Ever wonder what the script reader is looking for besides story structure, formatting, and grammar/spelling errors? Something that could set your script apart from all the other good stories to make it great? There’s no real formula to it, writing is an art more than it is a science, but there are a few easy writing concepts you can look for in your writing. If you implement them well, the reader will experience your script, not just read it.
In real life, we have all of our senses at our disposal. In a film, the audience can only hear and see what you put before them. To add to their experience, all you need to do is appeal to the other senses. Have your characters discuss what they smell and feel. Of course, this isn’t always easy to fluidly put into dialogue but it is possible. Instead of a character saying “It’s hot outside,” you can have them complain about the threats of sunburn. This covers not only that it’s hot and sunny, but that maybe they’ve been outside for a while.
Smells and tastes are hard. If something smells bad, it’s easy enough to have the characters reel away in disgust, but if someone describes it, it gives the audience more to understand to sympathize with the characters. This is also a chance to interject some humor. For instance, if the character eats something and finds it gross, they can say it tastes like a dirty diaper left out in a swamp and, while painting an awful image, it’s also absurd. How could this character know what that tastes like?
If you don’t want to make your reader instantly groan, step back and look at the density of your pages as a reader would. Are there huge blocks of text for establishing shots? Do your characters monologue a lot? Get ready with your red pen, because reducing those will not only put your reader in a better mood, but it will allow your script to flow better. Pacing isn’t just about a balance of action to dialogue, it’s also about the balance between itself. Is one action in a scene clogging up the others? Is a certain character hogging all the dialogue?
The most wonderful thing about getting better at writing is not having all the words to say what you want, it’s being able to say something with no words at all. I don’t just mean being able to minimize dialogue and “speak” through action, but rather to become fluent in the unspoken subliminal messages. Tension between two characters that radiates to the audience or a character making a small choice that pushes them forward toward their character development, these make more impact than a grandiose declaration of change or two characters confessing their emotions. To accomplish this, the writer must know their characters intimately and share this knowledge subtly with the audience. The audience will savor a secret they believe they gleaned on their own rather than a fact that can be clearly pointed out.
If you’ve ever watched shows like The Great British Bake Off or Project Runway, you know that the judges decide sometimes on whether it seems like the finished project is true to the creator’s style. So I ask you, does the script have your voice? If you like to read scripts by those who have already achieved their voice or watch films and emulate what you see, you may find that your voice is a bit muddled. What’s the best way to find it amongst all the influence? Write.
It won’t be easy, it may even take years, but the best way to start is by writing stories that you like and write just for you. Don’t think about making a product worthy of the public eye or something that might make you money, write just for the sheer enjoyment of it. Try not to watch or read anything that might influence your style. Or clear your head and do something different as a palate cleanser if you get blocked and come back to it. Draw, garden, host a board game night, anything that creatively stimulates your mind that isn’t about writing and story building. Then go back and write. Write for as long as you can. Try to see if you can notice your own voice. This won’t be something that happens overnight, but once you find it, use it. It will help your work stand out and will interest your reader.
How often do you speak like your characters? With such prepared and precise dialogue? In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone who has their words planned like most people write. That’s okay, but if it can sometimes break your audience out of your world. They’ll still enjoy the story, but that’s what it’ll be, a story. If you want an experience they will step away from that will make them feels as if they intimately know your characters like friends, a good simple step is making believable dialogue.
The most common place I think you’ll find this is in comedy, TV shows, and stage plays. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a great example and often uses its down-to-earth dialogue to make jokes, but also to make the lovable community of the Nine-Nine precinct one that we can relate to. If you’ve ever seen a stage play, you may have noticed how intricately they are constructed to seem like windows into someone’s life that we glimpse for a moment. Because of this, they have to be as realistic as possible to draw the audience in and believe they are real. Having real actors on the stage is a good start, but with stutters, mistakes in dialogue, and forgetfulness, the audience can almost believe that they are watching a real piece of someone else’s life.
How do you get better at this? Understand how other people speak. There are some people who have noticeable speech patterns. A high school teacher of mine said “Alright?” after every sentence when she gave directions. A coworker of mine says “That’s fair.” whenever someone mentions something and he has nothing to add. The art of dialogue is not making it perfect, it’s making it flawlessly imperfect.
In the book, J. R. R. Tolkien never gave much of a physical description of Sauron, but he did describe “an image of malice and hate made visible”. By side-stepping the paragraph of physical description and detailing the character by their deeds and the emotions they stir in others, we learn more about the character themselves. This is especially a good practice in screenwriting because you cannot control the casting or costumes. What you can do, is make an unforgettable character that the reader understands and connects with, in the first few moments of meeting them.
It is common for most writers to have an image of a character in their mind that they want to express to their readers. Everything from cheekbones to sense of style. If these do not give the reader or audience any idea of what kind of person this character is, they are wasted words. The best way to introduce a character is to make sure their first actions tell the audience what they are. Give them a choice, big or small, to make which shows the reader how the character thinks and reacts. Focus on how they treat other people or how they focus (or don’t) on an important task. If you need to start with a cheat sheet for a quick character base, try Myers-Briggs or the D&D alignment chart. Figure out where your character falls and then make sure that comes across to the reader so they have a baseline for all of your character’s decisions in the future. This will also help you chart the character’s development throughout the story. If you don’t show what kind of person they are at the beginning, then it won’t have the impact you want when they reach their Apotheosis (Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey).
These are just a few of the ways you can make your script stand out to script readers. Not all of them are easy and they can take a while to perfect, so don’t expect perfection right away after applying them in your next draft. Practice is key. Continue writing and trying to better your writing and you’ll see improvement. Giving up is the only way to fail.
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.