Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit and will be distributed on Streaming and DVD in Summer 2017. Rebecca is also a busy script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo and at #ScriptTip!
In addition to being a writer and filmmaker, I also work as a script reader for screenplay contests and production companies. If you’re not familiar with what script readers (also called story analysts) do, we read through the thousands of script submissions that are sent in, and narrow them down so that the best material gets advanced to either contest judges or executives. We do this by writing coverage on each script and providing a recommendation, or in the case of many screenwriting contests, writing coverage and rating each script with a numerical score. The scripts that earn above a certain threshold of points get advanced to the next stage of competition.
As a reader, I tend to notice the same issues crop up in each batch of scripts I read. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sending out a #ScriptTip every week on Twitter to help writers better prepare their scripts before submitting them. Since we’re smack in the middle of contest and fellowship season, I thought I’d take this opportunity to expand on each #ScriptTip, so your contest and fellowship submissions have the best chance to shine!
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#ScriptTip #1: The only thing you can control 100% is presentation. Proofread your scripts b4 submitting!
This sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many scripts are submitted with an abundance of spelling and grammatical errors. I’m not talking about a typo or two, but rather glaring errors on every single page. If a writer submits a 110-page screenplay that has just one typo per page, that’s 110 typos. Every typo takes the reader out of the read for a moment, so if a script has 110 typos, then the reader is taken out of the read 110 times! Not such a great experience.
Also, most contests have a judging category for presentation or spelling/grammar. A low score in this category can keep your script from having the total points it needs to advance to the next stage. Would you really want to have the screenplay you slaved over for months or years held back simply because it wasn’t proofread?
Hiring a consultancy or proofreading service is always a good idea, but if budget is a concern, at the very least, have a trusted friend, colleague, or family member look your script over for you before you submit it around town. Remember, you can’t control if a reader likes your plot, structure, story, or characters, but you can 100% control your presentation.
#ScriptTip #2: In rewrites, try to say the same things in fewer words to save space & decrease page count.
Another common issue I see when reading is wordiness in the narration. Sometimes I come across a script that has page after page of paragraph-form narration, so that the material reads more like a novel or book report than it does a screenplay or teleplay.
It’s helpful to remember that scripts (whether for a film, TV show, stageplay, or web series) are blueprints for production. Just as an architect would create a blueprint before building a home, so does a screenwriter create a blueprint before making a film. And basic blueprints are a bit on the sparse side, yes? They contain the important information that’s needed for the framework of the structure, and the viewer gets a solid idea of what the finished project could look like, filling in some details with his or her imagination.
This means that it isn’t necessary to provide pages and pages of detail on what the characters are wearing and every move they’re making. It’s not so much fun to read, and not so much fun to write, either.
Here are a couple of examples of common issues I see and ways to fix them:
EXT. BUSY STREET – DAY
Cops mill outside a crime scene on a busy street in the middle of the day.
It’s not necessary to repeat what’s already in the scene heading in the narration. We already know that the scene takes place on a busy street, and that it’s daytime. Use the precious space you have in your script to let the reader know what action is happening rather than repeating the scene heading. Just “Cops mill outside a crime scene” gives us the information we need.
EXT. UPSCALE RESTAURANT – NIGHT
Jane is waiting nervously at a table for her blind date to arrive. She is wearing a red cocktail dress, black high heels, and is carrying a Prada handbag. Her hair is curled and she is wearing sparkly earrings and a diamond necklace. Finally, her date arrives. He is ANDREW. He is wearing a Dodgers baseball cap, jeans, and a wrinkled blue hoodie, with red Sketchers. Jane looks him up and down and is disappointed.
I see this all the time: detailed descriptions of characters’ clothing choices for every scene. Since a script is a blueprint for production, ultimately, people such as the costume designer, director, and producers will be making decisions about what the actors wear, not the writer. So unless there’s a specific costume in a scene or a reason to point out what a character is wearing, it’s best to leave it out and instead get at the heart of what’s going on as far as action.
In our hypothetical scene here, the point of it is that Jane is all dolled up, and her date, Andrew, has shown up looking like he just rolled out of bed. So instead of going into great detail about every item of clothing they’re wearing, help the reader quickly get the gist of what’s going on.
INT. UPSCALE RESTAURANT – NIGHT
Jane, dressed to the nines, waits at the table for her blind date to arrive. She’s nervously fidgeting with her napkin when she looks up and sees ANDREW, who’s dressed like he’s going to a Dodgers game. She looks him up and down, disappointed.
Now we’ve said the same thing in three lines that we previously said in five lines, with more detail about what Jane is physically doing rather than what she’s wearing. Do this enough and you’ll cut unnecessary pages out of your script with ease and also considerably improve the flow.
I also removed instances of “she is” and replaced them with “she’s” so that the narration reads more easily. Don’t be afraid of contractions! It’s okay to use them, and it helps make a script more concise. Some writers inadvertently add a formal tone to their work by writing out phrases like “it is”, “that is”, and “here are” instead of using contractions.
#ScriptTip #3: Create bios with characters’ wants, needs, fears, & flaws b4 writing to reduce character issues later!
When you’re receiving feedback on your script, it’s always disheartening to hear that readers couldn’t connect to your characters. Perhaps the characters weren’t relatable, or weren’t “likable.” Or perhaps they came off as passive and boring and not active in the plot. Whatever the issues, it’s tough to address major characterization problems after a script has already been written.
You can help prevent major characterization issues early in the process by writing out bios for each character. Get to know your characters and their personalities, goals, and motivations before you even begin outlining your script. Once you’ve figured out your characters’ goals and what obstacles they face, it becomes a lot easier to figure out your plot. And then your characters are actively participating in the plot rather than the plot happening “to them.” Don’t feel like you have to spend days figuring out every single detail about each character before you begin writing, because your character will likely grow and evolve as you write. (And it’s not necessarily important what his favorite color is, or what her favorite song is.)
Start with each character’s want (external goals – like job, relationship, money), need (internal goals – what he or she truly needs – like love, respect, understanding), fears, and flaws, and that will help you go a long way toward building three-dimensional, active characters.
If you have time to sneak in a rewrite or polish before your next script submission, look through and see if you’ve incorporated each #ScriptTip listed above. Ask yourself: have I thoroughly proofread this script for spelling, grammar, and syntax? Is my narration as tight as it can be, while still being descriptive? Are my characters three-dimensional, with relatable wants, needs, fears, and flaws?
Wishing you the best of luck with contest and fellowship season!