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
As the name of this column states, I am a professional script reader. The explanation of that job is pretty self explanatory – a professional script reader reads and evaluates screenplays for producers, studios, development executives, and screenwriting competitions (all of which I do). And, as the author’s blurb at the end of the column indicated, I am also a professional script consultant. So what does that mean?
There is a lot of confusion out there as to what exactly it is script consultants do. That confusion is understandable because script consulting is pretty much a self-defined occupation — there are no degrees in script consulting, no professional licensing procedure, and no formal accreditation process. Essentially a script consultant helps screenwriters with their work – beyond that the job is pretty much whatever the individual practitioner says it is. For that reason I can’t provide you with an accurate overview of the entire profession – I can only tell you how I approach the job.
If you hire me to consult on your project, here’s what I will do for you:
- Give your script a thorough read by a knowledgeable and experienced eye. I know a lot about screenwriting – I’ve studied it on both a graduate and undergraduate level; I’ve read just about every book on article on screenwriting ever written; I’ve interviewed (both for professional assignments and for my own edification) successful screenwriters about their best methods and practices. I also have a great deal of professional experience (something some script consultants are justly criticized for not having): I’m a working writer – I’ve authored or co-authored a number of produced and commissioned but still-in-the-works scripts including originals and rewrites. I’ve been a story consultant on several television series – a job in which I read and evaluated scripts by other writers, offered suggestions for rewrites, and often did the rewriting myself. I’ve been an industry reader for years, I’ve worked as a dramaturge for established screenwriters, and I’ve written books on screenwriting and television writing. In short I’m familiar with the craft, the process, and the business of screenwriting and I will bring all of that knowledge and experience to bear when I read your work. I will read your script very carefully and with laser-sharp focus, but I will read it only once – if something is unclear or confusing I will not go back and reread pages. I do this not because I am lazy, but because there is no producer or development person on Earth who will go back and re-read something if something isn’t clear – they don’t have the time and so will simply toss your script aside and move on to the next one. Therefore, your script has to deliver on the first read. If it doesn’t, I’m going to let you know that so you can improve it in the rewrite.
- Write an intelligent and thoughtful analysis of your screenplay. As I hope I made clear above, I know how to read a script and I know how to tell if it is working or not. So after I read your screenplay I will sit down and pen an in-depth critique of your piece identifying its strong points and its not-so-strong points in five main areas: premise, story, characters, dialogue, and the writing (both creative and technical) itself. Some analysts stop there, but I will always endeavor to explain in great detail why I think something is working or not working. My explanations are all based on the core principles of dramatic and cinematic writing, the parameters of your script’s particular genre, accepted industry practices, and current marketplace trends. My goal is for you to have as complete and thorough understanding of your screenplay’s assets and deficits as possible so that you can preserve the best elements and craft effective solutions for the problems when you rewrite. When writing my critique, I will never be mean, but I will always be honest – I will certainly tell you if I think something in your script is terrific, but I will also tell you very directly if I think something in your script isn’t good. I will do you no favors if I soften my critique because you only get one chance to submit your work – once a company passes on a script it will never consider it again. Therefore the script has to be as good as possible the first time out and it is my job to help you make it so.
- If requested, provide you with notes and suggestions for improving your work and making it the best it can be. If I think something in your script isn’t working, I’ll give you some ideas for how to fix it. These will not be random, off-the-top-of-my-head notions, but rather thoughtful suggestions based very specifically on your script’s premise, the presented narrative material, and my best understanding of your intentions and goals for your piece. Of course, you don’t have to use these ideas if you don’t like them, but even if you don’t hopefully they will provide you with a jumping-off point to craft workable solutions of your own. Of course, if I think something in your script is working, I’ll tell you not to touch it, which may be the best advice I can ever give you.
- Be there for you. Writing is always hard, but it is especially hard when you are first starting out – there’s so much to learn and so much that is confusing. Therefore I always make myself available to my clients after I send them my written report. I always offer to do a 30-minute follow-up phone consult (free of charge) to clarify or elaborate or to discuss items in greater depth. I’m also always available for additional brief phone chats or email exchanges if the situation warrants so my clients always know they have someone to help them as they make their way through the writing and rewriting process.
So that’s what I will do for you if you hire me. Now here’s what I will not do for you:
- Guarantee anything. Some script consultants out there promote their services by implicitly promising that if you follow their advice you are guaranteed to write a script that will both be great and that will sell for lots and lots of money. In my opinion, any consultant that makes this promise is either delusional or dishonest. I can’t guarantee that if you take my suggestions your script will be great. There two main reasons for this. The first is that your core concept or material may not be great to begin with and if that’s the case, while I certainly can help you make it better, nothing I can suggest will transform something that is inherently not good into something that is (I will certainly do all I can to help make your “Paul Bart: Mall Cop Meets Schindler’s List” spec the best “Paul Bart: Mall Cop Meets Schindler’s List” spec it can possibly be, but no matter how many improvements we make it’s still going to be “Paul Bart: Mall Cop Meets Schindler’s List”). The second is that while I am confident that the suggestions I give you will improve your piece (I wouldn’t give them to you if I didn’t), you may not take those suggestions or you may not interpret them in the same way I do or you may implement them differently than I intended them to be implemented. There are just too many variables in the creative process for me to promise you that if you do “A” you will definitely achieve “B.” And I certainly can’t guarantee you that if you take my suggestions your script will sell for the simple reason that no one can ever guarantee that anything will sell – there are broad trends of course, and I stay on top of them, but the marketplace and the tastes and needs of producers and studios are changing constantly – what’s hot and sellable on Tuesday may be cold and unsellable on Thursday. That’s just the way it is. The only thing I can guarantee you is that I will give you my best efforts, which I will certainly do.
- Sell your script. I get approached by a lot of folks who want me to submit their scripts to studios and producers and/or broker a deal for them. There are some who insist that I must promise to do these things for them before they will hire me – they want to make it a condition of the consulting deal. And I tell them what I will say here – I am not an agent or a manager. I cannot submit or sell your script for you and I have no interest in submitting or selling your script for you. My job is to help you make your work better and I will work diligently to do so. But that’s as far as it goes.
- Write your script for you. I can not tell you how many people get in touch wanting me to help them write their screenplays or, better yet, write their screenplays for them. I try to explain to these folks that consulting means consulting, it does not mean writing — writing means writing. My job is to help them make their work better, not to do their work. I try to explain to these folks that my modest consulting fee is not sufficient compensation for the months and even years of work needed to transform an idea or some notes into a viable screenplay. To those who do understand this, I try to explain that their offer to split a percentage of the proceeds from a potential future sale of the script is not an enticing proposition because the odds that sale will never happen. And to those who try to further entice me by offering to share their authorial credit with me, I explain that offering to give me second position (which they think is fair because they already did the hard part of coming up with the idea and scribbling down some notes. All I would be doing is the actual writing) is not a generous perk for which I will be both eager and grateful, but actually a major insult to a working professional. I try to explain these tings, but I never seem to get through.
- Work for free. If you hire me to consult on your screenplay, I promise that I will work hard, bring all of my skill and experience to the table to give you the best analysis and advice I possibly can, and I will do so with energy and enthusiasm – I enjoy reading and analyzing scripts and I enjoy helping up-and-coming screenwriters. But I also have to eat. And as much as I enjoy the work, it is work. Hard work. And you have to pay me to do it. I know money is tight everywhere these days, but my rates are reasonable (very reasonable, actually, considering going market rates and the quality of my assessments). It is not fair for you to value my input enough to ask for it but not enough to refuse to compensate me for it. And it is especially not fair – if you ask me to read and assess your script for free and I say no – to accuse me of being greedy and mean and of conspiring to keep young writers down and all the other nasty stuff naïve and inexperienced people tend to say when they are disappointed. You are asking me to help you because you think you will benefit from my input. I agree with you – you will benefit. And that’s something you should be gladly willing to pay for.
Do I think you must hire me or any other script consultant? Some suggest you do – they hold themselves out as enchanted gurus who know it all or possess tricks or techniques for creative or commercial triumph that no one else has or who know the secret information that “they” don’t want you to know. These folks want you to believe that if you don’t employ their services that you will never succeed as a screenwriter. That’s nonsense – there are plenty of screenwriters out there who have written wonderful scripts and who have done very well without working with a script consultant. I don’t hold myself out as any sort of guru. I’m just a very experienced guy who knows a lot about screenwriting. I’m a resource that you are free to use or not use as you see fit. But if you are looking for someone to help you improve your work, then I am a very good guy to ask.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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