MEET THE READER: 11 Reasons Why I Pass on a Screenplay

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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MEET THE READER: 11 Reasons Why I Pass on a Screenplay by Ray Morton | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenplay

My job is to evaluate screenplays – to read them for my employers and to recommend either that they be considered for development or passed on. While it is always my goal to find material I can recommend, the truth is that I pass on 90% of the scripts I read.

It’s not always easy to identify the reasons why I recommend a screenplay – it’s usually some alchemic combination of a good idea, a well-constructed story, interesting characters, and clever dialogue. It is easier to identify the reasons why I do not recommend a script because there are eleven very common problems that derail the majority of specs that come across my desk.

1. The script is terribly written.

If the writing in a screenplay is so bad – if the word choice, sentence construction, and punctuation in the stage directions and dialogue are so poor that I can’t comprehend what points the author is intending to convey (something that happens way more often than you might think) – then I have no choice but to pass.

2. The script has no premise.

A premise is the dramatic seed of the story – the key narrative kernel from which all of the narrative’s main element grow. It is impossible to create a successful dramatic narrative without a solid premise. Despite this essential truth, many spec writers submit scripts that lack this essential bit. These scripts are often well-written, with interesting characters and clever dialogue. But nothing happens in them – nothing of dramatic import, anyway. These scripts tend to present a collection of scenes rather than tell a compelling tale. The results are usually deathly dull if not downright tedious. Many writers try to excuse these scripts by claiming they are “character-driven.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Nor are there “plot-driven” scripts – to be successful, a dramatic narrative must have good characters and a solid plot. These plots can be small – with intimate, personal stakes rather than big, global ones – but they must be present or else the script will be a no-go.

3. The script has too many premises.

Some writers err in the other direction – they come up with lots and lots of story concepts for their characters. Unwilling to cut any of them, they cram them all into the same screenplay. While it’s easy to admire their enthusiasm, the results are inevitably a mess. Dramatic narratives certainly do require a premise, but they require only one premise – a single core concept generating a single protagonist, antagonist, dramatic arc, theme, climax, and resolution. When a script contains more than one premise it will also have more than one protagonist, antagonist, dramatic arc, theme, climax, and resolution. At best, such a concoction will read like a series of short films placed alongside one another in the same set of pages. At worst, it will be a confused, incoherent muddle. And confused, incoherent muddles rarely earn a “CONSIDER” and certainly never earn a “RECOMMEND.”

4. I can predict every beat of the story.

Most films are genre films and genre films come with a number of built in narrative tropes and structures that must be present in order for the movie to be considered part of that genre (for example, a romcom must contain a “cute meet” or it ain’t a romcom). The danger, of course, is that without some very creative thinking, this set of expected elements can too easily become a very predictable formula. A predictable formula is boring and boring scripts don’t get recommended. If I am reading a script and find that I can guess with 90% or more accuracy what’s coming next on each and every page, then I know that the writer hasn’t been able to find a way to bring something creatively fresh, original, and/or new to the party and so I have to pass.

5. I can’t follow the story.

On the other hand, predictability is preferable to incomprehensibility. All successful dramatic narratives have a clear progression: A leads to B; B leads to C; C leads to D; and so on as the story builds in momentum and tension until that progression finally reaches an explosive climax. If that progression isn’t clear – if A leads to B but we don’t understand why or if A leads to C or D leads to 7 – then that build, momentum, and tension will be lost and the climax will never be reached (or if it does it will fizzle rather than pop). Plus, we will all be mightily confused. In many of the problematic specs I read, the connections between the narrative beats is not clear – things happen, but it’s not clear why they happen or how they are connected to the other things that are happening. This does not mean that stories must be told in linear fashion, it just – it just means that great care must be taken to make the connections between narrative elements clear and understandable no matter what order they are being presented it. If I find that I am putting more energy into figuring out what is going on rather than enjoying what is going on, then I’m going to bail.

6. I hate the characters.

There is a never-ending debate in the film world over whether or not protagonists need to be “likeable” for a script or a film to be successful: studios say yes; writers, actors, and directors say not necessarily. As I’ve stated many times, my position is that protagonists do not need to be likeable, but they do need to be sympathetic – we have to care about them in some way (we have to understand their motives, identify with their flaws, or support their goals) if we are going to emotionally invest in them and their stories to the degree necessary for the script and/or film to click. Writers love to create “dark,” complex protagonists in their scripts but often forget to include that sympathetic element. Without this element, we at best don’t care about these characters and at worst (when too many negative or off-putting traits are piled on) we hate them. Neither reaction result in RECOMMENDS. But unlikeable protagonists aren’t the only ones that generate passes: foolish, remote, cold, or simply uninteresting lead characters can also result in negative reader reactions.

7. The script does not deliver what it promises.

Comedies have to be funny. Dramas have to be moving. Romances must be emotional. Horror movies must be scary. Thrillers must be suspenseful. Action movies must be exciting. If scripts in these categories do not meet these expectations, then there is no reason to proceed with them.

8. All of the effort has gone into the text.

Both William Goldman and Shane Black are known for making their scripts extremely entertaining to read – their stage directions and descriptions are casual and witty and filled with clever asides to the reader describing the effect they hope their scenes and action and business will have on screen, often in very humorous ways. Both writers are very good at this sort of thing and have inspired thousands of aspiring screenwriters to attempt to do the same. Unfortunately, most that do fail – many because they are not as funny or clever or witty as Black and Goldman, but most because they (unlike B & G) put all their energy and creativity into the stage directions and asides and none of it into the actual plot, characters, and dialogue. The result is scripts that can be very entertaining to read but still not be very good.

9. The script is not a movie.

Some spec screenplays tell their stories primarily through dialogue spoken by a few characters in one or two sets – in other words, they are plays. Some tell their stories primarily through long descriptive passages written into the text of the stage directions, with very little attention paid to the characters, dialogue, and action – in other words, they are novels. Some consist mostly of characters sitting around discussing ideas and issues in long (long) passages of didactic, expository dialogue – in other words, they are essays. I have nothing against plays, novels, or essay, but they are not movies and so when I receive one of these masquerade jobs, I must pass.

10. It’s unfilmable.

Some writers really let their imaginations go. Most of the time this is a good thing, but some writers let their imaginations go too much and create scripts with dozens of characters set in hundreds of locations and filled from beginning to end with myriad props and effects both practical and visual. These overstuffed epics would cost billions of dollars to produce, which means they will never, ever be made. Other writers go too far in different ways – filling their scripts with extremely explicit sexual material that would make most San Fernando Valley pornographers blush or violence so graphic that it would be out of place in a snuff film. Like the big-budget extravaganzas, these extreme hump and gore fests will never, ever be made and so there is no point in passing them up the development chain.

11. It’s insane.

There is a theory that all creative people are touched with a bit of madness. This is certainly true of spec screenwriters – some of them, anyway. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I receive a script that can only be described as bonkers. Most of these nutty pieces are harmless – several hundred pages (crazy screenwriters never write tight) of random ideas and images (often sci-fi or fantasy tinged – crazy screenwriters love the unreal) that make sense to no one but their author. However, some of these off-the-wall scripts are much more disturbing. Suffice to say that there are a lot of unhinged people out there with some very dark and graphic ideas of the things they would like to do to their fellow man and for whatever reason feel compelled to write screenplays to detail them. None of these loony screeds make me want to recommend them, but a few of them do make me want to take out restraining orders.

How can you keep your script off this list? The usual – tell a good story about a sympathetic character. Tell only one good story about a sympathetic character. Put an original spin on it. Develop it with care. Make sure it’s clear. Make sure it’s cinematic. Make sure it’s practical. Make sure it does what it’s supposed to do. And take your meds.

Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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14 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: 11 Reasons Why I Pass on a Screenplay

  1. someone in michigan

    This is all well and good, but maybe not so helpful for the beginner. I’ve learned from so many writers on the GURU BAFTA site that very often you don’t know what your story is about until AFTER you’ve gone through the first or several first drafts. Only AFTER you’ve done this early work can you worry about the above list. Otherwise you will go crazy. So I write this for the new writers. Don’t concentrate on the do’s and don’ts of this list until you have some clay to shape and form. Creativity is about discovery… You discover the story as you go along, even as you plot and have to go back and change things. Just write every day and don’t worry. : )

  2. MermaidGirl888

    Thank GOD my script does not fall into one of these 11 categories. 🙂

    I worked for a short time as a peer reader for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Project Greenlight and “OMG YES!” you are correct. I cannot believe some of the scripts that are out there… crazy people with super disturbing scripts. I considered calling the police (and in some cases the FBI) after reading a few of them!

    Other scripts were boring, and every writer on Earth is guilty of “on the nose” dialogue at times (especially me, in the beginning!), which can be hard to get through as a reader.

    I now crunch through high quality screenwriting classes like potato chips and thankfully, it shows in my current work.

    Thank you for your brilliant insight and local color (I am from the SF Valley originally… you cracked me up with your article… I was nodding my head saying.. “Yep!” Valley Pornographers… I met one once at a 7-11.. )


  3. NoMinorChords

    You forgot #12 and #13.
    #12 The reader does not have the vision to deal with something that is not like #4 – you can predict every beat of the story. I can’t image – anything by Paolo Sorrentino or Terry Malick – getting past a Hollywood reader were it not for the existing reputations or their writers. Which brings me to
    #13 The reader assumes that because he/she has never heard of the writer, it can’t be any good. I once knew an A & R man for a record company (who serve a similar role to readers in film production) who said, “99% of everything that crosses your desk will never make any money. So if you say no to everything you’ll be 99% right – which is a pretty good batting average.”

    1. Ray Morton

      Paolo Sorrentino and Terence Malick do not write spec scripts that have to go through the development process.

      As for 12 — you obviously have a low opinion of readers, which is too bad and I think off the mark. Most professional industry readers are pretty smart folks — well versed in literature, screenwriting, and film history. They are pretty good at recognizing good material, which doesn’t mean they are always able to pass that material on — it all depends on the type of company you are reading for. A piece of truly original material that breaks all the rules and presents a startling unique vision may not be something commercial enough to justify the investment. That doesn’t mean the reader can’t appreciate such a script’s quality, but there may not be a market for it (and, sorry, but commercial considerations are an important part of assessing spec scripts. Movies — even small ones — cost a lot of money to make and the producers have to have at least a hope of getting their money back before they will be willing to proceed). And, to be honest with you, I have read a lot of unconventional material that just isn’t very good — just because a script is original doesn’t necessarily mean it’s brilliant. Quite the contrary, actually.

      As for 13, well, you’re making an assumption that is, quite simply, wrong. I don’t know a singe reader who assumes a script isn’t good because they have never heard of the writer. We usually assume scripts aren’t good when they are not good. I’ve happily passed on many good scripts by unknown or first time writers and I’m proud to say that quite a few have gone on to have very good careers.

      The A&R man’s quote is more applicable to studio execs than readers, since readers aren’t the ones who pick the movies that get made.

  4. AlCielo

    A quibble about point 6. It is often the case in unproduced (unproduceable) writing that an unlikable / unsympathetic protagonist will turn a reader off from a story. And the exceptions in produced films are rare. Certainly it’s more difficult to create a compelling script with a jerk of a protagonist. But it’s not the likability / sympathetic nature of the protagonist that makes a story enjoyable, as all the bad scripts based on Save the Cat show.

    The ultimate, bare minimum is that the audience has to want to know what will happen to the protagonist by the end of the story (as points 2 and 4 point out).

    Take “The Rover.” The audience doesn’t empathize (at any deep level) with the protagonist until the final scene. But until then, they want to know if Eric will retrieve his car or not, and the writers use a number of strategies to keep the audience caring about what seems to be the protagonist’s goal.

    “Badlands” keeps the audience above the characters at all times, and yet it remains a compelling experience.

    In “Peeping Tom” the audience doesn’t find out what motivates the psychopathic protagonist until fairly late in the story–and though they can finally understand his motivation, they never really empathize or sympathize with his methods.

    These and other exceptions ARE in the minority, but the fact that they succeed shows that the audience doesn’t have to like / empathize with / sympathize with a protagonist for a story to succeed. Likability is a strategy that can help the audience become more involved, but if the premise itself doesn’t involve the audience, then making the protagonist likable or empathetic won’t be sufficient to redeem the story.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

      Ray has been a professional script reader for many years, recommending or passing on scripts for major studios and production companies. A reader does not get a credit on IMDb. For any script to get a green light, it needs to get past the reader first. Ray’s invaluable insights have graced the pages of Script for decades and helped many screenwriters understand how to elevate their writing to increase their chances of getting produced.

    2. AlCielo

      Anyone who watches movies is capable of offering useful insights on what makes a good script. In any artistic field, the most acclaimed artists rarely give much useful information to others on developing their own work (though these famous artists may do a fine job of chronicling their own process), and the people who give the most useful advice are seldom the greatest practitioners. The test is the quality of the advice, and any or all of these 11 points could, I believe help writers improve their work. (I’ve read over 300 scripts–most of the would get a pass from a professional, and deservedly so; I learned as much or more from the bad scripts as from the good ones.)

  5. Leona Heraty

    Hi Ray,

    Thanks so much for another informative, interesting and very helpful article.

    While reading your article, I realized that the premise of my comedy screenplay isn’t compelling enough, and there are too many subplots to keep track of, and too many main characters. I will definitely use the advice from your article to revise it so the reader will want to read it and recommend it.

    I’m going to read all the Shane Black and William Goldman scripts that are free and available to the public. Can you recommend your top 10 screenplays that screenwriters should read?

    Thanks again for your excellent article and screenwriting insight! 🙂

    Leona Heraty

    1. AlCielo

      As the article points out, “At best, such a concoction will read like a series of short films placed alongside one another in the same set of pages. At worst, it will be a confused, incoherent muddle.”

      Traffic and Pulp Fiction do a little better than this because they use the tension between the separate storylines and the unifying theme to create a kind of curiosity in the audience, but scripts with multiple storylines (as opposed to A, B, and C stories) are very difficult to achieve.

      I wouldn’t use Crash as an example of a good script, multi-story or otherwise.

    2. Ray Morton

      It wouldn’t. All three of those films are anthology films — intentionally telling several individual stories with individual casts of characters in one movie. There’s a big difference between an anthology film and a film which thinks it’s telling one story with one set of characters but keeps changing the premise of the story as the narrative progresses.