Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Story Vault: Script Reading Commandments

Bit flat out between now and the New Year, what with Red Planet (next announcement will be after Christmas) and doing current work while trying to generate the right momentum and opportunities for the start of 2008.

So, a post from the vault: a list of 'script reading commandments'. Useful stuff to bear in mind if you're a working reader, an interesting peek into the reader's world for everyone else. See you at the Raindance course on Saturday, if you're going.


1. Thou Shalt Read The Script in Its Entirety
When you’re reading a poor script, your mind will naturally wander and your attention will stray so try to stay focused as you don’t want to miss any important plot detail that will impede your ability to write up a good synopsis later.

2. Pitch it, Baby
Writing a good logline will tell you, and the exec, whether the script is actually a film or not. Trying to sum up the script you’ve just read in one or two sentences can sometimes take longer than any other part of the report, but it’s worth it.

A broad sweep of the premise and the story is more suitable than a basic description of the concept. The following (flexible) template works particularly well in getting all you need to get across: “It’s about A CHARACTER who WANTS SOMETHING/HAS A GOAL but CONFLICT and WHAT HE DOES TO OVERCOME CONFLICT.”

3. Thou Shalt Write a Good Synopsis
Your synopsis may contain more narrative flair than the script itself but hey, you’re a writer too, so be respectful to the plot (no matter how poor) and don't describe the script ‘beat by beat’. Avoid long sentences. This will be hugely appreciated by the execs, as they’re always looking for concise, clear and well-written reports, especially the synopses. It makes their job so much easier. You might make the story sound good but you can always rip it to pieces later in the ‘comments’ section.

4. Be Harsh, but Fair; Be Cruel, but Kind
Scathing criticism has become a trademark style for readers everywhere but it’s important to stay objective and not just trash a script because you feel like it. If something is terrible, you have to give sound reasoning as to why it’s so bad, and offer valid critical comment on the style and detail of the script.

Even the most turgid of screenplays will have some merit, somewhere, so offer a few positive comments, if you can, as it will help the exec be kinder in his rejection letter. Also, the recommendations break down into “Pass”, “Consider” or “Recommend”. There is no “Pass/Consider”. This drives execs nuts. Make up your mind, be decisive.

5. It’s Not About ‘You’
There is no ‘I’ in ‘Reader’ so avoid phrases like: “I don’t think this works” or “I laughed out loud” because the coverage shouldn’t bring attention to the reader, it should be wholly focused on the script. Your comments represent what you think so there’s no need for any first person narrative. Some comments like, “in this reader’s opinion”, are okay because it helps to qualify the balance of critique being offered. Also, don’t try to be too funny, jokey, glib or dismissive. This doesn’t help anyone.

6. Thou Shalt Not Covet the Writer’s Luck
Most script readers are aspiring scriptwriters. They will burn with jealousy and rage when they read an inferior script to their own work that’s been optioned or about to be made. Get over it. You don’t have an agent. Or if you do, then why aren’t your scripts being covered by other readers around town? Or ask yourself why that particular script is getting made, despite being shite?

7. All Scripts are the Same, but Some are more Samey than Others
A lot of scripts follow the generalised style of screenwriting and so-called rules of the game. This can make them feel very ordinary and mediocre, despite one or two promising ideas or glimpses of talent from the writer. However, the never-ending pile of samey scripts will diminish your optimism about ever reading a good script again. Try to remain patient and positive. Good scripts, and good writers, are out there. They’re just hard to see in the crowd.

8. All Reports are the Same, but Don’t get Sucked into Routine
The dearth of samey scripts will have you regurgitating typical phrases and observations from report to report. You’ll develop stock-phrases and neat expressions that will lie conveniently at hand, and/or will make you look witty. You’re a writer so shake it up a bit, develop a good style, but remember ‘Commandment No. 5’.

9. Thou Shalt Not Complain
Like a pre-Jedi Luke Skywalker whingeing about buying a power converter, a novice reader will moan about the amount of scripts he has to read, and the pitiful price he’s getting for the privilege. Hey, no-one asked you to be a reader, you asked them, remember? You’re in a lucky position really, so just get on with it.

10. Never Miss a Deadline
If you accept a particularly heavy workload, then make sure you can get the reports done in time. If you accept a ‘fast turnaround’ script (overnight report), ask the exec what time, at the latest, does he need the coverage by. It’s quite common to be called up at the last minute and asked to read a 600 page book or a script in an overnight stint. You won’t want to say ‘No’ because you want to appear reliable and flexible, but if you can’t fit it in, then say so.

11. Don’t Wear Yourself Out
Everything about the movie business is turned up to eleven, and that means that your reading workload will sometimes get the better of you as the scripts pile up in your in-box. Reading two-four scripts per week should be more than manageable, especially if you have a proper full or part-time job.

As a jobbing freelancer, reading four or more scripts should be okay but if it becomes a regular fix, it might wear you out with the time and demand that the reading requires. Try to accommodate it as you see fit but remember that familiarity breeds contempt, and the quality of your coverage will suffer as you become more cynical and dismissive of every script you read.



Anonymous said...

Hmm.... so the next Red Planet announcement is after Christmas... I wonder if that means there are a lot of full length scripts to read??
Oh and thanks for the script reading advice!

Anonymous said...

Very timely since I'm just reading my first script ... thanks.

Lucy V said...

I remember my first script Steve so well, it's like losing your virginity all over again isn't it? It was a mad mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The script that is, not my life at the time sadly. I lived above a kebab shop and only one of my neighbours either side spoke English... Well one phrase to be precise: "You girl, fuck off!" The chap over the road got pulled out of his flat in the nude by armed police too, complete with screaming girlfriend wrapped ina sheet. Dunno what he did. Charming place. I gave the script a PASS by the way. And was told off. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

Dearth means scarcity or lack.

Danny Stack said...

The first script report I did, as a trial, was The Last King of Scotland way back in 99/2000; that was a tough one.

Anon: well spotted. That was a test.

Lucy V said...

Yes I spotted your test Danny but I was way too polite to say, besides everyone knows how fabulous I am at spelling and how I never do typos and to draw attention to anything on anyone else's blog would just be shameful boasting. Phew. Candidate for longest sentence in the world, ever?

I read nothing but potential clients the first summer I started reading (for "potential clients" read "mostly nutters") but as time went on I got some of the real clients' work and that proved a real revelation, particularly the playwrights. I was lucky too 'cos I got to read a lot of books. Really fab training ground.