A few years ago, a screenwriter named Josh Olsen wrote a piece for the Village Voice called “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.” I wouldn’t say it broke the internet, but when it came out it seemed as if every Hollywood working Facebook friend I had shared the link to that article (talk about preaching to the choir). Up and over the Hills, West Side to East Side, 405 to the 101, the city of Los Angeles seemed to be applauding Josh for saying out loud what we were all thinking… pretty much the same feeling we have when Ricky Gervais hosts the Golden Globes. The difference between most of us and Josh is that, given the right motivation, pressure or good will, we will read your script. So I’d put a little kinder, softer spin on Josh’s pov and say that nobody wants to read your script. And if you accept this reality, it can be dealt with.
Before I was a writer, I was a studio executive. Before that, a development executive, and before that, a reader. A student (who obviously wanted me to feel really old) purported to have done the math that over the course of my career, I have read 10,000 scripts. The only good news about that is that I always recycle. Anyway, she was probably right in her guess. I’ve always thought the best metaphor of my days as a studio executive was Lucy in the candy factory. It seemed as if my job was just to keep the scripts moving down the conveyor belt.
Now, when I work with writers, I very rarely read pages. In fact, I do everything I can not to read their pages. And I don’t feel guilty about it at all. I do what I’m really good at, helping writers excavate and develop the potential of their idea. The execution of the idea, the story, is for the writer to get on the page.
The irony of all of this is that I grew up with a love for reading that started when I was four and I’d read the textbooks my grandmother used as an elementary school teacher. When I was six, I won a contest at school by reading the most books in a year (the prize was a highly coveted masterpiece by every first grader at my school called “The Seven Chinese Brothers”. When I was 10, I made my parents sign me up for the Evelyn Woods speed reading class. But of the 10,000 scripts I have read, I can honestly say there are under ten I’ve ever actually enjoyed reading (One of them was “The English Patient.”). If I have to read these days, I’ll read scripts from friends (who in turn read my scripts), scripts from shows I’m working on, or scripts from shows I might work on. There’s an urban legend about a very big deal agent in town who tells his clients he won’t read their scripts because it will hurt his chances of selling it. So clearly I’m not alone.
When I was a studio executive, we had Monday morning staff meetings to go over the “weekend read,” the scripts that were delivered to our offices (often in empty Xerox boxes, numbering at least 20) on Friday afternoons with coverage attached. For about a month, I actually read the scripts, until I realized that the other executives were literally quoting the coverage and claiming the readers’ opinions as their own. And this was ten years ago, before social media ruined our attention spans and created the “Buzzfeed” paradigm, where articles have numbered bullet points rather than narrative throughlines and actual paragraphs.
So here’s the good news. There are some contests and pitch festivals worth entering and going to (Always check the credentials of the judges and particpants. It doesn’t matter if the assistants from the company show up, just that the company is a legitimate player). And then there’s The Black List. In case you don’t know what this is, (in that case reading this article has definitely been worth your time), it is a service that helps give writers access to producers. It’s a great business model from both ends in that writers are wiling to pay a modest fee in exchange for access and producers are willing to consider scripts if they’ve been properly vetted. However, if you do chose to use the Black List, keep in mind that your script will still be read by a reader, and readers are people with opinions, biases and some level of script reading burn-out.
There are more than enough books and classes out there that will try to teach you how to tell a great story, even though in my opinion, it mostly comes down to talent and writing because you want to, without any expectations of making a living doing it. Because it’s not just about getting your script read, it’s about getting it read all the way through. So here’s my advice, culled from reading a rain forest’s worth of paper (again, I recycle), on how to get your script read all the way through to the end.
TEN WAYS TO GET YOUR READER TO “FADE OUT.”
- Remember it’s a reading draft not a shooting draft. We don’t need camera angles or long sentences about the mountain vistas or your cinematic vision for the movie.
- Make it as short as possible. Please. Get rid of every single extra word you can. Which brings me to…
- Regarding stage direction… When we see too much of it on the page, it feels like being stuck in traffic. It should never be more than 3 lines and only put something in caps if you think we will miss a story point by skimming past it. If you do that too often, it becomes a boy who cried wolf scenario and we’ll just skim right past it.
- One more thing on stage direction – AVOID OVER CHOREOGRAPHING (notice I used caps here). You are not the director (see #1). We do not need to know that Jay picked up the cigarette, lit it and then smoked it. If it doesn’t speak to character or move the story forward, LOSE IT.
- Avoid character names that start with the same letter. We are skimming your script (see #3), and you don’t want to take the chance that we confuse “David” with “Danny” (I once read a script where almost every name started with a “D,” which was just as annoying as the family I knew growing up whose kids were all named with a “D” and their dog was “Little D”).
- Avoid clichés. This goes without saying in your story and in your characters, but it should also apply to your stage direction. You know how when you’re listening to a song on the radio and you know the next line before it’s sung? That’s how we feel when you tell us a character was so scared she was like a “deer in the headlights.”
- LCC – This is an anacronym for “less chit chat” that I came up with for a client who had constantly had scenes between two characters that went something like… “Hey.” “Great to see you.” “It’s been a while.” “Sure has.” Not only is this BORING, makes the script longer (see #2). It also makes you the one guy who didn’t read William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade” where he coined the phrase about scene writing, “Come in late, leave early.”
- Haters gonna hate, hate, hate. Grammar and format nerds have been known to toss a script across a crowded Starbucks for any of the following reasons; You don’t know the difference between ellipses and dashes, you either didn’t spell-check or you relied on spell-check, you called it a “T-shirt” on p.7, but you called it a “tee-shirt” on p.27.
- Always include a scene about an elephant and a dog who form an unlikely friendship because it will keep us from going on the internet in the middle of reading your script. I’m kidding. Sort of.
- Make the first ten pages so exciting that they get to 11. Go ahead, blow your wad. Give us the best set piece you got. If it’s a pilot, tell us what the show is about, how much fun it’s going to be. Rewrite those first pages until you could recite every word of them to Harvey Weinstein if you got stuck in an elevator.
And if you have any great anecdotes of how you got somebody to read your script, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me on my blog.
How Screenwriters Can Write a Breakout Script That Will Jumpstart Their Career
The “Concept” Script: How to Hook Your Reader in the First-Five Pages