Ever wondered what goes on inside the minds of the fragrant few who get hired to read our screenplays?
Those who rip through our darlings, scribble down notes and then disseminate our precious stories to their even sweeter-smelling bosses?
After receiving yet another ‘Thank you so much for your screenplay, we can see why you’re so enthusiastic about this story (but we just ain’t)…’ letter – have you ever wondered,
well what the hell do these readers want? Can’t they spot raw, raging talent when they read it?
Er no, not exactly. ‘Raw, raging talent’ is a little thin on the ground.
You see, recently I was a reader for a production company,
(I signed a pesky confidentiality agreement, so can’t say much more about said company except that the owner still calls Australia home, enjoys tap dancing in the shadow of Oscar and has something of the wolverine about him.).
Can’t they spot raw, raging talent when they read it?
I clocked up ‘coverage’ (fancy flick-speak for reports) for 25 feature screenplays. And man, what a rollercoaster ride it was. Bit like a movie actually. Spills, thrills – but, sadly, not too many happy endings for this reader.
You know when you see a bad movie and you think to yourself – now there’s two hours of my life I can’t get back? Imagine thinking that script after script after script.
With stories that ran the gamut from vampires and drug addicts to gay nurses in the outback – I read my fair share of crap.
But I struck gold too.
Here’s what you can do to help keep your screenplay in the latter half of that broad-ish spectrum.
Be anal with format.
I read scripts from award-winning filmmakers that were riddled with typos, double pages and stains. It’s distracting. It’s dumb. And you wouldn’t believe how common. Too perfect, never is.
I read scripts from award-winning filmmakers that were riddled with typos, double pages and stains.
Let go of the art, think business.
Your script is ultimately a business document – so make it look like one. The industry standard typeface is ‘courier’ – yes, it’s archaic, but it’s the standard, don’t reinvent the wheel – save that for your PR.
Pretend you only have limited words to play with.
Keep your pages simple. Economical. Hell, reader-friendly. And don’t knock people over the head with interminable BIG PRINT. Just because it’s big, doesn’t mean it’s clever.
Keep the sex simple.
We all know what it is, how it is. So unless gratuituous descriptions of nipples propels your plot forward, don’t waste your words. Good taste can tip over into porn very quickly – which is fine if you’re going to Mr Hefner for finance.
Look Ma, I can do the 3-Act structure.
Readers want to be entertained, but more importantly they want to trust you as a storyteller – that you know how to get from ACT 1 to ACT 3 with speed, confidence and literary flair.
The best reading experiences I had were when I realised from the first page that this writer knew what they were doing and I could just surrender and not work too hard to ‘get them’ or their story.
Readers want to be entertained, but more importantly they want to trust you as a storyteller.
But good ol’ Bill Goldman did say, nobody knows anything.
And in some (rare) cases, not all readers will know a white-hot script when they read it. But hand on my heart (and in my humble opinion), out of the scripts I covered, two, maybe three were outstanding examples of the artform.
The best scripts I read had these qualities in common –
- Big, cinematic stories
- Well observed, believable characters I cared about
- Sparse dialogue and big print
- Confident writing without trying too hard
A reader isn’t God. No, really.
You probably already know a certain amount of pixie-dust is required to make it in this sparkling business they call, ‘show’. And the reality is, it may take a few postage stamps before you find the ‘right reader’ for your work.
But take heart. Cream floats to the top. So if you really have written the next ‘Milk’ or ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, your script will get noticed – and not necessarily by a reader.
After all, isn’t that what you really, really want?
Writer, media presenter — and stage diva (on hiatus) Phyllis Foundis has written and bellydanced her way to the tender age of 36. She’s been writing stories, ads, one-woman shows and to-do lists for as long as she can remember. She loves big shower heads and loathes coriander.