and talks to TRINA (6). Alex stops in the shade of a tree, hands on his knees, getting his breath.
A flicker of movement catches his eye, and he looks up just in time to see the woman shove Trina through the open car door before running back to the driver’s side, leaping in and driving off. As the car passes, Alex sees a man in the backseat with his hand clamped over Trina’s mouth as she struggles.
Now, hopefully, you can write something better than that, but you get the drift. Alex telling us that something has happened offscreen is not only less interesting to watch, but it also gives us far less information.
Then there is the emotional version.
How could you, Margaret? I trusted you! Reading my letters?
I feel like I can’t even trust you in the same room with my things!
I’m really sorry, Dina. I feel terrible about it! Please forgive me!
Dina stares at Margaret in bewildered betrayal and clutches the crumpled letters to her chest.
I’m so sorry! I…
She reaches out towards Dina, but Dina just shakes her head and backs away. Margaret’s eyes well with tears as Dina turns and runs out of the room.
Again, the hope is that you can come up with more compelling writing than that, but you can see the difference. In one case, the characters just say what they’re feeling, and in the other, they show us with their behavior how they’re feeling. It’s incredibly rare for people to express their emotions verbally, and showing us how they feel allows for more layers and more natural, organic dialogue choices.
3. Know what story you’re telling.
Sometimes in the course of writing a script, it can become clear that there’s a weakness in the story. You course-correct and add in some new elements to address the issue. Then, maybe those elements get expanded a little bit, to help mesh them with the tone of the script. Suddenly, your script about a man coming to terms with the death of his father is spending a lot of real estate talking about the man’s wife and son, and their relationship with the small town they live in.
Once you’ve written a script, take a step back and look at what pieces of the story are actually getting the most screen time. Maybe you started writing one story, but it’s slowly transformed into a new story. Maybe the original story about a man and his father’s death has become a piece about a family coming together through their personal difficulties to address small-mindedness in their town. Either of those stories could be effective and affecting, but you need to decide which one is the story you’re telling in this script, and make any needed changes to clarify that.
Often writers will send in a script that feels like pieces of two or more movies sort of mushed together. Each story has interesting and unique elements, but because there isn’t a central focus, none of the storylines have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Whatever story you’re telling, we want to start the script at the beginning of that story, travel with the characters throughout the story, and have some kind of a satisfying conclusion to that story at the end of the script. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, and it doesn’t have to tie everything up in a tidy bow, but it has to give us some sense of catharsis about the story we’ve been following up to then.
4. Know your audience, budget, and market.
It’s important to know what story you’re telling and to trust that there are people who will want to read it. However, when you’re writing a script the ultimate goal is to translate it to film and make it a movie that people will pay money to sit down and watch. (Or pay their monthly subscription fee to sit down and watch.) Because of that, it helps a lot to know what audience you’re writing for, what kind of budget you’re aiming for, and what market you’re hoping to appeal to.
A few examples…
You’ve written a wonderful script. It’s a small, heartwarming kids’ movie that focuses largely on the adventures of a ten-year-old boy and his dog, Floppy. However, right in the middle of the script, you’ve included a scene where the boy witnesses a violent gang rape and murder. Now, how will a future producer market that? If you’ve written a movie that’s going to appeal to ten-year-old boys, there isn’t a chance in hell you’re gettin’ that script made without either taking that scene/plot point out completely, or rewriting it until it’s a totally different moment. Or, they could market the script to adults, but most of them aren’t interested in watching a movie that is largely about a ten-year-old boy having adventures with his dog.
OR: You’ve written an epic movie about Alexander’s conquest of Persia. You have amazing interiors and exteriors, glorious battle scenes, thousands of extras, a massive cavalry attack, etc. It’s exciting and dynamic – history at its best. However, keep in mind that you’re going to need a budget well into the hundred-million range to pull off everything as you’ve written it, which limits your potential financiers/ producers significantly. That’s not a reason not to do it, but know those limits going into the experience, rather than putting in all the work and then being surprised that it’s a tough sell on the spec market.
When you’ve finished your script, take a good long look at it and think about who the audience is going to be. Is it a script for children? If so, make sure you don’t have swearing, lots of graphic sex or violence, etc. Is it a gritty urban script about gang violence? If so, make sure that the dialogue feels organic and legitimate. Imagine an urban gang member going to see the movie. Are there moments that will ring false to them, or feel like a sanitized version of their true experience? If it’s a script you’re hoping to produce yourself on a small budget, does it have limited locations, characters and effects? In your mind’s eye, picture who you want to be sitting in the audience, and make sure the script you’ve written appeals to them. Also, keep in mind how it will ultimately be produced and marketed, and make choices that will make those jobs easier.
5. Take out characters saying each other’s names.
I realize this is way more specific than most of these, but it’s an easy and effective fix.
A surefire way to spot a newbie writer’s dialogue is to look for how many times characters say each other’s names in normal conversation.
When you’re talking to anybody you know today, pay attention to how many times they say your name, and how many times you say theirs. With the exception of identifying yourself, say, on a phone call (“Hey – it’s Joe.”) or moments where anger, frustration, or urgency play a part (“Jessie Marie Hodges, you get back here this instant!”) it’s rare for it to come up in ordinary conversation. For some reason when writing dialogue, writers (particularly newbie writers) continually have characters saying each other’s names. Take ‘em out – you don’t need them.
It’s so fantastic when you finish writing a scene and it’s great. Clever, interesting, good character voices, surprising content, etc. The problem is that sometimes great scenes aren’t needed to help a great script, and in fact can slow it down. The old line about killing your darlings still holds true. Unless you are doing a straight-up actor’s piece that is about people talking, a scene of people talking, no matter how great, should be cut out unless it furthers the plot in a meaningful way, or tells us something significant about that character. You may have written the great break-up scene of all time, but if it’s in a script where we’ve already seen two other breakup scenes, go back and make sure that you really need that third one.
Sometimes it can be an over-establishing of a character trait – for example, a script where we see a scene of our heroine saving a puppy from a fire, AND a scene of her helping an old man across the street, AND a scene of her giving her lunch to a homeless woman, AND a scene where she performs CPR in a restaurant… We get it. She’s great. Unless the entire script is about her being great, consider cutting out two of those scenes. Or, make all of them one-or-two-line moments that happen between other full scenes, rather than having a full scene for each.
It can also be big action scenes that are sort of the same moment over and over. Even if the scene is brilliantly written, once we’ve seen a character do something, we don’t need to see it again. For example, our heroine goes into the building that’s about to blow and sneaks around the bad guys until she finds the bomb and cuts the right wire to keep it from happening. Then she goes onto a boat and sneaks around the bad guys until she can find the engine room and turn the boat around. Etc. Maybe in one of those scenes, she fights her way in, rather than sneaking around. Maybe in one, she tricks them into thinking she’s one of them. Something that grabs our attention in a new way and shows us new aspects of the character.
Once you’ve finished writing your script, you’re ready for other people to read it.
7. Don’t ask for notes unless you are open to getting them.
Seems obvious, no?
Sometimes a writer will send in a script, and the reader will say “This script is in great shape. I don’t really have anything to suggest to improve it.” That happens maybe 2% of the time. The rest of the time, if you ask for notes, the reader is inevitably going to give them to you. If you don’t want notes, don’t give your script to a professional reader for feedback.
There is no shame in not wanting notes on a script. Maybe it’s an incredibly personal story, and you don’t want someone saying “Well, the characters were okay, but the plot isn’t working.” Or maybe you’re on your tenth draft and you feel like the script is in great shape – you’re happy with it and it tells the story you want to tell. Both totally valid reasons.
In cases like that, sending it to a professional reader or reading service isn’t going to be the best choice for you, since it’s almost certain they will give you notes about things that need to be changed. Even if you tell them in advance “I’m really happy with this”, it’s literally their job to tell you if they think changes would make it stronger/more marketable/more effective, etc.
In those cases, I always suggest giving the script to a friend who you trust and respect, and telling them in advance, “I’m pretty happy with where this is, but I just wanted someone to look it over and let me know if there is anything that isn’t clear or small things that can be changed to strengthen it.” If you are only looking for a certain kind of feedback, let the reader know in advance what that is. Don’t hand a new reader something you feel is near-perfect, and then be angry when they come back at you with three pages of notes about changes. When people are asked to give feedback or notes, they inevitably want to give it. Be sure you’re clear about what kind of notes you’re looking for, and don’t ask for them unless you really want them.
8. Know why you’re asking for feedback, and be clear with the reader.
Feedback is an invaluable resource for writers. Because you have the story perfectly clear in your head, it can be hard to remember that the audience doesn’t have all the same information you have. So, that character you find totally endearing (because in your mind’s eye you see her and understand how the lines will be delivered and know her backstory) may be reading on the page as a selfish jerk. Or that plotline about the secret government conspiracy that is totally clear to you may be missing important elements, so the person reading it ends up feeling bewildered and frustrated. Having someone else read your work gives you the opportunity to shape your story and characters so that other people have the hoped-for response.
If you are asking for feedback because you want the person to tell you you’re brilliant, NEVER ask for professional feedback. It’s literally their job to find anything that might be even slightly weak in your script and tell you about it. A good reader will also point out things that are working and will offer suggestions about how to improve what you have and make it even stronger. Still, if your goal is positive reinforcement, there are far better and more surefire ways to get it.
That said, the clearer you are when asking for any kind of feedback, the clearer the reader will be on what their job is. If you feel good about the plot, but think the characters might need some work, tell the reader that. If you are curious about whether a plot twist is reading or not, tell the reader that. If you want to know whether the overall story arc is clear… tell the reader. All feedback is good feedback, but feedback targeting the areas you want to target is better.
If you’re looking for an overall view, that’s perfectly fine as well. Just be clear in your head what it is you are hoping to get from the feedback, and if there is a way to communicate that to the reader, all the better. It will help a professional reader to be aware of potential problem areas that need to be looked at, and it will help a non-professional reader maintain a relationship with a writer who didn’t want ten pages about how the hero of the script is a terrible character, when what they were looking for was notes on the heroine’s dialect.
9. Know that everyone isn’t going to love your script.
You could be the greatest writer in the world, and there is someone who isn’t going to like your script. If you are the greatest writer in the world, chances are good that many people will like your script, whereas the worst writer in the world will probably have a considerably smaller crowd of admirers. But honestly, that’s about all that can be reasonably promised.
Of course, it will always hurt to have someone say they didn’t like your work. Of course, we all hope to hand over our script and then get a phone call a few hours later telling us our work was transcendent and the person can’t wait to help us get it made. We all want those things, and just telling yourself to develop a thicker skin and let the criticism roll off your back doesn’t magically grant you the ability to do that. Some people have an easier time than others, but anyone who puts work into a script they truly care about is hoping for a positive reception, every time they give it to someone to read.
The best advice I can give is to do whatever it takes to remind yourself that everyone responds to art differently. When’s the last time you watched the Academy Awards, and every time a statuette was handed out, everyone in the room said “Yup. Totally the right call”? Someone’s favorite poet is e.e. cummings, and for someone else it’s Byron. Fans of either of them might find reading the other’s work a chore, but that doesn’t mean both writers aren’t brilliant, or moving, or effective. It just means that all people respond to writing differently. Even though one reader didn’t like it, another reader might love it. However, remember that the reverse is also true, so if you’re not open to hearing criticism, please see learnings 7 and 8.
10. Trust yourself and your story.
It can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening to work on something, and put your blood, sweat and tears into the creation of it, and have someone say “Yeah, it was okay. But what if it was set on Mars?? And there was a giant robot?? That would make it so much better!” If you’ve written a small character piece about addiction, and you get the above feedback and think “Well, maybe I should add in a robot.” Then you don’t trust your story enough. Presumably, you wrote this script because you felt it was a story that should be told. Trust that.
If you ask for it, always be open to criticism that can strengthen your story and give it a stronger impact; but you don’t need to take every suggestion that you are given. All feedback can be worthwhile, but you need to believe in yourself and your story enough that if the feedback isn’t going to take your story in a direction that you are interested in, you can say “That doesn’t resonate with me. I’m not going to apply that note.” That doesn’t mean it’s not good feedback, or that employing that note wouldn’t bring something to your story. It simply means that, for now, you feel that it doesn’t enhance the story you want to tell in a way that interests you.
Bonus Tip #11
If you have a story you want to tell, tell it. Every person who writes a book or a blog post or an article about all the things you need to do to be a successful screenwriter is only speaking from their personal experience. Granted, some of that experience is incredibly valuable, and it will absolutely serve you to listen and make a note of any advice that might help you to more success. Ultimately, though, just doing a thing will put you ahead of the pack. There are literally millions of people out there saying “I’m going to write an amazing script someday.” If you have the bravery to actually sit down and try to do it, you’re ahead of the game.