Meet the Reader: 12 Signs of a Promising Spec Script

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Professional script readers will often claim that they can tell if a screenplay is going to be good or not after reading just a few pages. This is true–for me, anyway.

Granted, I can’t assess every single nuance of a script’s story in just five or ten or pages, but by assessing twelve specific elements, I can tell if the story, characters, and dialogue have potential and if the writer has the ability to pull off whatever it is she/he is attempting.

Learn how to write a spec script like a pro with these 12 signs of a promising spec script and more from Script Mag!

Here are those 12 elements–those 12 signs of a promising spec:

  1. The script is short – between 90 and 110 pages

    The average length of a feature film is between 100 and 120 minutes (yes, I know that a lot of modern movies run longer than two hours, but those films are usually the result of self-indulgent directors abusing their right to final cut and does not reflect a desire on the part of the industry at large to make longer movies – studios and theater owners still prefer pictures to be two hours or less so that they can screen them as many times a day as possible and so want screenplays sized accordingly. Besides, as we all know, more often than not there’s nothing in the narrative content of these overlong films that warrant their excessive length — for most, the extreme running time usually hurts the story, especially the pacing, rather than helps it). Given that one page of screenplay usually takes about a minute to unfold on screen (heavy action usually takes a little more time to play out; dialogue a little less), this means that a spec script should run somewhere between ninety and one hundred-twenty pages, with the industry’s current preferred average being one hundred-ten. If a script runs longer than one hundred-twenty pages, that tells me  the writer doesn’t know the industry standards or, worse, thinks that he/she is an exception to them. It also tells me that the script will more than likely be overwritten, unfocused, poorly structured, and/or poorly paced, as these are the usual causes of an overlong screenplay. If, however, a spec is one hundred-twenty pages or less, then I know  the writer has paid attention to industry strictures, but (more importantly) has figured out how to focus, structure, edit, and pace his/her story so that it can play out in the proper amount of time.

  2. The front cover is free of WGA registration numbers and fake production company names

    Yes, it is important to protect your work and the best way to do that is to both copyright it and register it with the WGA (the copyright is the key piece of protection, and the WGA registration is a very helpful backup). However, professional screenwriters don’t put registration numbers on their covers. There’s something vaguely tacky about the practice (the registration is valid whether it’s indicated on the cover or not and everyone in the industry knows it), as well as a little adversarial (putting the registration number on your cover suggests you are expecting people to attempt to steal your script and you are warning them not to try, which is not the friendliest way to approach people who you want to take a liking to you and your material).

    Also, many aspiring screenwriters make up fake production company names and slap them on the covers of their specs in the hope that doing so will make them seem like they are more significant players than they really are (“I can’t be a nobody – I have my own production company!”). In reality, all it does is make them look like neophytes. Most professional screenwriters do not have production companies (although many do have personal services corporations) and even if they do, they don’t put the names of those companies on their specs. Why? Because — only the name of a company that is actually producing a script should appear on its cover and if a script is being produced, then it is no longer a spec (why would you try to get someone to option or buy your script if you have a production company? Why wouldn’t you just make it yourself?). So, if I see a WGA registration numbers and/or a fake prodco name on a spec, then I know that the writer is an amateur and so there’s a pretty good chance that the script I am about to read will be amateurish. However, if I don’t see those numbers or names, then there’s a much better chance that the piece will be professional.

  3. The first page contains a lot of white space

    If I open up a script and am confronted with big blocks of uninterrupted type, I know immediately that the piece is overwritten – that the author has employed an excessively flowery “literary” style in the action lines; and/or that he/she has incorporated a lot of unfilmable material (long backstories; the internal thoughts and feelings of the characters; etc.); and/or loaded the piece with tons and tons of unnecessary detail (elaborate and endless descriptions of settings, mood, characters, action, costumes, and so on). All of this overwriting means that the screenplay is going to be a chore to read. More than likely it will also overwhelm the story – I’ll be forced to pay so much attention to how the story is told that I won’t be able to focus on the tale itself. It also means that the author doesn’t know how to pace a story on the page, which is an important element of good screenwriting (ideally, the story should be presented in a way that approximates how you want it to play on screen – a series of brief, three-and-four line paragraphs can be read at a quick, energetic pace. One long, unbroken paragraph can only be read in slow, plodding fashion). However, if I am confronted with lots of short bursts of words with plenty of space in between them, then I know that the author can write concisely and precisely in ways that should make the script easier to read and the story easier to comprehend and that I am probably going to get a good sense of how a movie made from the script might play.

  4. I know who the protagonist is by page 5

    The protagonist is the core element of a dramatic narrative –it is his/her actions (in pursuit of a well-defined goal) that drive the story. Therefore, the story can’t really begin until the protagonist is introduced — everything that occurs before this is essentially wheel-spinning. Also, the Protagonist is the element that allows us to become emotionally involved in the story – if we care about the protagonist, then we will care about his/her tale. Until we know who the Protagonist is, we might be able to appreciate the story, but it’s unlikely we will become invested in it. Despite these things, many spec writers take far too long to introduce their protagonists – cluttering up their script with an overabundance of unnecessary prologues and preliminaries or introducing dozens of characters at the outset of the piece and making us wait twenty or more pages before clarifying which one is the lead. If I can identify the protagonist right off the bat, then I know that the story’s going to get off to a fast start and that I will be able to lock into it emotionally from the get-go, both of which are hallmarks of a potentially good script.

  5. The premise is clearly established by page 10

    The premise is the seed from which the rest of the story grows and the narrative can’t truly begin until it is properly set up. If this is done early, rather than waiting for 20 or 50 or 100 pages as some specs do, then I know that I can put my energy into enjoying the story rather than into killing time waiting for it to show up.

  6. Something interesting/entertaining happens in the first five pages

    Movies are supposed to be entertaining. If something that generates laughs or excitement or intrigue turns up in a script’s opening moments, then I figure we’re off to a good start. If not – if the first five pages is nothing but exposition or mood-setting, then we’re off to a plodding start.

  7. The first ten pages contain plenty of action

    By action I mean dramatic action – stuff happening — not just car chases (although car chases are fine too). If the script doesn’t begin with ten pages of two characters sitting on a couch talking (which soooo many specs do), then I know I’m in the hands of someone that knows how to tell a story in cinematic fashion.

  8. I can tell what’s going on

    the writing (word choice, sentence construction, spelling, grammar, punctuation, screenplay formatting, and screenwriting terminology) in some specs is so poor that I often have to go back and reread the first five or ten pages numerous times in order to comprehend what is happening. This is obviously not a good sign. If I can make it through the first decade without having to constantly rewind, then I assume that the rest will be equally smooth sailing.

  9. The dialogue is short and to the point

    there’s nothing worse than opening a screenplay and being faced with a single speech that goes on for a page or two or five. This is usually a sign that the writer is using dialogue to deliver exposition that he/she should be delivering visually or dramatically and/or that he/she is overstuffing the piece with irrelevant detail, musings, or digressions and/or that he/she lacks discipline, focus, and the ability to edit. None of these things bode well for the script ahead.

  10. The script doesn’t begin with a flashback

    (a common spec trope that always kills me – how can you flash back until you have first established something to flash back from?) or a very long crawl or card or voice over that goes on and on explaining the backstory of a piece to me. These are signs that the writer has not begun his/her story at the proper point (if we need this much information to bring us up to speed on the first age, then the writer has started the story too late and needs to back up and begin it sooner).

  11. There are no camera directions, shot descriptions, and editing instructions

    The absence of these things tells me that the writer is focusing on telling a story and not on trying to direct the movie on paper. These shot lists masquerading as screenplays are enormously difficult to read – you get so lost in angles and cuts and moves that the story itself goes missing.

  12. There are no coffins

    Amateur writers love to adorn their scripts with lots of irrelevant bells and whistles – fake posters for the movie they hope will be made from their screenplays (usually with the writing credits situated far more prominently than they would ever be on real one-sheets), illustrated covers, graphic novel adaptations, mix tapes containing the songs featured in the scripts, and specially produced promotional merchandise – key chains, postcards, bobble heads, etc. (I once received a vampire script packaged in a miniature coffin complete with the screenplay’s title on the lid and a spring-loaded bat positioned inside that would jump out when the coffin was opened). Unfortunately, in my experience, most of the scripts that accompany this junk are usually just awful, probably because the authors put more imagination and effort into their tchotchkes than they do into their screenplays. So, if I see them, I know I’m probably in for a rough ride. If I don’t, then things are already looking up.

The Writers Store’s advice on writing a script is a great starting point for getting your next script off the ground. Read on for Script Reader Ray Morton’s advice.

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Footnote: “A Response”

This column and its author were recently criticized in some very strident terms on a well-known screenwriting podcast. I did not listen to the podcast and do not intend to, but apparently the gist of the criticism is that I set myself up as some sort of all-wise, all-knowing screenwriting guru who lays out rules for script writing that the podcast hosts do not find valid. As regular readers of this column know, I have never presented myself as any sort of guru. I am an experienced script writer, reader and consultant and present myself only as such. And I do not much believe in any sort of screenwriting “rules” – I simply offer observations and tips based on my experience. I do not insist that I know it all or that people must do as I say – my position has always been that if you find my advice helpful, please use it and if you do not, then please feel free to ignore it. I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with anything I write, but I do not understand why the podcasters felt the need to be so vitriolic. I especially do not understand personal attacks on my character from two people who have never met me and do not know me. I also wish they had gotten their facts straight – for the record, neither this blog nor this website have anything to do with Final Draft (Script magazine used to be owned by Final Draft, Inc., but has not been for many years now) and I have no interest financial or otherwise in what brand of screenwriting software the readers of this column buy or use. Since this podcast was posted, I have received numerous messages of generous support from regular readers of this column, messages that I found to be very touching and that which I greatly appreciate. The writers of these messages have encouraged me to keep on doing what I have been doing and that is absolutely what I intend to do as long as will have me. My deepest thanks and gratitude to you all. Onward!

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
All Rights Reserved
 No portion of this article may be copied, reprinted, or reposted without the
permission of the author

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18 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: 12 Signs of a Promising Spec Script

  1. thebigrygh

    Thank you for making this!

    I have one question. In a spec script would you include things like “we see ___?” I am working on my first script, and I’m looking into the details. I know that you said don’t include camera direction, and was wondering if that is included in camera directions.

  2. efly

    Love the read!

    BTW I don’t consider yourself a guru or god for that matter. Empirical data is not what this read is about, it’s about opinions. Opinions from someone with experience is important and in my opinion worth more than some conclusive study… it just so happens I agree with all that you have said… having no experience myself 🙂

  3. SLwriter

    I’ve been reading for agencies, contests, studios and other writers for over a decade. Great advice for n00bs above. Here are a few obvious red flags:

    If the script is submitted as a PDF – as they all should be at this point – run a search for the word “suddenly” which is easily the most hack word in fiction writing. If it’s used more than a couple of times, it’s a near guarantee that the script is crap.

    As an addendum to this. If you’re still sending out paper scripts with those hateful f%$#@ng brads, you’re pissing us off. Stop killing trees. Save your script as a PDF and send it out.

    Scripts submitted in MS WORD. I’ve read my share and they’re all terrible. This shows us you’re not taking things seriously.

    People that try to cheat by making the font size smaller… really, do you think readers are that dim?

    Scripts that are submitted in a font other than Courier 12 point.

    This is not to say a script in the wrong font or submitted in Word is guaranteed to be terrible. In my experience, there’s an observable, undeniable correlation between the above mentioned issues and a terrible or otherwise unworthy script.

    1. formulaic


      Your “suddenly” observation struck me so I searched my latest two scripts and found it around 10 ten times in each. Then I searched Flight (about 30) as well as 10 clover field lane (2), The Bunker (about 40) and Moonlight (2). So this could be somewhat true but really depends on the story being told and personal writing style: Flight is a great movie and The Bunker reads very well on the page. My first four scripts were done in Word, but were formatted to a high standard (although i admit that I hadn’t bothered reading screenwriting books to ensure I was doing everything possible to get my specs read, hence my use of Word: Final Draft is such a timesaver).


    I wrote my first screenplay a while back and i did as this guy instructed for the most part.

    #1 I’m not really sure if I did this one right but I made the words kinda small so it saves me some paper to flip through It’s 114 pages as of right now but if i put it in the standard 12pt font it adds 52 more pages 🙁 I felt it was all needed to tell the story except for the rules of #11.

    #11 I kinda bent that a little bit there are a few directions but not really a lot. I described character movement and the setting but not a lot of CUT TO: Or The Camera is doing THIS not a lot of that. I’m describing more or less what we are seeing altogether but in a bit more detail. I’m not giving to many back stories or nothing like that. There’s not a lot of camera or editing instructions because I know what I want each frame to be.

    #12 there are no coffins 🙂

    I don’t try to direct it on paper I just describe what I want the viewers to see on screen in other words I should direct my own stuff. I got a couple of friends of who I met a few years back and I trusted them completely with one of my works and they saw the script I’m talking about now and they just loved it. and the movie itself is over a thing they don’t like in stories and it is a creature of a sort I won’t say what cuz I don’t want to give it away but for them to look over all the stuff I mentioned above they gave me nothing but positive feedback and they didn’t even know me for that long and they are a couple of my best friends in which I’m close too.

    I know I shouldn’t let others read my work rule but I also know that family and friends can lie but back then they weren’t my friends. I try to teach as well as entertain with all my work.

  5. Anthony Perez

    While many amateur scripts suffer by breaking these “rules,” there are some things beginning to become red flags due to poor use more than anything else. There are always exceptions to rules and I’d hate to see great scripts passed on because a storytelling device has earned a Scarlett Letter due to correlation rather than causation.

    For example:

    #4….While very rare, the protagonist doesn’t need to show up by page 5 in order for a reader or audience to care about the journey of the protagonist. If it did, then Star Wars and Luke Skywalker wouldn’t be what they are today.

    #7…If opening scripts with long dialogue exchanges were indicative or poor storytelling, the opening scene of The Social Network wouldn’t have worked. Granted, at least Sorkin had earned a rep by then.

    #10…Lastly, if starting with voice over is a death knell, then why is the start of Jerry McGuire so so so good.

  6. Pingback: Storytelling Strategies: The Lowdown on ‘Gravity’ | Paul Gulino

  7. Arturo Cuellar

    Great information delivered in a way that makes sense. A sign above my computer reads: “If you cannot explain it then you don’t understand it.” You, sir, area a true professional.

  8. Michelle

    Thanks so much for reminding us of the important stuff. It can’t be stated too many times, especially to writers that are losing themselves in the very middle of writing. It’s necessary to be brought back down to earth every so often.