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From Mediocre to Stellar: 4 Ways to Level Up Your Screenwriting

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As a story analyst, aka script reader, I work freelance. That means I don’t work with just one company, but with several different companies, in addition to having my own screenwriting clients. With the variety of screenplays that I see, I get the rare perspective of seeing scripts from writers that run the gamut from totally green to Oscar winners. It’s truly a privilege, and this has been an incredible education for my own screenwriting.

It’s easy for me to spot writing that’s average and the work that soars above the pack. Unless you’ve read hundreds of scripts, it’s hard to know what’s just average and what makes a script stronger. Below are four specific areas that stand out to me as a professional script reader that you can hone in on to move your writing from mediocre to stellar.

1) SCREENPLAY FORMATTING, SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, AND GRAMMAR

  • Mediocre: Average screenplays have formatting issues, as well as spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. In the read of a script, errors and anything that deviates from the norm is distracting. It pulls the reader’s focus from the story to the errors. I’ve seen dialogue appear in descriptions or character names consistently flipped throughout a screenplay. A few errors aren’t going to make or break a script, but when they’re numerous enough to be a distraction, it gives an impression of the way a writer works, the kind of impression you don’t want to leave.
  • STELLAR SOLUTION: This one is easy. Proofread! Read through your work before submitting it, hire a service to proofread your script for you, or a low-cost solution is to ask a friend that’s a stickler for spelling and grammar to help with the proofread. Even better if that friend is knowledgeable in script formatting. Ask your friend to focus on the proofread rather than assessing the screenplay. That’s two different tasks and having total focus on one task means more brainpower for the proofread. Screenplays that are above average are easy to read, because the screenwriter has made it as error free as possible to give the reader the opportunity to be fully engulfed by the story. It’s the difference between journeying down a road with pothole and bumps versus one that’s totally smooth.

2) DESCRIPTIONS

  • Mediocre: A lack of sufficient descriptions plagues average screenplays. This goes for setting up the scene, as well as character introductions. A typical symptom I see in average scripts is when a location is established with a brief exterior scene. The description will usually be “establishing shot.” There’s nothing specified. This also occurs in montages where writers haven’t specified what we’re seeing in a montage. There will be a general statement that a montage occurs with various things happening, but those things are left unsaid. Characters are introduced with a name, but often age and any other type of description is absent.
  • STELLAR SOLUTION: Flesh out descriptions. Above average scripts are specific and detailed in what’s taking place in a scene and who a character is, while also being succinct. Brevity is a key in screenwriting since you don’t have the room to elaborate like a novel. Above average scripts make use of effective word choice to achieve brevity. Break out the thesaurus and widen your vocabulary. A certain word to describe a location or character can speak volumes on the page. Don’t describe shots but describe the scene. Unless you tell us what the atmosphere of a scene is like, how a location is laid out, who is present, what a character looks like, her age, personality and demeanor, we don’t know. Stellar scripts have touched on all of this in descriptions to evoke the visuals and world of the story in the mind of the reader.

3) CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

  • Mediocre: This shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s always harped on. As they say, character is king. Low character development is rampant in average screenplays. A specific area that shows lack of development is when it’s clear the writer hasn’t researched a character’s line of work. One script I read was so vague that all it said was that a character did “business” without ever defining what the character did for a living. Average screenplays fail to delve into the specifics of the career of a character. A few writers that submitted their work to companies I read for made their protagonists real estate agents. Little did they know that I used to be a real estate agent. I knew that they didn’t do any research, because what they wrote didn’t reflect what a realtor actually does.
  • STELLAR SOLUTION: Research and get to know the inner and outer world of your characters, especially your protagonist. It will take time, but will make your character development and dialogue more polished and honed in. This is the work that above average screenwriters put in that makes their scripts stand out above the rest. They don’t just research, but they go even further to make sure that in action and dialogue, characters consistently reflect their development.

4) REWRITING

  • Mediocre: This one is a bit difficult to describe unless you’ve seen two different drafts of a screenplay, one before notes are offered and the revision that takes those notes into consideration. Average screenplays don’t integrate notes into the screenplay, but rather attempt to “insert” a note without considering how this change affects the entirety of the narrative. Average revised screenplays also tend to come back to me in a rushed manner.
  • STELLAR SOLUTION: Unless you’re on a specific timeline, take your time in the rewrite process. If you’re unsure if you’re sufficiently addressing notes, ask for feedback to understand how well you’re revising your script. Above average scripts make bold changes in revisions. I’m blown away by skilled writers that are so tuned into their scripts that they make such specific changes that it can change the entire theme of the narrative while still maintaining the core of the story. Watch this episode of Tea with Ke, my weekly Facebook Live, where I dive into what I’ve seen works and what doesn’t in the rewriting process.

It’s important to know what doesn’t work just as much as what does. When you’re conscious of that, then you can avoid typical pitfalls and know where to aim. Aim for stellar, and leave mediocre behind.

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.