Hearing your words read out loud by actors can be awful. It can also be one of the most important steps in creating a good script… But only if you’re brave, humble and smart enough to do it properly.
When you write anything, a letter to grandma, a report at the office, or the next Oscar-winning screenplay, you spend a lot of time reading words quietly in your head.
That’s not a big deal if it’s a report destined to only be read. But for a screenplay, or anything meant to be seen, and spoken aloud, too much time in your head can be disastrous.
And those robot voices on screenwriting software don’t count. No nuance, and the robot won’t give their opinion on what worked.
To truly judge if your script is ‘working’ on the levels you think/hope it is—you need to get a live read by actors, preferably in a room with people whose opinions you trust, along with people you’ve never met before.
Hearing your words spoken while you’re in the middle of the creative process is crucial. In a ridiculously short period of time, it gives you insights into your project’s structure, dialogue, even scene descriptions that you cannot discover just by reading it for the 30th time. But… It can also be a total waste of time. Not because some actor screws up your favorite joke, but because you’re not humble, or committed enough to make your script better.
Let’s have a moment of reality. There are some unavoidable truths you need to accept on your path to become a better writer. Your first draft will generally suck. Everyone’s does. So get comfortable with the idea of potentially throwing almost everything from that draft out the window. Even the title. Once you accept that, you’re standing at the foot of a steep, slippery place called ‘rewrite mountain.’ It’s always dark there. And horrible. No one likes this place – not even the chirpy dude in the coffee shop who says he just loves ‘making my story better, Dude.’ He’s lying, high, or delusional. Re-writing is confusing, complicated, confounding but the only way to make anything better. Dammit.
Admit those truths, and the live read is useful. Stay in denial, and you’ll be in a small theater, the only one laughing at your own jokes, assuming everyone else is an idiot, and you’re a unique genius. Newsflash – even the true unique geniuses re-wrote the hell out of everything.
A truly effective live read has two parts—the reading itself, and the note giving/receiving.
When you sit down before the read—accept there are flaws in what’s about to be heard. Understand it’s just words on a page, and more words can be created. Be open to letting go of that line you thought was awesome, but also start listening to your own gut. Really, honestly, listening. Which is different to hoping. Make notes—mental or on a page – of the things you liked, or hated, then see how they compare with everyone else. Try to notice the audience – it’s pretty easy to feel if the crowd is engaged, bored, confused, or with you. Understand and appreciate that this reading is for YOUR benefit—to give you more of an insight into your story. It’s not a lap of honor where you get to show off how you came up with clever swear words. You’re there to work. And you have a bunch of people who are willingly involving themselves in that process.
Sit down before your read with any other thoughts, you are missing a ridiculous opportunity.
When you give pages to an actor don’t just hand them a script, and mumble a thank you. Actors like to learn a little about what you see in your head so they can give you what you think you want. Spend a moment and offer some instructions. If you find you don’t really care how an actor reads a particular character… What does that say about the usefulness of that character?
Once the read is finished—hopefully no actor had a coughing fit during the climactic fight scene, and everyone remembered their glasses. It’s then time for the notes… which is the moment you’ll discover if you left your ego at home. Which is exactly where it should be.
Notes are important, but they can be tough to hear. Especially when they confirm that nagging little negative voice in your head.
But without notes, a reading is just a performance. The actors will enjoy, the audience might too, but you’ll still be left with only your own opinion on what worked and what didn’t.
Here are some simple tips for receiving notes and not getting defensive, combative, weepy, or open to starting a fight:
I tend to write every note down. Or at least look like I am. If the person is taking the time to listen and comment, show them the respect to look like you’re taking their note seriously.
Accept people have different opinions, values, moral codes, religions, all of it, and it will impact how they receive your work. A joke about death won’t land with someone who’s father recently passed away, but you may not know their family history. So just listen.
Then, when everyone’s done—see if patterns emerge. Compare those patterns with your own gut. Because here’s another secret of the live read… No one says you have to obey every random note from every random person. At the end of the day it’s your story, your script. Sometimes a group can get on a roll, which veers the notes into more extreme territory. Feel free to ignore it.
I know it feels confusing—take in other opinions but be true to your gut. How do you decide what’s gut, what’s a useful note and what’s you being lazy/stubborn? Welcome to writing. If you’re having those internal conversations, you are already improving.
If every single note complains about the racist neighbor in your script, but you think it’s a pivotal character to the story you’re trying to tell, then try to figure out what it is about the character in its current form that isn’t delivering the right message. If no one can follow your plot, or doesn’t buy it, then you’ve got bigger issues… But if you really believe in the story you want to convey, step back, and come at it from a different direction. You’re not deleting the current script – so just write another version and see how it plays to you, and an audience. But if you find yourself trying to please every note giver, you’ll end up with a mess of a script… So at some point, take a moment to make sure you’re pleasing yourself more than the note givers. They are advisors, not gospel.
This whole conversation you’re now having about your script would not… Could not be happening without the live read. See how important it is?
Live reads also help the writers giving the notes. Listening to someone else’s flawed script helps you realize your own issues. Forming the right words, and being able to sum up a problem in someone else’s story is an important skill when you’re analyzing your own work.
Don’t fall back on jargon from some screenwriting book you read once about ‘story arc’ or ‘antagonists.’ Blah. Listen to the script being read. Hear the characters/dialogue. Try to follow the scene descriptions, and see if they actually transport you to the place they’re supposed to. Are you engaged in what’s going on, or desperate to check Twitter? See if you can identify issues, work out how to say it respectfully, and maybe offer a possible solution. Chances are one of your scripts has fallen into exactly the issue you’re hearing – too much dialogue, unlikable characters, no ‘B’ story etc, so ask yourself what you would do to try and fix it. Your peer is exposing themselves by putting up an unfinished work. The least you can do is give it a serious listen, and earnestly try to make it better.
Beware sweeping generalizations. Notes like ‘make it funnier’ are useless, and lazy. Be specific, helpful and constructive. The more you do it, the more you’ll enjoy it, and the better your own writing will be.
But, never talk about the writer’s ability in anything other than positive terms. If you find yourself wanting to say ‘you really shouldn’t be a writer’ — stand up, leave the room, and go home to your ego.
Hearing your words being spoken by actors during a live read is helpful, fun, and oddly inspiring. If actors sitting on chairs can make people laugh with your words, then who knows… maybe one day actors standing in front of a camera will have the same impact. Be brave, be prepared to keep writing and re-writing, and find a way to have regular live readings. It will make you a much better writer more quickly than you can imagine. I promise.
LiveRead/LA gives you the chance to hear 20-25 pages of your script read by professional actors in front of an audience. You’ll get live and immediate notes from an ‘Industry Insider’ and other writers in attendance to help you turn your great idea into a great script. Every month we select new scripts, and hold a live reading at a Hollywood Theatre. This series is run by writers to help other writers improve their craft. Follow Live ReadLA on Twitter: @livereadla and Facebook
To submit a script and for more information go to www.livereadla.com
This article was originally published by ScriptMag at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/craft-features/screenplay-feedback-notes/amazing-power-live-read
Tim Schildberger is a former broadcast journalist and award-winning writer of TV and film. He began writing on an Australian soap opera when he was 21, and has been involved in projects as diverse as Jenny Craig commercials, to the feature film Borat. He’s also been staging, and participating in live reads for more than 15 years, and was the recent winner of the Screencraft Live Read Competition at the Nashville Writer’s Conference. He’s the founder/moderator of LiveRead/LA – a monthly live read series in Los Angeles which features an ‘Industry Insider’ and audience members giving constructive notes to selected scripts. To submit a script and for more information: www.livereadla.com