Ray Morton’s process of screenplay analysis involves examining five key story components. In part two, he discusses the final key components.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.
Last month, we took a look at the first three of six axes – the components of a screenplay – that I, as a professional reader, use for screenplay analysis: Premise, Story, and Characters. This month we’ll take a look at the final two screenplay components and a vital question that I ask myself about every script I read.
In assessing dialogue, the first thing I determine is if the speeches sound like things real people would say. Unless the dialogue is meant to be stylized, in which case I check to ensure the stylization is consistent throughout the piece.
It’s also important that each character speak in his/her own unique voice – a script’s characters should not all sound the same.
Are the dialogue exchanges clear – do we understand what the characters are talking about? (This is sometimes a big problem when dialogue is overly stylized.)
Does the expository dialogue sound natural or like an encyclopedia entry? (Hint: it should not sound like an encyclopedia entry.)
The speeches and dialogue scenes should be as tight as possible. The characters should always say what they need to say, but they should not say any more than they need to say. Speeches and conversations should not run on – beginning writers often make the mistake of overwriting their dialogue, repeating their points over and over again to make sure they get made. These writers don’t realize how much meaning good actors can communicate with gestures and expressions while they are speaking the lines. If a single line is well-crafted and pointed, the actor will get its meaning across just fine. No additional-repetitive words are required.
I assess a script’s writing on two different levels: creative and technical.
On the creative level, I check to see that the writing is cinematic – that the story is told through action, behavior, and dialogue and not through written exposition in the text (“John is a detective who began drinking after he lost his wife and infant son in a fire two decades ago”) and/or through descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings (“When Jenny sees her husband kissing his secretary, she feels angry at his betrayal but also feels relieved that their sham of a marriage is over.”). Beginning screenwriters often forget that film is a visual/audio medium. Viewers can’t read a script’s text – they will only know what they see on screen and what they hear coming out of the speakers. A script in which the story is told through writing rather than description is useless as a screenplay.
After determining that a script is written in cinematic fashion, I then check to make sure the descriptions are clear – that it is always easy to understand what we are meant to see happening on screen.
I also check to make sure that scripts are free of “directing on paper.” Many beginning screenwriters fill up a lot of page space with intricate descriptions of sets and costumes and shots and camera moves and lighting and edits and music cues. This is a massive waste of time and energy. It is the job of the screenwriter to tell the story; it is the job of the director to decide how to shoot and cut it and to determine along with his designers and his cinematographer how it will all look. When scripts are overloaded with descriptions of shots and design, the narrative often gets lost in the sea of detail. I would never pass on a script simply because it contains “directing on paper,” but I will pass on one if I can’t make out the story.
If the screenplay employs storytelling devices such as non-linear construction, flashbacks, dream sequences, voice-overs, narration, and so on, I check to make sure that these devices are employed consistently throughout the piece. Inexperienced writers often employ these storytelling gimmicks on a sporadic basis to patch over holes and problems in their work, which tends to result in a sloppy, patched-together narrative.
I also determine that the script’s tone is consistent from beginning to end. Serious is good, funny is good, broad is good, subtle is good, surreal is good, satire is good, and earnest is good. They’re just not all good when they are all thrown together in the same piece.
It’s also important that the narrative be well-paced – that the story builds consistently without a lot of slow or dead spots. Every scene, sequence, and subplot in the script should advance the narrative in a meaningful way. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be cut to ensure a brisk narrative progression.
Finally, the script must be a reasonable length – the proper length for a feature screenplay is between 90 – 120 pages. No spec script should ever run longer than 120 pages. There are many spec writers who think their script is the exception to this rule. It is not. Ever.
On a technical level, I always assess a script to make sure that it is properly formatted (according to accepted industry standards) and employs proper screenwriting terminology (some beginning writers make up their own terminology, which often doesn’t make sense and can make the script hard to understand).
Finally, I assess the script’s technical writing conventions: spelling, grammar, and punctuation. A few misspelled words or misplaced periods aren’t going to sink a screenplay, but too many of them may make the piece hard to comprehend and that will indeed send a script to the briny depths.
And finally, the essential question I ask myself about every script I assess is
IS IT A MOVIE?
Can this screenplay be made into a viable film?
Does it tell an interesting, entertaining story in cinematic fashion? Can it be produced on a realistic budget? Does it have strong roles that can attract bankable actors? Is this the type of script that will appeal to a studio? Is it the type of script that will appeal to an independent producer? Is there a potential audience for this project? Is there a potential audience for this story big enough to justify its potential budget?
Obviously, the final answer to this question can only be given by producers, studio executives, and financiers, not by a reader. But it is my job to make an initial evaluation about a script’s viability so that I do not waste people’s time by passing along material that has no chance of ever making it to the screen.
So those are the six axes upon which I evaluate screenplays. Obviously, my opinion – like all opinions – is a subjective one. But it is a subjective one shaped by years of experience reading thousands of screenplays. And that experience tells me that the more your screenplay matches the criteria laid out in this article, the greater chance it has of succeeding. So get to work and hopefully I’ll be evaluating your script someday soon. I look forward to giving it a RECOMMEND.
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