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Ask a Script Reader: How to Fix the Most Common Script Issues

By March 7, 2024March 8th, 2024No Comments

Ask a Script Reader: How to Fix the Most Common Script IssuesWriting that first (or second or third) draft isn’t easy. Even when we think we have a polished draft ready to send to producers, there are still issues with our scripts. If anyone would know what those common problems are and how to correct them, it’s a script reader. 

If you’re wondering how you might be able to tighten up your latest script, we asked story analyst Emily Peck about the most common script issues and how to fix them. 

What Is a Script Reader?

A script reader is a person who reads and reviews spec scripts, as well as writes script coverage that details both the positive and negative qualities of a screenplay.

A person in a black jacket reading a script, Ask a Script Reader: How to Fix the Most Common Script Issues

Script Reader

Top 5 Common Script Issues

Scripts often contain common issues such as poorly developed characters or simple formatting errors. As screenwriters, it’s easy to allow our editor brain to take over and obsess over every mistake we make, but knowing how to spot the larger ones will save you a lot of time and heartache. But what are they?

We asked Peck to list the five script issues she encounters the most as a script reader, and they are:

  1. Overwritten dialogue
  2. Improper formatting 
  3. Boring action lines
  4. Structure (particularly Act One) 
  5. Beats, lines, or characters that don’t serve the story 

Relatable, right? 

Knowing that these are the storytelling issues most screenwriters are dealing with will not only help you avoid them in your writing but also allow you to give yourself a break because screenwriting is hard for everyone!

Man looking at a screenplay, Ask a Script Reader: How to Fix the Most Common Script Issues

Script Reader

How Would Emily Peck Fix These Issues?

Peck has a few words of wisdom to share to fix these common mistakes she sees screenwriters make.

Dialogue

For overwritten dialogue, try to keep in mind that every line needs to move the story forward. Avoid small talk. Don’t have characters repeat the same thing in different ways.

While there are exceptions, it’s a good idea not to give us information in the dialogue that we already have. For example, having characters rehash a scene we’ve already experienced is not a good idea. Although dialogue should feel realistic, it is also the guide to the story, and you want to lean into the latter.

Overall, realistic dialogue is just as problematic as its opposite. Don’t give characters big, long chunks of dialogue unless absolutely necessary. Let the silence tell the story along with the words.

Read More: How to Capture a Script Reader’s Attention with Minimal Dialogue

Juno (Eliot Page) wearing sunglasses and chewing on a pipe in 'Juno'

‘Juno’ (2007)

Formatting Matters

Improper formatting is the easiest problem to fix and also the most common problem to have. If you don’t have screenwriting software, I highly recommend investing in one like Final Draft 13. If you’re in a pinch, Google how to properly format a screenplay and follow it to the letter (including font and spacing). Then, proofread. Just do it. If you’re not good at it, hire a professional or ask a friend.

Nail Those Action Lines

Next, entertain the reader with your action lines. They shouldn’t be overly wordy. However, they should tell a story along with the dialogue. The more you expose your voice, the better your chances of breaking in. Well-written action lines are an important component of that.

Reading other scripts is a good way to get a handle on this, but read contemporary scripts and not something from 1950s. Those scripts can be helpful, too, but you want to learn how a script needs to look from a stylistic perspective for today’s market.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) fighting a guy in a black armored suit in 'John Wick: Chapter 4'

‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ (2023)

Hook Readers in Five Pages

Act One is the most important act of your script. Nail it. Don’t wait to hook the reader until page 50. Try and hook them in the first five pages.

There are a few examples of good stories that wait to hook you, but they are few and far between. When you’re trying to break in, you need to get a reader’s attention as quickly as possible. In terms of scene structure, always start scenes late and end them early.

How To Know if a Beat Isn’t Working

Beats not serving the story can be difficult to address because they can be difficult to identify. This is where getting notes comes in handy because an objective reader should be able to identify those moments. Open yourself up to constructive criticism.

Also, don’t be afraid to let go of what you’re good at. That might sound counterintuitive, but good writers can let go of funny lines or sympathetic characters if they aren’t serving the story. It’s hard to learn how to do it, but it will help you grow and mature in your craft.

Elsa using her magic power to make snow in 'Frozen'

‘Frozen’ (2013)

Why Are These Issues So Common?

According to Peck, issues with overwritten dialogue, improper formatting, and boring action lines are common because writers don’t realize how important they actually are. 

“They seem like small or incidental worries,” she says. “But as readers, we have to sift through a very large volume of material, and every little thing counts. You can have a really good story, but if you don’t format it correctly or have tons of typos, that’s what’s going to stand out to the reader or industry professional.”

When it comes to issues with structure, Peck admits that “it’s one of the hardest things to nail as a writer because it doesn’t necessarily come naturally.”

Lastly, for beats not serving the story, Peck says most writers tend to latch onto what you’re doing well, which doesn’t serve your story. “The fear is that if you cut lines or beats (such as funny dialogue that’s there just to be funny), it will hurt the story,” she says. 

A woman in a red shirt holding scissors up in 'Pierrot le Fou,' Ask a Script Reader: How to Fix the Most Common Script Issues

‘Pierrot le Fou’ (1962)

How Can Writers Avoid These Issues?

If you’re still struggling with these issues, Peck suggests to continue reading more scripts. 

“The more you read scripts and study craft, in particular structure, the more your own craft will improve,” she says. “I know reading has helped me tremendously with my own writing projects.” 

Another tip? Don’t get too emotionally attached to lines, characters, or beats, especially when you’re in the final stages of a draft. While Peck says she understands this is tricky for writers since it’s natural for us to become attached to aspects of our story, she suggests that “if it isn’t serving the overall goal, don’t be afraid to cut, cut, cut! Less is often more, particularly when it comes to scene structure and dialogue.” 

And last but not least, Peck says always put your best foot forward! “Try to make the action lines visceral and exciting in a way that exposes your voice,” she advises. “Proofread your script. You want to entertain the reader, not just with the story, but with the way that it’s told.”

A hand using a red pen to make corrections in a piece of writting

A Proofreader

Advice for Writers Dealing With a Problem Script

Peck understands that it can be overwhelming and discouraging to deal with notes after writing your script. But she recommends taking it one step at a time and not trying to fix everything at once. 

“For example, if you know dialogue is an issue for you, do a dialogue pass where all you focus on is deleting lines that can be deleted,” Peck says. “Vomit drafts are great—it’s actually a good thing to have some of these issues in a first draft as long as you clean them up before the final draft. Keep in mind that once something’s on the page, it can be fixed. Always give yourself permission to fail. Failure is an important part of the journey.” 

Read More: Screenplay Elements that Script Readers Can’t Get Enough Of