Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
You’ve worked on your script for months or maybe even years — you dreamed up the idea, mapped out a structure, carefully crafted the scenes, characters, and dialogue, and written draft after draft after draft – and you finally feel the piece is finished. So what do you do now? Send it out to agents and production companies? Submit it to a screenwriting contest? Use that valuable industry contact you made at that party that time to slip it to big name producer or an A-list star?
My advice is to stick it in a drawer.
Too many aspiring screenwriters send their work out into the world before it is ready. And that’s a big problem. Why? Because, as the saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” – and nowhere is that truer than in the world of screenwriting. The first read is the key moment in the life of a spec screenplay. If the initial reader likes it, then the script stands a good chance of moving up the development line. If that first looker doesn’t like it, then the script will more than likely be consigned to the reject pile.
For a script to make an excellent first impression, everything about it has to be the best is can possibly be. And yet, from experience I can tell you that most scripts I read – for producers, prodcos, and contests – are not. Most have plots that are either unclear or are full of holes or characters who are poorly defined and motivated or dialogue that is fuzzy or presentation that is sloppy. These scripts were not ready to go out to the marketplace and yet they did – they were sent out before they were finished.
So, the question is – how? How — after all of the hard, hard work that (most) aspiring writers put into their scripts – can these scripts not yet be finished? One of the main answers is, I think, a critical lack of perspective. Writing is, by its very nature a solitary endeavor. Writers usually work alone, lost for months on end in the twists and turns of their stories and easily prone to being spun around by the constant thinking and rethinking any creative activity requires. Given this, it’s not hard to see why even the best writers can lose objectivity concerning their work, and without it they can miss seeing problems that an unbiased eye would easily catch.
For this reason, I feel it is imperative for screenwriters to find ways to get objective views of their scripts so they can catch and fix problems and mistakes before they send their work out to the marketplace.
To accomplish this, I suggest taking the following steps:
- After finishing your script, let it sit for a few weeks. Put it in a drawer and go off and do other things – work on other projects, go on vacation, clean your bathroom, and so on. When the two weeks are up, give the script another read. After such a layoff your mind will be clearer and I guarantee that things will jump out at you that you never saw when you were caught up in the fury of creation.
- Once you have reviewed your work and made any necessary corrections, give the script to others to read. By definition, other people are able to see your work more objectively than you can. The trick, of course, is to choose the right people. Your Great Aunt Millie might make wonderful oatmeal cookies, but she might not be the best person to assess your high-octane, action-adventure spectacular. Give the script to someone whose taste and opinions – especially about movies – you value and whom you know will be honest with you. This is tricky because people who care about you may have a hard time telling you that they don’t like something. The problem of course is that potential buyers don’t care about your feelings – they only care if the script works or not, so you really have to choose people you know are going to tell it to you straight. It’s also important to ask more than one person to read your script. One person’s opinion is only that, but if several people give you the same reactions to the same points, then you’ll know that these are legitimate issues that you need to pay attention to.
When asking your readers for their opinion of your work, don’t settle for generic responses such as “It was good,” or “I liked it.” Instead, ask your readers to tell you exactly what they did and didn’t like about the script and why. To assess how well your plot works, ask your readers to tell you the story they just read. If the one they tell you is the one you think you wrote, then you’re in good shape. If it’s not, then you better find out why your readers read a different story than the one you intended to convey. What did they miss? What did you fail to make clear? What did you leave out or what did you include that took people off track? Ask your readers to tell you their favorite scenes. Are they the ones you intended to be standouts? If not, find out what the intended highlights failed to make an impression and why the ones the readers did like made the impact they did. It’s also important to make sure that readers identify your script’s correct genre. If you think you wrote a drama and they tell keep telling you how gut-bustingly funny your script was, then clearly you have some retooling to do.
- As an alternative or in addition to giving your script to friends, consider submitting it to a professional script evaluation service. These services will give you a detailed analysis of your screenplay identifying strong and weak points and (if you request it) several pages of ideas and suggestions for successful changes and fixes. There are some dicey services out there, but the best use professional industry script readers and story analysts and so will offer an excellent opportunity to get a sense of how your script will be received by Hollywood.
- To assess how well your dialogue works, I suggest you hold a reading. If you know some actors ask them if they will take part. If you don’t a group of enthusiastic friends will do just fine. Gather everyone together, assign them all parts, and let’ er rip. Make sure you have someone whose sole job it is to read the stage directions to keep things moving. You shouldn’t do this yourself – in fact, you should not participate in any way. Your only job at this point is to just sit back and listen. Hearing your dialogue spoken aloud by someone other than yourself is always an eye-opener – you can hear it if it sounds natural or stiff, determine whether or not the points you’re trying to make are clear, assess the pacing and flow. If you’re writing a comedy, then I believe that a reading is essential – it’s impossible to determine how well a dialogue joke works until you hear it spoken aloud. You might consider taping the reading so you can have it available to review as you rewrite.
- At the end of all this, you will have accumulated a tremendous amount of feedback about your script. The most important thing for you to do now is to listen to that feedback. It’s hard to hear that something you’ve worked on so hard is not 100% perfect, but if you want to make your script the best it can be, it’s important for you to resist the urge that so many writers can’t — to delude yourself. (The most common phrases uttered by a delusional writer: “You just don’t get it.” “It’ll make sense when you see it on the screen.” “Everybody else liked it.” This last one is usually said with an adorably sulky pout. And, rest assured, it’s not true.)
- Use what you have learned from the feedback to rewrite your script, addressing all of the problems and fixing all of the mistakes. The most important thing you need to do in this phase is to be absolutely ruthless with your work. Don’t just tweak it here and there. Be brave enough to tear your script apart — revising where necessary, rethinking where necessary and cutting where necessary (even if it means chopping bits you really, really love. Remember and follow the old adage – “In order to succeed, you must first kill all your darlings.”).
- When you’re done rewriting, repeat this entire process from the beginning and then rewrite again. And again and again and again until you have made your script as good as it can possibly be – until the responses match your expectations.
- Once you’ve finished with the content, you must then address the form. Proofread your script – checking spelling, grammar, and format. If you’re not confident of your skills in this area, then give the job to someone whose skills you do trust. If no one comes to mind, then consider using a professional proofreading service.
Now you’re done. Now the script is ready to send out. Do so and the best of luck to you!
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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