MEET THE READER: Lessons Learned from Reading Too Many Spec Scripts

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

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I’ve been reading a lot of spec scripts lately. Working for a major screenwriting contest, for my regular industry employers, and for private clients, I’ve read over 100 spec screenplays in the past two or so months. Making my way through such a large quantity of material has really given me a chance to identify some of the most common mistakes that spec writers tend to make in crafting their screenplays. To help you avoid making these mistakes, here are some (hopefully) helpful tips I’ve come up with based on all this reading:

spec scripts
Dramatize everything
: The single most common mistake that new screenwriters make is to tell their stories in the text of their scripts – writing at length in the action lines about what the characters are thinking and feeling and realizing and deciding; laying out vital exposition (the history of the narrative’s situations and settings; the backstories of the characters and their relationships; and so on). The problem with doing this is that the audience cannot read the screenplay and therefore will never learn any of this vital information. One of the primary rules of screenwriting has always been “show, don’t tell,” and this is why. Do not tell us what a character is thinking and feeling – instead devise actions, images, and dialogue that show us what that character is thinking and feeling. Do not write out the exposition. – come up with dialogue and pictures that communicates it to the audience. Movies are a visual/audio medium – viewers will only know what they see on screen or hear coming out of the theater’s speakers. If you are writing a movie, then you must tell your story using pictures and sound, not with text.

Don’t tell us how things smell: Once again, movies are a visual/audio medium — the only two senses we can use to experience them are sight and sound. Despite this, many aspiring writers go to great lengths (and waste a lot of pages) to tell us how the settings, the props, and even the characters smell, taste, and feel. All of this effort is completely wasted because none of this information can ever be transferred to the screen or communicated to the audience.

Don’t describe a character’s appearance in minute detail: New writers love to get very specific about how their characters look. For example: “Pete is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and has dark black hair parted on the left and flecked with gray. His eyes are blue, his ears stick out at 45 degree angles from his head, and he has a pug nose dotted with freckles. His jaw is square, his chin has a cleft in it, and his lips are thin.” This description is way too specific. What happens if the casting people can’t find someone that matches this exact physical description – do you want them not to make the movie? Plus, it doesn’t matter how the character is described in the script – the producers are going to cast the best actor and/or the biggest star they can find to play the role. So it doesn’t matter if you describe your character as a 50-year-old woman with brown hair and a cleft palate who weighs 300 pounds and has a club foot – if the producers can land Jennifer Lawrence to play the part, then she’s going to look like Jennifer Lawrence. So rather than waste time (and page space) laying out all of this ultimately pointless detail, instead come up with a brief sentence or two that captures the essence of the character: e.g. “Don is handsome and confident.”

Don’t tell us that a character doesn’t look his age: When describing characters, aspiring screenwriters often write sentences such as “Doug is 25, but he looks 50” or “Sarah is 62, but looks 27.” Once again, movies are a visual medium. We can only know what we see on the screen, so if a character looks 50, we are going to assume that he is 50. If she looks 27, we will assume she is 27. The only way we will think otherwise is if you explain it in the dialogue (“How old are you Doug?” “I’m twenty-five.” “Twenty-five? Jeez, you look like you’re fifty.” “I’ve had a hard life.”). A word of warning: you should only present a character that looks older than he/she is if the disparity between age and appearance serves a vital function in the plot. Because no actor (and especially no star) is going to want to play older than he/she is, especially if it’s for an arbitrary reason. They will, however, have no problem playing younger.

Don’t introduce a character with atypical behavior: Characters in specs are often introduced like this: “Katie is usually calm and serene, but this morning she is frantic and stressed out.” Movies are linear – viewers can only know what you show them in the order that you show it to them and whatever they see first is going to be the thing that sticks (in movies, first impressions are everything). When it comes to characters, the way a person is behaving when we first meet her is how we will assume she usually acts. So if you first show us someone acting in a frantic manner, we will assume that she is usually frantic and if you first show us someone acting calmly and serenely, we will assume this is her natural state. Therefore, when you introduce a character, be sure to have them behave in a way that is typical for that character. This will give us a baseline by which to accurately judge any behavioral changes she goes through in the course of the story.

Don’t use phonetic spelling in your dialogue: When a character speaks with an accent or in a specific dialect, young writers will often write the dialogue out phonetically. Don’t do this – no matter how well intentioned, it always comes across as either comical or (if a character is speaking with an ethnic dialect) racist. Instead, just indicate what accent or dialect the character is meant to speak with and then write out the words normally. The actor will do the rest.

Don’t write jokes based on spelling mistakes: For some reason, a lot of new writers like to create jokes based solely on spelling. For example, let’s say you have a character in your script named Ray Morton (yes, I am using my own name. That way I don’t have to pay royalties) and he is angry about something. One of these spelling based jokes might go something like this:

ANDREW
Boy, Morton is really upset, isn’t he?

BILL
Yes. He’s really en-ray-ged.

Now, this isn’t a very good joke (most spelling-based jokes aren’t. At best, they are usually only mildly amusing puns), but its biggest problem is that it only works in print – if the reader can see the playful spelling. If that line is spoken aloud, it will just sound like Bill is saying “enraged” and the joke will never register (since, once again, the viewers will not be reading the script at the same time they are watching the movie). So don’t do this.

Don’t start your script with a flashback: The first word in many specs is the slug FLASHBACK. This always amuses me, because by definition a flashback is a scene that jumps back in time from the period of the main action. Therefore, you cannot flash back until the main narrative is already underway. In other words, you can’t flash back until you have something to flash back from. If you are beginning your story with a scene set in an earlier period than that of the main story, that material is a prologue, not a flashback

Don’t forget the “flash” in a flashback: Flashbacks are meant to be quick – brief bits of exposition dropped into the body of the main storyline. A flashback that lasts longer than five pages is not a flashback, it’s primary narrative. If the material in a long flashback is so vital that your story cannot be understood without it, then you should probably consider backing up and starting your tale at an earlier point in time.

Get on with it: For reasons I don’t completely understand (although I suspect it has something to do with rescuing kitties), many if not most modern spec scripts begin with a lot of unnecessary preamble – 10, 20, 30 and sometimes even 70 pages of backstory — before the premise is introduced and the actual story begins. Because anything that happens prior to the start of the narrative is exposition and because exposition is by definition not dramatic, this material is ALWAYS deathly dull. Needless to say, you’re not going to get a very good rating from a script reader if you start off boring them to death. Including a few pages of backstory in a script is always necessary, but exposition should always be kept to an absolute minimum – include only that information that is absolutely necessary for the audience to comprehend the story and not one bit more. Don’t keep us waiting and get your story started as soon as possible. That is, after all, what we came for.

Keep the page count low: If a reader opens your script and sees that it is over 120 pages, you already have a black mark against you. As I have said many times before, no spec should ever run more than 120 pages (and ideally really shouldn’t run more than 110) because it is almost always an indicator that the script is either unfocused and/or overwritten. As I have also said any times before — I have never read a spec that ran longer than 110 pages that could stand to have at least five or ten pages chopped out of it. Never.

Spelling does count: A few spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors in a script aren’t going to hurt you, but if your script is riddled with them, they will turn the reader off because it is a sign of carelessness that will almost certainly carry over into other, more important aspects of the script. Besides, how can you claim to be a professional writer and not do a thorough job of proofreading and correcting your work before you submit it? It’s a really key part of the job.

Do your homework: When writing a screenplay, it is perfectly acceptable to take dramatic license – to bend reality a bit to create a better story. But it is still important to get the basic facts of a situation, a location, or a time period correct so that your story will feel plausible to the audience. For example, if you set a scene on the Washington Mall and show your characters running in and out of stores and rising up and down the elevators and escalators between levels (an actual example from a real spec), then the audience is going to know something is off. And your gritty set-in-the-70s crime thriller is not going to ring true if your lead detective is always pulling out his cell phone (another actual example from a real spec).

Keep your openings simple: The first act of your script is vitally important – in it you must establish the world of the piece (its primary location and time period), introduce us to the protagonist (and sometimes to the antagonist), present an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, and twist the plot in a way that introduces the story’s premise and gives the protagonist a goal to pursue through the rest of the piece. This is a lot to accomplish and it all needs to be crystal clear to the audience if the balance of the script is going to be successful. Unfortunately, many new writers compose impossibly complicated and confusing beginnings for their stories: first acts that introduce so many additional elements – so many additional locations, time periods, characters, incidents, and plot threads — that it becomes impossible to sort it all out and get a clear fix on what’s going on. My advice is to keep things simple – devote your first act solely to introducing the elements listed above. If you want to add more elements to the piece, wait until Act II to do so – that way the additions will actually be complications and not just clutter.

Deliver What You Promise: If your script is a comedy, then make sure it contains lots of laughs – not mild titters or ironic smirks, but big, gut-busting guffaws. If your script is a tragedy, then include scenes designed to reduce the audience to tears. If it’s a horror piece, then make sure it is really, really scary (and not just gory and gross). If it’s a thriller, make sure there are sequences that motivate your readers (and eventually your viewers) to grip their seats with suspense and excitement. Too many specs fail at being truly entertaining – at deliver the type of enjoyment that their genre and subject matter promise.

Fill Your Script with Feeling: When I decide to recommend a script, the biggest deciding factor is whether or not the script makes me feel something – when I finish the script am I happy? Am I sad? Are my views on an issue challenged? Are my thoughts provoked? Am I moved in some profound and unexpected way? Most spec scripts are based on interesting ideas and many of them are competently executed, but only a rare few are truly moving and those are the ones that are going to make it to the finish line. So, when creating a script, don’t choose a subject solely because you think it will sell. Instead, choose a topic you really care about. And then write about it with passion and energy and enthusiasm and joy. That is the way you will create a script that will grab people’s attention and motivate them to want to make it into a movie.

THE END

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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6 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: Lessons Learned from Reading Too Many Spec Scripts

  1. donag

    Read this article with great interest. Thanks, Ray, it’s great. One question about page count never asked: Is a script that comes in with less than 110 pages acceptable? Specifically, will a reader out of convention reject a script because it is too short? Why? Because, except for the bottom line basics of time, place, characters, mood and theme, I leave it to the production team, director and actors to flesh out the specifics.

  2. Ray Morton

    @queenbprods: These are not rules — they are simply suggestions, possibly guidelines. Following them to a T does not guarantee anything — if the script isn’t good — if the story isn’t compelling — if the characters aren’t interesting and the dialogue is terrible — then nothing else will matter. And yes, these guidelines don’t always apply to those in the business or to films that have been made. But none of that matters if you are a spec writer trying to break in. A spec by an outside writer is a very different thing than a script written on assignment by an established professional. So don’t worry about what you’ve seen done elsewhere by pros. I read a lot of work by new writers trying to get in and the advice I am giving you is targeted specifically at those folks. But in the end, you just have to tell a good story. and there are no rules for that.

    @Bonzohead: it matters. Believe me. Because if a story is 5 or 10 pages too long, trust me, it won’t be compelling.

  3. queenbprods

    I get what you’re saying about all this and I’m sure you’ve seen some very bad scripts. My problem with all these “rules” toted by many many script advisors-don’t seem to apply in the actual business. You could follow every one of the suggestions to a T and still get passed and passed on. I just saw a film made recently with an ensemble of some of my favorite action stars-co written by the star-and it was 3/4 exposition. They verbally explained EVERYTHING! It was so boring-but got made. Seems the show don’t tell rule doesn’t apply to established people. Also, MOST big movies out now clearly don’t have a solid script or one that even makes sense–and they make millions. Whether or not one is a fan of his work, even Tarantino was rejected by countless readers at studios before getting in. Even winning/losing screenplay comps doesn’t seem to matter one way or the other (ex: if you win you still may go no where; if you lose you still might have a great script.). I’ve even heard a counter argument to “write what moves you”, which is “just because it’s important to you, doesn’t mean it is to anyone else”. It is so confusing and frustrating for writers that, other than the basic, obvious structural rules, one can’t legitimately say there are any set ways for anyone. After many years of doing this, I’m just spent and downright flabbergasted, trying to figure it all out:(

  4. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for a very informative, excellent article Ray. One of my favorite opening scenes is in Raider of the Lost Ark, because it’s full of great action and fun and really shows Indie’s life and personality. 🙂

  5. Bonzohead

    There are really lots of ‘smell’ references? Wow.

    Enjoyed the piece except for the old page count canard.
    Just because a script can be cut doesn’t always mean it should be. (In Casablanca, we don’t really need the ‘such watch’scene with the refugees but its warm and funny and memorable.)
    If the story and characters are compelling, who cares if it’s five or ten pages past the arbitrary 115 or so? You might say the Producer does. But the longer script doesn’t necessarily mean it will be more expensive to make or run longer than a shorter script. Depends what’s happening on those pages.

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