Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do

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 am frequently asked how I go about the task of assessing and analyzing a screenplay, so I thought it might be interesting and (hopefully) informative to do a column explaining my process.

Obviously, the first thing I do is read the script. I always do this in one sitting so I can experience the story from beginning to end in a single go, the same way the audience would experience it if the script was made into a movie. This helps me get a sense of how the script will play as a film.

I keep a yellow pad with me as I read so I can jot down things that jump out at me as I go: a great concept, scene, joke, twist, line, or bit of action; an obvious mistake or problem; something that’s not clear or I don’t understand; a technical or formatting issue. I don’t spend a lot of time on these jottings; they’re just notes I use for future reference when I craft my analysis.

I only read the script once. If I am analyzing a piece for a producer or a production company or a screenwriting contest, I only look at a piece one time because that’s all I have time for (and, frankly, all that I am paid to do). If I am consulting with a private client, I only go over a screenplay once because that’s all any production company reader, producer, development person, or creative exec is going to do, and I need to experience the piece the way they will if I am going to be able to give my client good and helpful advice. If something isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense on the initial read, then I have to let my client know that so she/he can fix the problem so the entire piece will land the first time around, since that’s the only chance they are going to get to make an impression with their script.

I know some writers don’t like this — I once had a client become furious with me because he felt I missed what he considered to be the main point of his screenplay. I had to go back and reread one particular section four times before I finally found the one line he felt crystallized his work (it didn’t). He did not buy my argument that his script needed to work without readers having to flip back and forth numerous times because no industry professional was ever going to do this. He also didn’t buy my argument that a script had to work all the way through the first time because viewers of any movie made from it would not be able to rewind the piece (at least not in the theater) several times to figure out something if it was confusing or unclear. He just thought I was a lazy dumbass.

Once I finish the script, I put it down and walk away for a while. I go off and do something physical or relatively mindless, such as go for a walk or run errands or clean the bathroom, and I use that time to clarify my overall impressions of the script. Did I like it or didn’t I? Was the story interesting? Was it funny or scary or romantic or exciting or whatever else it was supposed to be? Did it keep my attention all the way through or was I bored? Did I care about the characters? Most of all — was I moved? The last is the single most important factor in my analysis of a screenplay. I read a ton of scripts and most of them do absolutely nothing for me, so if one provokes a strong emotional reaction – if it makes me happy or if it makes me cry or if it makes me angry or if it scares me to death – then I know there’s something special going on and am apt to give it a “Consider” and possibly even a “Recommend” even if the piece has problems because, for me, movies are ultimately about emotion and any script that can inspire one is going to be worth any of the work required to get it into shape. Conversely, a script can be perfectly conceived and executed, with no problems or rough edges of any sort, but if it doesn’t move me in some significant way, then I am probably going to pass.

Once I’ve mulled things over for a bit, it’s time to get to work. If the assignment requires a synopsis (the coverage that I do for producers and production companies usually does. Private coverage usually doesn’t), then I do that first. Writing synopses is by far my least favorite part of the assessment process. Why? Because to be useful, a synopsis has to be clear and simple and it needs to make sense. This is easy enough to accomplish when the script itself is clear and simple and makes sense. However, a large majority of the specs I read do not make sense – they are confused and convoluted and unfocused; they lack clear premises, logical cause-and-effect, and an identifiable structure. Trying to wrestle an effective one or two-page summation out of these nightmares is a real bear – it can often take hours to make something understandable out of something that inherently isn’t and before long I find myself resenting the writer because I am putting more time and effort into shaping a coherent narrative for his/her work than he/she ever did.

Once the synopsis is out of the way, then I begin the analysis proper. I break my assessment down into six different categories:

  • Premise: Does the script have one? (You’d be surprised by how many don’t). Does it have more than one? (This is a common problem in many specs I read – way too many ideas thrown into the mix, which leads to a lack of conceptual focus and cohesion.) Is the premise interesting? Is it believable?
  • Story: Is there one? (Note to writers: a bunch of scenes stuck together in the same set of pages is not the same thing as a story.) Is it based on the premise? (A lot of specs spend a lot of time setting up a specific concept and then go off and tell a completely unrelated tale.) Is it interesting? Interesting enough to hold my attention for 90 – 120 pages? Is it properly dramatized? (Is the story told through dramatic incident and action rather than just through dialogue?) Is it cinematic? (Is it told through images, action, and dialogue and not just dialogue alone?) Is it well constructed? (Are there three acts? An impressive inciting incident? Rising action that leads to an inevitable climax and resolution? All that good stuff?) Is it well paced? Are the plot twists both surprising and logical? Are the plot twists surprising or just confusing? Are the storytelling devices (flashbacks, narration, non-linear storytelling, etc.) thematically and narratively relevant, or are they just gimmicks? Does the ending properly resolve the script’s central problem and its conflicts? Is the ending satisfying?
  • Characters: Do I like them (or at the very least sympathize with them)? Enough to want to spend two hours with them? Do they serve strong, clear roles in the plot or are they superfluous to the narrative? Do they seem like real people or are they just stock clichés? Are they well developed or one note? Are the characters consistent throughout the piece or do they change constantly to fit the needs of the plot? Are their arcs interesting, appropriate for the story, properly developed, and satisfyingly resolved? Are the relationships between the characters interesting and believable.
  • Dialogue: Do the characters talk the way people actually talk? If the speeches are stylized, is the stylization effective or just pretentious? Do the lines express character, wit, poetry, humor, insight, or philosophy or are they just vehicles for clumsy exposition? Are they crisp and sharp, or do they go for pages and pages and pages?
  • Writing:  Are the descriptions clear, evocative, and effective, or are they opaque, flowery, and clumsy? Is the writer working doing all he/she can do to relate the story to the reader as efficiently and enthusiastically as possible or does he/she put all his/her effort into a smart-alecky writing style that is momentarily amusing but adds nothing to the actual story being told. Are the stage directions crisp or overly wordy? Are there big, giant blocks of text? (Warning: if there are – especially on page 1 – then I’m already looking for a reason to stop reading). Is the screenplay formatting and terminology correct? Are the technical aspects of the writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) solid?

I then do an overall evaluation of the entire piece, summarizing its strong and weak points and offering an assessment of the script’s potential commercial appeal based on current market conditions and trends. To complete the coverage, I fill out the cover sheet, which includes a checklist in which I rate the various aspects of the script on a scale from Poor to Excellent.

The last box I check is the one that indicates my opinion as to what should be done with the script. There are three possible options:

  • PASS: this means that I don’t think the producer/production company I am reading for should proceed with the script – that the subject matter is not suitable for the producer/prodco’s needs and/or that the execution of the script is flawed enough that it wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and money it would take to get the piece in shape. I check this box for approximately 95% of the scripts I evaluate.
  • CONSIDER: this means that the script is promising enough – either in concept, execution, or both – that it is worth giving some thought to proceed with– but problematic enough that it’s going to take time, effort, and money to get it to work. I’d say I’ve checked this box for approximately 4% of the scripts I have read in the fifteen-plus years I have been doing this, although I’ve checked it less in recent years because most of my clients (and the industry as a whole) are less willing to put the time and effort and (especially) money into honing promising-but-flawed material these days. With development budgets being cut drastically all over town, they’re looking for projects that are as camera ready as possible.
  • RECOMMEND: this means that I think both the subject matter and the execution of the script are slam dunks and that the producer/prodco should go forward with the piece immediately and without reservation. Since checking this box means that I feel that the producer/company should commit a significant amount of its resources to this particular script, this is a suggestion I make only sparingly — I have probably wholeheartedly recommended only five or six screenplays in the past decade and a half (the good news is, the majority of those eventually got made, which means my track record is pretty good).

It’s a subjective process, to be sure, but hopefully one supported by education (both academic and real world), experience, some smarts and some heart, and a sincere desire to do good work that will be useful for writers, producers, and the screenplays themselves.

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21 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do

  1. Hisani P. DuBose

    I love this article. The best parts are your emphasis on having a strong story and getting the reader emotionally involved. I am a screenwriter who works constantly to hone her craft. I’ve won a few contests and even teach screenwriting at a college. A few years ago I sent a script to a cable network and the reader took the time to call me and explain he loved the script but their budget was exhausted and they could only accept scripts from the parent company but he called to tell me to keep writing. This was wonderful and greatly appreciated but my question is, how can I get a script read these days?!! Thank you for a informative and truthful article.

  2. Ray Morton

    @ Erik — that sounds like a frustrating experience. Two thoughts: when comparing coverage, look for consistency. If two or more people have a problem with the same issue, then it’s probably something you need to take a look at. And, in the end, you have to regard a consultant’s report as a tool, not as gospel. If you find a consultant’s comment or advice useful, then use it. If not, then disregard it — ultimately, your work is yours and you have to have the final say. Just remember that a professional industry reader’s opinion is probably a good indication of how your work will received by the industry at large. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything they say — just remember that if your script goes too far in the opposite direction, that means it will probably be harder to get a positive response or that you will have to work harder to find someone who responds to your vision. But if that’s what’s best for your script, then you have to do what you have to do.

  3. Ray Morton

    @ Erin — the ratio is pretty much the same for company work and private coverage because the consideration criteria for both is pretty much the same: a good story well told with competent and professional writing. The needs of the company matter, of course, but that’s more of a sorting thing than an evaluation of the work itself. And yes, I think this ratio probably holds true across the industry. Most scripts are not up to snuff — many are just plain bad, but the majority have promise but are not quite there in terms of execution. This leads back to the primary rule for all writers — okay is not good enough. Your script has to be great and you have to work as hard as you can to make it that way.

    1. Nina

      Hi Ray, I am now hooked by your articles. I look forward to reading new ones. On a related note: I am curious if you could give some examples of drama scrips that you RECOMMENDED. I would love to read one and see myself why you did not pass on it. Thank you. Nina

  4. John Connell

    Thanks, Ray, for an article that so very succinctly outlines the elements that comprise a good script. I only hope some of mine will at least fulfill if not surpass the criteria.

  5. Joe DiPasquale

    Excellent insight. Comes down to the basics as usual–good story,structure and characters.Lack one of them and you’ve got a 100 pages of extra paper for the bathroom. I myself,will never have to purchase Northern or Charmin till the next century.On a lighter note–wonder how many readers prefer laughing their asses off at a great comedy or reading heart wrenching but great scripts? Just curious.

  6. Mark Ridley

    This was a joy to read. It was a step by step guide and helped me as a new screen writer.I will reread and apply it, as I write my 3rd film now.
    thank you.

  7. Carlos

    Outstanding article! I must attach this article on my wall. It’s so clear, precise, well-structured, informative, revealing, detailed, honest, and inspiring. I look forward to read more articles so solid like this one.

  8. Ted Cabarga

    Ray, I copied this article to keep permanently. I’ve read all kinds of stuff about how to write a screenplay, and your article is so complete, comprehensive and concise I don’t think I ever have to read anything else on the subject.

    And… Damn, Scott Wallace. You beat me to it. I was going to say to Wesley, “Isn’t “WTF” a strong enough reaction to something without having to embellish it with a sprig of parsley?” But yours is funnier.

  9. Scott Wallace

    A. G. Wesley, your comments are excellent. But if you ever garner an invitation to dinner with James Garner and it includes parsley, you’re going to have to learn the difference between garnish and garner.

  10. A.G. Wesley

    Ray – a very good article. As a reader for a major agency myself, I do many of the similar things. I only hope that the writers would read this to know not only what a reader looks for, but what makes a good script. When people ask me what I look for to recommend something, my most common response is “a well told story.” Something that has clear objectives for the characters, a solid cause-and-effect story (things that come out of nowhere that are meant to be “a twist” usually garnish the reaction of “WTF??”), and an appropriate (even if not always fully satisfying for the characters) ending. Originality in the writing and storytelling is always a plus as well, but I mainly just look for something that’s not a blatant rip-off of the film du jour. I’ve read a bunch of of Sex in the City knock-offs and (still!) Pulp Fiction wannabes, and most of them are awful.

    I can answer Erin K.’s question as well. Of course, you should look at both of the readers’ comments with an unbiased eye as much as possible, but see which ones you think if corrected could make your screenplay better. If you are true to yourself, you should know your script has weak spots – most of them do, even the ones that get produced. Which notes/suggestions help those weak sports and make the most sense in the story you are trying to tell?

    It’s not uncommon for two readers to have completely different opinions on a script, as it’s not uncommon for two people to have completely different opinions on a movie, like you see most recently with something like Prometheus.

  11. Erik K

    Very good piece, but I have a question for clarity. I’ve sent out the same script to 2 different readers with only minor changes between the two drafts, however, I received 2 completely different coverages. One stated most of it was good with an excellent premise and needed some tweaking to the other not even liking the premise and it going downhill from there.

    My question is, how much should a writer take as face value from the reader with the obvious subjectiveness involved? What individual items or statements within the coverage should be taken more to heart to try and remove some of the subjectiveness of the overall idea/writing of the script?

  12. Christine

    Wonderful article – concise but with good details. All aspiring screenwriters should read this – even those who have been at it a while, it’s a great reminder! Thanks, Ray.

  13. Erin

    Great article. I have two questions on pass/consider/recommend.

    1. The ratio you have rated in the past (94%/4%/1%) – is this combining both your work reading for companies AND consultant coverage? Do you treat consultant coverage differently at that final evaluation since you don’t have a specific company in mind? Or is it the same, based on your knowledge of the marketplace and years of experience?
    2. Would you say this ratio is average at most production companies?