MEET THE READER: What I Look For

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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When assessing a screenplay for a producer or a private client, there are a number of specific elements that I look for. If I find them and they have been executed well, then the chances that I will give the script a CONSIDER or a RECOMMEND. If they are missing or poorly executed, then that increases the script’s chances of receiving a PASS.

With that in mind, here are the things I look for:

1. A reasonable page count.

As soon as I open a script, I immediately check to see how long it is. If it’s over 120 pages, then the script already has a black mark against it. Why? Because, while modern movies tend to run a bit long, the industry-preferred length for feature films is still between ninety minutes and two hours. Given that one page of screenplay takes approximately a minute to unfold on screen (heavy action usually takes a bit more time to play out; dialogue a bit less), this means that a spec script should run somewhere between 90 and 120 pages, with the industry’s current preferred length being one hundred-ten. When screenplays run longer than 120 pages, it is usually because they are overwritten (filled with flowery or excessive prose; too much irrelevant detail about sets and costumes and character appearance; too much dialogue that runs on too long); because they are unfocused (with too many characters, plots, or subplots); because they are poorly structured; because there’s too much directing on paper (endless detailed descriptions of specific shots, camera moves, edits, and so on); or because they are poorly edited (usually because the writer has fallen in love with his/her material and can’t bear to cut a line). In other words, long scripts are usually bad news.

2. Something interesting in the first few pages.

A good script begins with a scene or an event or an incident that is exciting or funny or intriguing or scary or spectacular – something that will immediately grab my attention, pull me into the story, and make me want to keep reading. Things that will not grab my attention include:

  • A lot of expository text (cards or crawls) or voice-over.
  • Endless establishing shots of scenery or environment.
  • Endless establishing shots of scenery or environment accompanied by a voice-over in which the protagonist prattles on philosophically or nostalgically or ironically.
  • Opening scenes in which the characters aren’t doing anything – in which they are sitting on the couch or sleeping in bed or walking around aimlessly (you’d be amazed by how many specs begin with these).
  • Being introduced to (and being expected to keep track of) a large number of characters in the first few pages.
  • A Page 1 filled with large blocks of type.
  • A Page 1 filled with large blocks of type containing with hundreds of minute details about the settings or characters.

3. A clear premise.

The premise is the core concept of your story (a shark attacks a New England beach town; a young couple fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic; an orphaned billionaire whose parents were killed by criminals dresses up like a superhero and becomes an avenging vigilante; etc.). Every dramatic narrative has a premise and it needs to be introduced as early in the script as possible (no later than the end of Act I) so that readers and the audience will be able to understand what the story is about. Too many spec writers wait far too long to introduce the premises of their tales, which is a big problem because the narrative can’t get started until the premise is introduced – on more than one occasion, I have read a 110-page script where the premise isn’t introduced until page 100, which means that the narrative itself is only ten pages long and that the hundred pages leading up to it are nothing but dramatically inert backstory.

script readerThe premise must be clear. A good spec script doesn’t make the reader have to guess what the story is about – it tells her/him right up front and then gets on with it. And there should only be one premise per script – worried that they will not be able to generate enough story, many novice screenwriters try to cram more than one core concept into a single script (e.g. a cop becomes a werewolf. And then teams up with a vampire. And then gets a chance to audition for the lead in a big Broadway show). The results are usually confusing at best and ridiculous at worst.

4. An interesting protagonist.

The protagonist is the script’s main character – a character with a strong goal whose actions in pursuit of that goal generates the story’s main events and drives the narrative forward from the beginning to the end. A dramatic story will only work if the audience cares enough about the protagonist to invest in him for the length of the story. There is a lot of talk about how the protagonist needs to be “likeable.” I don’t necessarily need to like a protagonist in order to care about him (although it’s fine if I do), but I do need to find him interesting and I need to have some sympathy for what he/she is trying to accomplish if I am to invest in his quest.

I want to know who the protagonist is as soon as possible (many newbie writers spend way too much time introducing all of their characters – lead and supporting — right at the beginning of the script, giving equal weight and attention to every one and thus making it impossible to tell who the protagonist is until the narrative is well underway). And because the protagonist’s goal is also his motivation, I want to know what his goal is as soon as possible so that I can understand why he is doing what he is doing in the story.

5. A worthy antagonist.

The story’s antagonist is the person, problem, or force that stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist must be formidable enough to provide sufficient opposition to foil the protagonist for the length of the script. If the antagonist is a person, then I want him to be a colorful, interesting character, but not so colorful and interesting that he overshadows the protagonist.

6. A clear conflict between the two.

The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist must be clear and understandable so that I can understand what they are doing to one another and why. The conflict must also escalate continuously, becoming bigger and more intense from the very beginning of the story to its final climax.

7. A story that develops the premise.

A good script is one in which the story springs from the premise and spins that concept out through three acts to a logical and exciting conclusion.  Many new writers – unsure of what they are doing or lacking confidence in their ability to generate sufficient narrative beyond the first act – will often introduce an entirely new premise in Act II (and sometimes yet another one in Act III). Or they will take the story in directions that have nothing to do with the premise. For the reader and the audience this can be very frustrating, because we become invested in a concept that is never paid off. However, nothing is more satisfying than a story based on a great premise that makes the most of it.

8. A story that brings a fresh twist to its genre.

If the script is a genre piece, I want the story to incorporate all of the narrative elements that constitute that genre so that it will be satisfying, but to do so in fresh and interesting ways, so the piece won’t be predictable.

9. A plot I can follow.

We’re in the era of non-linear storytelling – screenwriters today seem determined to avoid presenting a plot in anything resembling a straight line and so go out of their way to tell tales in out-of-order fragments, flashbacks, asides, dream sequences, and fantasies whether the story’s themes and concepts justify the use of such techniques or not. If you want to employ these gimmicks, then fine – just be sure that when you complicate your story, you don’t convolute it to the point where I get lost in your narrative machinations, because if I can’t understand your story, then it’s a good bet I’m not going to recommend it.

10. A plot with momentum.

A successful dramatic narrative is one that builds continuously from the inciting incident to the inevitable climax. Such a plot creates the intensity and momentum that dramatic tales need in order to be successful. That intensity is hard to achieve if you tell your tale out of order, if you keep stopping it for flashbacks, fantasy or dream sequences or asides, or if you allow it to get sidetracked by superfluous subplots.

11. An exciting climax that resolves the story’s central conflict.

A lot of specs contain climaxes that are action-packed, but that don’t resolve the narrative. These endings can be exciting, but they’re not satisfying. They need to be both.

12. An unpredictable ending that is also logical and satisfying.

There is nothing more uninteresting than an ending that I can see coming from a mile away – it is always better if a story ends in a way that is unexpected and surprising. However, when going for an unpredictable finale, writers often come up with denouements that come out of nowhere, that are not a logical outgrowth of the events that lead up to it. Because of this, such endings are often confusing and always unsatisfying. Unpredictable and twist endings only work if they also make sense.

13. Dialogue that is clever, characteristic, and brief.

For me, good dialogue is dialogue that makes its point with wit and charm, that reflects the character of the speaker, and that doesn’t go on and on and on. In a realistic story, the dialogue should sound like the way real people talk. In a non-realistic tale, the dialogue can be stylized as long as it is not self-conscious or arch. One of the purposes of movie dialogue is to deliver exposition, but it should never sound expository. And accented dialogue should never be written phonetically, because it always looks stupid.

14. Tightly-written action.

As anyone who has read more than a few scripts will tell you, action is the hardest stuff to read. This is because it is often written in long descriptive paragraphs that detail every kick, punch, aim, shot, wheel turn, tire squeal, and crash of every action sequence. There is no way one’s mind can’t wander when trying to make their way through one of these glorified shot lists. For this reason, I (and most readers) prefer it when the action is written in brief, easy to digest paragraphs of only one, two, or three sentences and that can communicate the essence of the sequence without describing every thrust and parry, lock and load.

15. A script that can be a movie.

A script that can be a movie is one with a subject that is suitable for cinematic dramatization – that can be told in a vibrant combination of images, action, and dialogue (with an emphasis on the images and the action). In other words, stories that are not overly internal or that can only be told through dialogue. A script that can be a movie must also have a scope and scale that can be produced for a realistic budget. It must also not contain material that is inappropriate for the target audience (in other words, if your script is intended for a wide, mainstream audience, it cannot contain overly graphic sex and violence, something many young screenwriters fond of exploding brains and exposed, engaged body parts often forget).

16. An original voice.

By this I don’t mean snarky or smartass stage directions – those are tiresome. What I mean is a point of view or a sense of humor or a way of looking at characters, scenes, and the world that are fresh, original, and unexpected.

17. A script that does what it is supposed to do.

In other words, if the script is a comedy, then I want it to be really, really funny – a lot of jokes on every page; not just one or two chuckles here and there. If it’s a horror movie, then I want it to scare the beejesus out of me. If it’s a thriller, I want to white knuckle my armrest, if it’s a tragedy I want to be crying at the end, if it’s a sports movie I want to be on my feet cheering, and so on.

18. A feeling.

A script stands its best chance of getting a thumbs-up from me if I experience a strong emotion at the finish – if I’m feeling very happy or intensely sad or amazingly inspired, or incredibly relieved. The best movies provide us with a moving, transformative experience. The best scripts do too.

Check out my new books A Quick Guide to Television Writing and A Quick Guide to Screenwriting. Both are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of writing for the big and small screens.

Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton 
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