We all want to know what script readers are looking for, but what would a script reader throw out your script over? Script readers read script after script so if anyone knows what makes or breaks a script, it would be them. It’s not magic, it’s a skill you could develop once you learn to see the way they do.
Here are some of the easiest red flags to spot and change in your own script.
Spelling, Grammar, and Misuse
Sometimes, typing for a long time can make words look weird and spellcheck is not always beneficial. Double-check the words you’re unsure of. It only takes a quick Google search. If a script reader comes across spelling or grammatical errors, it will mean to them that the writer didn’t look over their own work properly before sending it in. Sure, mistakes happen, but when those mistakes start stacking up, it can affect the story. You might think “Well, if the story is good, who cares?” but errors can affect the reader’s understanding of the story. Sometimes words being misspelled, misplaced, or misused can create whole new meanings the writer didn’t intend. Script readers are readers… not translators.
Not everyone has the dictionary memorized, but you can make as many mistakes as you want in your drafts except the final one. Even if it’s the last thing you do, go through your script, pay for some professional coverage, or get someone you trust to catch your mistakes to look it over. If you want your script to pass and you know spellcheck and you don’t see eye to eye, your script depends on someone to correct the errors before it’s sent to professionals.
When I first started writing scripts, I thought parentheticals were necessary. That they were how the actor knew what to do. But that’s not really how they work. If your character says something that is sarcastic or when something might be confusing, the emotion would go into parentheses to make it clear to the script reader and actors. That’s it. If something might be difficult, you clarify, but there’s no need to waste the reader’s time telling them something they already know. Not to mention, it’s a really bad habit.
Think of how it looks. If you have to detail what your character is feeling by writing it out in a parenthetical, then your action isn’t cutting it. The action is what the audience sees. If the only emotion they get from the character is how the actor delivers their lines and their expressions, the audience’s perception of the character is going to suffer. Before you add parentheses to your dialogue, ask yourself first “how can I use action to make this as clear as possible”?
Huge blocks of dialogue where characters discuss major historical events that shaped the fictional world or detail actions that happen off screen can become cumbersome to the audience. Give the audience some credit, some things don’t need to be explained. Ever watch Cars? Was there ever a point in the movie where you wondered “why are there only cars? Where are the humans? How did the cars become sentient?”. Probably not. You could argue that “it’s a kids movie, who cares?”. Writers give more credit to children’s imaginations than adults. You don’t have to explain everything. If you slipped in some symbolism or a lot of really cool world-building details, don’t point them out so the audience can clearly see. If you focus on making an amazing story, then the fans who rewatch will find them and share them with people who care about it the most. Leave a little mystery for those that love to go back and find the Easter eggs.
How can you cut down when you have a huge world to build? Stage plays can’t film in different locations, change the time of day, or have a big enough budget to include whole sets or even have working cars on stage. How do they make just two chairs work? Because playwrights are masters of exposition. Time of day, weather, sometimes even the furniture has to be described in dialogue to give the audience context. If you want to work on your exposition, print out some stage plays from online and read them once through and then go back and underline where the dialogue hints at something that couldn’t be shown on stage.
While there are certain details a writer may want to make sure are clear to the audience, putting in camera angles for every scene and notes to the director can make the reader lose the story. Scripts change the moment they are picked up by a producer. Either due to budget, casting, or general editing, you can hardly expect that your story will stay the same once someone chooses it. That means your camera angle preferences are about as necessary as describing the color of the protagonists’ hair.
If you think you have to get this specific idea across to the producer using camera angles, give this a try. Instead of saying how you want the camera to be positioned, instead describe the action/setting from that angle. If you want an overhead shot of a chase, describe the character darting through the grid-like streets, losing the antagonist in the crowds. Describe what you want to see in a way that enhances the story instead of ripping the reader from it. If you do a good job, the director will see it the same way and will implement what you wanted without you telling them what to do.
You want everything to be perfect. To see the world you crafted in your head come to life, but writing huge paragraphs of description is not going to get you there. All the details matter to you, but screenwriting is a collaborative art. If you can’t share your world with others, novels might be best for you because most visual media: films, stage plays, video games, comic books… you have to collaborate with others to bring your story to life. If you grasp too tightly to your version and don’t allow anyone to add their own thoughts or ideas, your idea will suffer. Collaboration gives stories depth and dimensions. It’s a team effort.
Have you ever been a part of a writers’ room or a writing workshop? A great exercise in an environment with a group of creators is to make a story out of thin air. Take turns adding to it, growing it. An idea that may have seemed silly when it was first shouted out can be developed into a fully fleshed out story with the help of other creative minds. Doing a whole project alone for independence points and bragging rights may be satisfying, but it’s a quick road to burnout and stress. Working with other creative minds can balance the workload and even bring to light some ideas and concepts you may never have thought of. Next time, when you want to shake the reader with your vision of what your story could be, the more you leave up to the reader’s imagination, the easier it will be for them to see the potential outcomes of your story. With the right creative team, they could see your story flourish and become something more than you hoped.
When I was in middle school, I participated in a short story writing competition called Power of the Pen. Our coach had a gavel and would wave it about and say “Do not hit your reader over the head!” It was her version of “show, don’t tell” and it stuck with me. Now, whenever there’s on-the-nose dialogue, I think of her waving about her engraved gavel. It can be difficult to craft information for the audience into speech that sounds natural, but to spell everything out for your audience is tantamount to calling them stupid. Leaving a little mystery can hook the reader in.
The best way to do this is to perfect the “unanswered question”. This is usually when the characters know something the audience doesn’t and they don’t explain it. The characters will reference it and give some context to it, but it’ll become this festering question in the audience’s mind. What are they talking about? This is what readers will skip ahead to find out. We’re all curious by nature and if the writer does this well and leaves little crumbs to satiate the audience until the big reveal, the audience will eat it up. This doesn’t have to be for some big plot point either, it can be for small details. When people who work together or know each other really well, they don’t need to describe everything they discuss because they know the other person would understand. If the audience can figure it out by context, allow that to happen. When the audience and reader figure something out for themselves, it feels like they earned the information instead of just having it handed to them.
Have you ever seen a movie where there were so many characters that you had to make a chart for every character and why they’re important? Have you ever noticed how many characters you have in your own screenplay? It’s easy to want to add siblings and best friends and henchmen, but to a script reader, that’s costly. Even if your forty characters all make sense and your story is flawless, every speaking character is going to be pricey. Never fear, writing more is always better than less because the editing stage is more forgiving to cutting down than it is to adding.
The first thing you want to ask yourself is if any characters share roles. Do you have two friends that support the protagonist and give some context into their personal lives? That could easily be one role. Do they need to dine out at that restaurant where they speak with the waitress or can they eat take out in the park? Is the dog really necessary? Trained animals on set are very costly and time consuming. Give them some houseplants. The smaller the group, the more your reader and audience can be focused on the story and not the wiki page detailing who is who. You don’t have to narrow it down to just one protagonist and one antagonist, but the average should be around fifteen with six or so having main speaking roles.
These red flags are good to understand and log for later, but do not let them intrude on your first draft. The first draft is free from thought and scrutiny. You write that to get it all out. When you enter the editing stage, that’s when you start cleaning your story and ironing out the creases. If you try to make a perfect first draft, you might find your first draft never getting finished. As you write more and gain more experience, you can begin editing as you go, but that’s a goal to work up to through practice, not something that can happen overnight.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.