Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Story Vault: Likes and Dislikes

Unless I get a commission between now and the end of the year (ha! or hmm, you never know), I'm pretty much spending all of my time script reading so I can generate some handy pocket money for Christmas (and why does the tax man visit in January? Has he no tact?).

This week I've got seven scripts to get through but I'm minus one day because I have to go to London on Friday so it means I'll have to keep my head down until the weekend to get it all done. So, while all that non-glamorous stuff is happening, here's a post from the story vaults about script reading "likes and dislikes" from September last year. Haven't read it before? Well, here it is:

"Script readers are a notoriously picky and grumpy bunch because they’re underpaid and overworked. In the UK, the standard fee for ‘coverage’ is £40 - Working Title recently went to £45 (hurrah) - while the top price to receive is £50 (Film Council and a few select production companies). It was £35 for a long, long time. On average, it takes (me) one hour and a half to read a script and one hour to write the coverage. This may take longer if the script is poor, meaning that the reader will struggle to write a synopsis (which is incredibly annoying, I can tell you). Sometimes, even coming up with a decent logline can take forever.

I once read & reviewed a script for Miramax in 1.5 hours flat (they phoned saying ‘where’s the coverage?’ and I went ‘whaddyamean? you want it today?’), which I think may be a record, but I’m sure there are readers out there that can beat that. Thankfully, the speedy coverage I did was for a very good script (easy & entertaining read) and helped me to hit the deadline. Also, I can type very fast. Anyway, the point is, readers work hard. They really try to concentrate and focus on your script, and when it doesn’t deliver, they get disappointed or worse, bloody annoyed.

There are ways to ease their workload and brighten their day. It’s deceptively easy and simple of course but it’s advice oft-repeated but seldom used. There’s no excuse really because there are books dedicated to how the reader’s mindset works. “500 Ways to Beat The Hollywood Scriptreader” tells you that there are least 500 (500! and they’re all true) annoying habits of wannabe writers. I’m probably a bit more forgiving and sympathetic than the normal reader (especially when I started to develop my own writing) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t bristle with annoyance at the more common and quite frankly, inexcusable mistakes that people make.

Let’s start with basic spelling and grammar. It’s a screenplay so there’s a certain flexibility with regard to syntax and expression. That’s a given. But people can’t spell. I can forgive one typo or two, after that it’s unacceptable. My particular pet hate is the regular misuse of ‘their, they’re, there’, ‘it’s, its, it is’, ‘your, you’re’. Honest to god, when a script correctly uses ‘its’ instead of ‘it is’, the quality of the screenplay is always that bit better than a script that doesn’t know its it’s from its whatsits. This is being pedantic and anal I know but in every excellent script I read, there isn’t a blemish amongst them. I think I made this point before. They’re clean, polished and professional. A lot of scripts in the spec market are riddled with poor spelling, sloppy and plain description and a consistent misuse of the Queen’s English.

Format. Everyone knows this one surely? Not so. You don’t even need Final Draft for crying out loud, just whack Courier pt 12 on your Word font and you’re away. Once you’ve checked your margins and dialogue tabs of course.

Craft. Where’s the story? Why am I asleep and it’s only page 15? Is there any structure at all? A lot of writers deride structure but then don’t include any story or causal sense in their own narrative. Why? I’ve already talked about the first ten pages of a script and the more cliché ways to begin your story but I particularly like it when someone opens with an assured sense of TONE and PACE. A friend of mine read one of my scripts once - he’s not a reader or has anything to do with the biz - and he said: “I was on page 60 before I realised it but I was wondering when anything was going to happen”. Which is the best compliment/criticism I've ever received.

Now I’m well aware that being a reader gives you a certain high ground to be dismissive and cynical. If I can dish out the advice, then why aren’t I raking in the bucks with my own work? There’s the rub. It’s not that simple. In my work, I avoid the common mistakes made in screenplays and genuinely try to deliver something that’s fresh, easy to read and entertaining. And I’ve managed to option three scripts, get meetings and pitch for work. But it’s often not enough.

I’ve seen reports of my own scripts which have been scathing and dismissive, just in the same way that my reports on other people’s can be. It’s entirely subjective and it often comes down to your story, what you have to say, that will get a response from a reader/exec. Those who don’t connect to your script can simply apply all the usual screenplay criticisms, usually with some validity (because all scripts need work), and that’s the end of that. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s unfair. So when you’re a new writer and you do manage to write a good script, you can still expect just as much rejection and criticism as when you first typed ‘fade out’. But if you do it professionally, with a clean style and correct format, then you’re one step ahead of thousands of scripts that are already out there.

On a final note: the use of ‘we’, as in ‘we see, we hear’ in the script is another one that divides opinion. Personally, I’m not bothered by its use but, as with anything else, if it’s over used then it becomes a distraction. However, it should be pointed out that everything in your screenplay is what ‘we see’ so there’s an argument that its use is entirely superfluous to your narrative description. More: the use of ‘is’ (as in ‘John is in the car’) and of passive verbs (running, walking, sliding etc). I think these are wholly acceptable but again, don’t overuse."


wcdixon said...

thanks for this inciteful post - very interesting

Lucy V said...

I've lost count of the number of times I've been told my opinion as a reader is worthless 'cos I "only write catalogues and CD Roms, etc" and that good grammar and spelling is "trifling", so thanks for that.