As someone who has worked as a freelance Script Analyst for the past decade, I am often asked this question: “What makes a script great?” While the general answer is “The Story”, it’s not as simple as that. Having read for top film production companies as well as writers themselves over the past ten years, I’ve read hundreds of scripts. And in all this reading, I’ve picked up a thing or two about them and thought I’d share the top five lessons I’ve learned from being a reader, in hopes that it can help others on their screenwriting journey.
Lesson #1 – It’s much better to SHOW rather than TELL.
Screenwriting is a blueprint for a visual medium. SHOW us the story; don’t tell it to us. More times than one would think, a script will have talking heads telling the story rather than scenes in which characters show us the story. Keep in mind at all times that the end result for this type of written work is for it to be seen by an audience. Get creative with exposition. Figure out original ways to give your audience information they need.
Lesson #2 – Reread your work TWICE before submitting.
It’s incredibly easy to speed read your own work, is it not? Problem is, you can miss things that others who haven’t read the work before will not miss. Little words like “the”, “it”, “with” “and” can often get left out because our eyes will think they’ve seen them when reading fast and not catch the error. But it is an error and when there are a bunch of omitted words and/or misspellings or incorrect words, then it becomes more difficult to read the work and inevitably, it will not have a great effect on the reader. Also, rereading your work twice guarantees you an opportunity to catch any moments, scenes or characters that need final tweaking and then after doing so, a fresh read can make sure it all fits together.
Lesson #3 – Montages aren’t always necessary.
I think one of the most overused devices in screenwriting is the montage (though narration is a close second.) With montages, writers try to cram a lot of information into a series of separate shots that are strung together to convey a whole. And while they can most definitely be effective, breathing a little originality into them and/or using them sparingly can help this often-used technique stay fresh. For example, do you have a couple falling in love? How many times have we seen this conveyed through a montage? Why not try to think of an original way to tell that same information?
Lesson #4 – Page count matters.
Because most readers are doing very fast turnaround (reading and doing coverage overnight), one of the first things we look at is page count. Scripts are typically 120 pages or under. This is likely because a page roughly equates to a minute of screen time [120 pages = 120 minutes (2 hours).] When scripts have more than 120 pages, there better be a very good reason for it. Think about it. You’re asking for an audience’s time. Once you go beyond the average movie mark of two hours, one must ask why? Many screenwriters fail to edit their work. Ask yourself if everything you have in the script is necessary? If not, why is it there?
Lesson #5 – Understand that Readers are not 100% objective.
In a perfect world, readers would be 100% objective but that is not reality. We are people, imperfect people with experience reading and analyzing many scripts. From this experience, we attempt to craft an informed opinion based on the needs of whomever we are reading for and deliver it in written form. (Our reports are called Coverage and consist typically of a cover sheet, synopsis and analysis.) There are also negligent readers in the bunch who are subjective. Bottom line is if you believe in your work, keep getting it out there.