After a few years of script reading, and an equal amount of effort trying to write scripts of your own, you begin to see things with a bit more clarity and focus than before. The skill of being a script reader starts to compliment the craft of being a screenwriter. It’s all about being aware of the specific reasons why you’re reacting, or not responding, to the characters and story in a script.
Most people will read a script or watch a film and give generic reasons why they did, or did not, like the material. Some of these will touch on the specifics of the story: “that scene was funny”, or “I really liked his character”, but, when pushed, will not be able to adequately describe or explain WHY they really liked the character, or why they thought it was funny.
To make yourself a better reader, and writer, you’ve got to be able to identify the key moments in a script where you’re beginning to form your opinion of the story. The next time you find yourself saying “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like that character”, ask yourself why, and more importantly, where. It could be the key to improving your rewrite, or shaping the film in the edit suite.
People make subliminal judgements on characters and their behaviour from the very first moment they meet them. One misplaced look or line of dialogue could throw them off, and if the plot proceeds in an awkward manner, or the characters behave inconsistently, you’ve lost the audience for good. To amend this outlook, it’s important to retrace the plotting steps to the moment where the characters are first introduced. What do they say, what do they do, and what kind of dramatic or motivational need is established for them at that point?
Does it set up a false expectation for the audience about who the character is, and what the story is about? You may not have noticed. What’s entirely clear for us as writers about our characters and their motives may be ill-defined and unfocused for a reader because of the impartial information and exposition they're gleaning from the words on the page.
Characters are usually the focus and centrepiece of whether or not a reader/audience will engage with your story but there are other essential components to consider too. Tone, concept, structure are all tangible emotional elements despite their academic connotations. If the audience is laughing one minute but thrown by a serious and grim development in the next scene, they may not feel comfortable or satisfied with your choice of direction. Has the concept been effectively dramatised and put into place? Are the audience still struggling to figure out what the film is about?
After thirty pages of a script, we can usually tell if we like the script and/or the characters. If we don’t, it’s beneficial to ask ‘why’: what scene or moment made me think this way about that character? And what was it in the scenes that followed that either confirmed my view or confused me even more? Get down and dirty with the storytelling techniques of the writer. It’s “analysis awareness”; realising what a scene’s purpose is, or what the dialogue is really conveying, and analysing its dramatic and emotional value.
As a reader, this helps to give valuable and constructive feedback in the report. The more specific you can be, the easier it is for the exec, and for the writer who may receive the coverage. As a writer, it’s preferable to be aware of the specific techniques that help us elevate our stories and characters into wonderful and unexpected areas. However, the infinite complexities of story and the subjective nature of opinion will always challenge and divide us, making the pursuit of excellence a never-ending endeavour. It's a bitch, basically.