Screenwriter’s Guidepost: “How do I know when my script is done?”

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Let’s get this straight up front: it’s never really done. Not until it’s cast, shot, edited, mixed and released. And, as we saw with George Lucas and the original Star Wars trilogy, if you give a storyteller a chance to tinker with their story, even after all that, they will take it.

fade out 2Since no story is ever really “done,” how do you know when a script is ready to be shown?

You’ve invested all the time and sacrifice required to complete several drafts of a screenplay; you’ve shared it with trusted readers for feedback, and have incorporated some of their suggestions. So what’s next?

I was on the “Writing is Rewriting” and “Making the Contest Cut” panels at this year’s Screenwriters World Conference and attended several others. The question of “When do you know it’s show-able?” came up more often than any others except “How do I get an agent?” and “Will you read my script?” Out of the three questions, the first is the one that will ultimately help answer the other two.

If you’re about to submit your script to a rep or a producer—be they someone you’ve known for a while or someone you just met at the conference—or an entry to a contest like the Industry Insider, then I strongly recommend you consider these 3 tips before pressing that almighty “send” button.

1: Read it aloud.

WARNING: This part won’t be fun. But imagine that if you don’t do it, there’s a chance your eventual audience will enjoy the script even less. So suck it up. There’s something about hearing a script out loud that can’t be matched by just reading it. Parts that sag during a silent read yet seem almost acceptable, become excruciatingly tedious when you hear them said.

You may find yourself crossing things out before the reader’s even done saying them. You may also catch random words or strings of words that the reader skips over or inverts. If you can imagine the story beat remaining clear without those words, these are the easiest cuts.

I’m fortunate enough to be in a wicked-awesome writers group. Seven of us gather each week over wine and popcorn and take turns performing each other’s pages and offering feedback. Dialogue improves. Prose improves. Pace improves. Even the ability to track emotion and attitude through characters rises a few notches.

If you’re not in a writers group, find one or consider starting one. If you don’t believe in writers groups, can’t find one, or just don’t want to be part of one, you can still bribe a few friends with a pizza and stage a reading. If you don’t have any friends, I’m really sorry. That sucks. But you can still have a reading—with you acting as a one-person theatre troupe.

This is what you do: print out the full script, carve out two hours where you can be alone without interruption and keep a pen handy—but don’t touch it. Begin at the top of page one and read the script out loud through to the end.

Don’t stop to make notes and don’t skip over scenes or beats or words. When you complete the read, grab the pen and start jotting notes, fast and furious, without rhyme or reason, as the thoughts come—characters you’d like to see more or less, sections that sag, inconsistencies, opportunities for runners, setups without payoffs, payoffs without setups—bleed that pen dry until its lifeblood is scrolled across your notebook or legal pad, ready to fuel your next draft.

2. Do a voice pass.

You want all your characters to sound as unique as possible. Their attitudes and intentions should come across to the audience whenever the character speaks. We can find a character’s voice by examining who this person is: What’s their education, work experience, social background, worldview? Do they like to hear themselves speak or hate it?

Over the course of the writing process, the voice may evolve and you may end up with “rewrite residue,” inconsistencies that were overlooked in the mad dash to print the last draft. A voice pass is just that: choose a character (start with your protagonist) and read through the script, focusing only on this character’s dialogue.

Is their voice consistent? Do they have a certain rhythm of speaking? A phrase they use often? Favorite four-letter word? Preferred greeting? Are they the quiet one? If your character sounds like everyone else in the script, now’s the time to give them a voice.

Once you’ve completed a voice pass for your protagonist, consider doing one for all your other major characters. For bonus points, try a voice pass for your smaller roles: henchmen, sidekicks, etc. Functionary characters can (and should) have voices too.

The Coen Brothers have given us some great examples of what happens when writers spend the time to make each character in their story shine a unique light. Go look at The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Hudsucker Proxy to see how a couple of masters color their dialogue.

If you’ve got Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, you can generate a report of any character’s dialogue and comb through it that way, without the risk of being distracted by the other elements of the story. I know football season is about to start and the holidays are coming, but sharpening the voices of your characters will be worth it in the long run.

And be sure they have an intention behind everything they say. If they don’t, then it’s a passive beat and you probably don’t need it. Life is too short to punish others (or be punished) with purposeless dialogue.

3. Hunt your least favorite scene.

You know it’s there. You wrote it and it serves the story, but you never want to read it again. You skim it every time you look through the script. It’s not your proudest moment as a writer. Well, if everything else is working, why not see if this scene can be made better?

Begin with questions like: How does this scene serve the story? What does it need to accomplish? Why don’t I like it? Where are my characters emotionally at the start of the scene and the end of the scene? Can their attitudes be sharper, the conflict stronger, and the dramatic-turns bigger? Maybe a change of setting, time of day or weather is the fix. Maybe the fix is cutting a character from the scene—or adding one. Maybe you don’t even need the scene anymore…

If all else fails, consider Raymond Chandler’s advice: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun.”

Who knows, maybe your least favorite scene in one draft becomes one of your favorite scenes in the next. I’ve seen it happen. Why shouldn’t it happen for you?

Every round of the Industry Insider Contest, I coach 2-4 of the finalists. I give them all the same advice during our first session: Once you’ve got the spine of your story, crank out a rough draft FAST. Spend the bulk of the mentorship period rewriting. The more drafts you do of the script, the more polished it will be when it is judged. I’ve coached five winners up to the Sheldon Turner round (which is in the final judging stages). This is the pattern I’ve seen.

One day you’ll have to push that “send” button and be at peace with the results. Until then, if there’s anything you can improve before sending out the script, do it. The path to show-ability, and ultimately success, is littered with the most rewritten pages.

industry-insider-screenwriting-contest-page-page-header-1Enter the Industry Insider Contest Today!

Contest Testimonial:
“No other screenplay contest offers what the Industry Insider Contest does — a chance to develop your script alongside an industry professional. Some contests are about cash and prizes. The Industry Insider Contest is about advancing your career and developing material that can be successful in the marketplace. It’s about opening up doors.”

Tyler Marceca, The Disciple Program – Contest Winner (Robert Mark Kamen Round)

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