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How Seasoned Writers Get Battle Weary Readers to Read More Than Ten Pages of Their Specs

By Rob Edwards · February 28, 2015

"Hey, First Time Writer, I can't wait to spend three hours of my weekend reading your unsolicited screenplay!" said no one ever. There are two unspoken truths in Hollywood:

1) Managers, producers, studio executives, actors, directors, writers and even professors spend five days a week pushing their eyes through endless pages of 12 point Courier. From personal experience I can tell you we all look at the weekend read with the same enthusiasm that we had when our middle school English teachers assigned novels to read over spring break.

2) The industry is incentivised to say no. Saying yes means putting your reputation on the line, putting millions of dollars at risk, committing the actor, writer or director you work with to years of missed weekends. Considering that most movies aren't huge Oscar winning blockbusters, they're also sentencing themselves to lifetimes of hearing people ask what idiot checked the recommended box on this trainwreck.

For this reason, most readers I know secretly hope that the next script in the pile will suck so they'll be off the hook. If there's any indication, on the first few pages, that we're not reading the next Avatar, we all breathe a sigh of relief. You might have the most amazing Second Act ever written but, if those first few pages don't blow me away, I'll never read it.

So, how do seasoned writers like me get past battle scarred readers like me?

What specific things make ROB THE READER pull the rip-cord? What tricks has ROB THE WRITER learned to use over the past 30 years to get battle scarred readers to pass the script up the chain to the person with the checkbook?

REASON #1 WHY I STOP READING: THERE'S NO MOMENTUM

ROB THE READER

Many beginning screenwriters approach the 100 or so pages in front of them like a freshman padding a term paper. I can't tell you how many screenplays that I've read start with these exact words…

[BOX: COURIER FONT]

INT. BEDROOM – 6:00 AM

E.C.U. Alarm Clock. BEEPING. A hand reaches in and turns it off…

[END BOX]

At that point I know I've got at least three pages of showering and hair brushing before anything that remotely resembles a story emerges. The script is literally testing my short supply of patience like a boring date or a song with an overly long preamble. Furthermore, I know the writer is prone to scenes that start early and end late so I'm going to be clocking a lot of unnecessary eye-mileage. If the first story beat I read isn't the most spectacular thing I've ever seen, the script is toast.

ROB THE WRITER

I'm taking a break from writing a screenplay to write this article. Here's the first page…

[BOX: COURIER FONT]

FADE IN:

EXT. FOREST – GOD KNOWS WHERE – DAY

GORDON (27), is handsome, athletic, and in generally good health if you don't count the HUNTING ARROW STICKING OUT OF HIS SHOULDER! At the moment he's sprinting through a thick forest. Bleeding to death.

He looks back for a split second. PFFT! An arrow imbeds itself in the tree an inch away from him. A miss? No. He feels the cut in his ear…

[END BOX]

I'm guessing most readers won't want to stop there.

When I'm blocking my first scene, I'm always looking for OPENING ACTION. Some device I can use to engage the reader and push them through my first few beats. While I've got their attention, I'm going to establish a bit of Gordon's character by having him do something freaking awesome to get himself out of trouble.

Now, your script doesn't have to open with a James Bond-like chase. But it could benefit greatly from an event like a wedding or a birthday party. Anything that energizes your character and brings energy to the read. Frankly, anything but "slice of life." 

REASON #2: THE WRITER SHOWS ME THEY'RE OUT OF CONTROL

ROB THE READER

If I'm on page three and there's nothing on the protagonist's calendar, I'm out. If the script doesn't want me to anticipate its next move… I won't.

ROB THE WRITER

I never want my reader thinking that I'm "just writing." They need to know that I know what the hell I'm doing. All writers get around to this in their Third Acts by using Third Act Clocks. They realize the clock's importance and make painstaking moves to construct them. But most writers forget that it's just as important to do this in the First Act. Clocks build anticipation, put dramatic tension into scenes and promise payoffs a few pages later, so why not use them all the time?

The first words in every outline I've ever written are "Today is the day…" It's the day of the race. It's the day Tiana gets the money for her restaurant. It's the day before the election. It's Rapunzel's 18th birthday…

The reader will let you slightly off the hook on page two if they know you're going to have fireworks on page 6.

REASON #3: THERE ARE HUGE GAPS BETWEEN BEATS

ROB THE READER

Okay, I'm a few pages in and I'm sold by either the Opening Action, a fun event or a brilliant character introduction… and then it happens. I slog through the next few pages waiting for the writer to loads the canon for the next beat. Now I'm reading with the same joy I'd have in a restaurant that doesn't start cooking my entree until I've finished my appetizer. The writer's storytelling methods are exhausting and I just start skimming.

ROB THE WRITER

Before the Opening Action is over, I try to "slingshot" my reader through the next few beats by planting a second time bomb before the first one has exploded. In the scene I shared above, the Opening Action is Gordon going to escape from (or killing) the archer who is trying to kill him. Now I have two slingshots. 1) I've got to get him to treatment before he goes into shock, 2) I've got to reveal who is trying to kill him and why. By then, I'll hope to have my reader hooked like a crack addict.

Remember, Hamlet starts Bernardo scaring the crap out of Francisco because he's been expecting to see the ghost which always shows up around midnight. When the ghost does arrive, he tells Hamlet to kill his stepfather. If it's good enough for the Earl of Oxford, it's good enough for me.

REASON #4: THERE'S NOTHING NEW HERE

ROB THE READER

I've seen it all. I've read it all. If your job is reading screenplays, you see the same things over and over. Truly original premises are hard to come by. When I read more than two or three cliches in a row my eyes glaze over because I assume there's a better script on the same subject out there somewhere.

ROB THE WRITER

At Disney / Pixar we do a lot of research. A lot. I know more about the behavior of frogs and the horticulture of the Bayou than any non-zoologist should. So, habitually, when I write I make sure that I've put something in the first few pages that lets the reader know this won't be the average read. Think about the amount of details in the first few minutes of Finding Nemo and the complexity of the song sung by Mr. Ray the science teacher. Think about the cleverness of the heist in The Italian Job or the little procedural Easter Eggs in the first few moments of The Bourne Identity. That's what I'm looking for, even if it takes weeks to write it.

I'm not just selling my spec at this point. I'm selling myself as a writer who can fix whatever that producer has on her desk at the moment. If you've ever heard me lecture (or just bumped into me at a Whole Foods) you've herd me talk about "Heart, Head & Hand." So my heart, my DNA, is on every page. I'm selling my reader on the "head" of my research and the "hand" of my craftsmanship.

The fourth and fifth reasons why I stop reading are the most important. First, I– Aww. There's that pesky school bell. We're out of time. I'll see you back here next week and I'll also tell you a little about the Master Class I'm teaching in April. How's that for a hook? See you next week. Class dismissed!

 
Want MORE of Rob's screenwriting expertise? Go HERE and be sure to sign up for his Master Class!
 
Rob is an Emmy-nominated writer whose credits include In Living Color, Full House and Fresh Prince. His animated feature writing include Disney / Pixar's Oscar nominated The Princess and the Frog and Treasure Planet as well as working on Frozen, Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph. His latest project, The Santa Story, will be released in December 2015. 
 
In 2012, Rob launched www.robedwards.net. On this website, Rob shares the tools he's used to write dynamic scripts for the past 30 years. Rob's passion for teaching has led him to do Master Classes, panels or lectures at Syracuse, UCLA, USC, NYU, BU, The Organization of Black Screenwriters, The Animation Expo and The Scriptwriters Network among others.