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Secrets from a Script Reader: Top 5 Signs of a Green Screenwriter

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There’s a rumor that professional script readers can tell from the first page of a script whether a screenwriter is good or not. I would like to clear the mystery and confirm that yes, this is true. I can generally tell from just the first page what level a writer is at.

There are always telltale signs if a writer is green. First of all, let’s define what a “green” screenwriter is. If you’re not from America or English is your second language, the term might be foreign to you. A green screenwriter is someone who doesn’t have much experience or is a beginner. Think of a green banana. It’s not ripe yet. It hasn’t matured. That green banana is just in its beginning phase. Hence, the term green screenwriter means a writer also in his or her beginning stages.

If a writer is referred to as green, it’s not a positive comment, but it’s also not a negative one. It just means that the screenwriter is new and doesn’t have the knowledge and experience yet that would help avoid mistakes that take more time and money.

Films are like people’s babies. They want to nurture and grow them, and they cost a lot of money. When you make a film and hire a screenwriter, you are putting your baby in that person’s hands. If you’re looking for a babysitter to look after your baby, you want someone that’s skilled and knows what they’re doing, right? Right. You’d be more hesitant to hire someone that has never handled a baby before or never had babysitting experience.

Hence, the hesitation in hiring a green screenwriter. The script is the foundation an entire production sits upon. We want to make sure the blueprint for a production, the script for a project, is the best it can be.

So what kinds of things indicate to me, as the reader, that a writer is most likely a green screenwriter? There are more than just five, but there are certain things that pop up regularly. Here are the top five signs of a green screenwriter, starting with the number one indication of an inexperienced screenwriter:

1.    FORMATTING – I peruse screenwriting forums, and I recently came across a post posing the question, “Is formatting really that important?” Right off the bat, I knew this writer had little to no experience. There is a reason why screenplay formatting exists. There are reasons for why scene headings are the way they are, the font is always the same, etc. Beginning screenwriters don’t have the experience to fully understand that when they’re creating a screenplay, they are creating a blueprint for a production. Screenwriters don’t just put a story on the page. They help to build the bones of a production. What a screenwriter writes, everyone else in the production builds off of. Using a blueprint as an example, there is an accepted standard for how walls, doors, and other items are portrayed on paper before a building is constructed. Similarly, screenplays have a standard so that everyone involved in the production is speaking the same language and can understand each other. Someone has to come behind you and understand what you have written so that they can bring it to life. When a script is in incorrect formatting, it makes it difficult to read since it deviates from the standard and tells me that you don’t fully comprehend that you’re building the foundation for the production to sit upon.

2.    UNDERDEVELOPED PROTAGONIST – Another typical sign of a green screenwriter is an underdeveloped protagonist, and more specifically, that the protagonist lacks a goal. This leads to a lack of development and affects the entire narrative. This could be an external goal or internal goal. If there is no goal, then the protagonist has nothing to take action on. This makes the protagonist weaker, because he or she is not driving the narrative forward with decisive action. In other words, the protagonist isn’t leading the story forward, and he or she becomes more passive.

3.    DIALOGUE – Related to underdeveloped characters is dialogue. Green screenwriters don’t always understand that dialogue aids in character development. Characters will lack distinct voices. There’s a lack of subtext. There also tends to be heavier dialogue in a script written by an inexperienced writer. This affects the pace in a script as well, not just character development.

4.    LACK OF STRUCTURE – The absence of a discernible structure in general is a sign of a green writer, and a typical issue within structure is the lack of an inciting incident. The inciting incident is what I refer to it as, but there are other terms for it. It’s the thing that happens that sets everything else into motion. It’s the first domino that falls that causes all the other dominos to fall. Green writers don’t fully understand that the first domino needs to fall so the rest of the story can play out.

5.    INABILITY TO INCORPORATE NOTES – This is pretty self-explanatory. When I receive a revision of a screenplay back after offering development notes and see that the writer hasn’t been able to effectively incorporate the notes offered or hasn’t integrated them at all, that’s another key sign of a green screenwriter. I love the quote from Ernest Hemingway “The only kind of writing is rewriting,” because it’s so true. I talk about what works and what doesn’t in the rewriting process in this Facebook Live.

There are more signs that signal to me as a reader that a writer is green, but these are the five that I see the most often. If you’re a beginning screenwriter, please don’t be discouraged. Everyone has to start somewhere. You will learn. It just takes time. Even seasoned writers make mistakes. No one is perfect. That’s why the rewriting process exists, is so important, and why you need to be able to incorporate notes effectively.

Rest assured that I make these mistakes, too! Just because I see them doesn’t mean I don’t make them. The more you practice your craft and educate yourself like you’re doing right now by reading this article, you’re well on your way to becoming an experienced writer.

Joanna Ke

About Joanna Ke

If grace married silliness, their child would be Joanna Ke. Joanna is an award-winning filmmaker that thrives in the industry as an actor, writer, professional script reader, and producer. She champions diverse stories led by women both behind and in front of the camera. Joanna has been creating stories ever since she was a child, performing skits for her sisters and scribbling in journals before she even know how to write. She studied the craft of screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field. As a professional script reader, she is known for her ability to masterfully analyze screenplays. Joanna runs the twitter account @femcharacters, highlighting the unfortunate way women are often portrayed on screen. She also isn’t too shabby as a stunt performer and sword fighter. Wielding her broadsword is a favorite both on camera and off.