As a screenwriter who has yet to break into the industry, your job isn’t to write for the movie audience — your job is to write for the script reader.
When we say script reader we’re referring to anyone who is reading your screenplay for consideration — interns, assistants, contest readers, contest judges, studio story analysts, professional script readers, producers, development executives, agents, and managers.
Whether screenwriters like it or not, you have to keep the script reader happy to increase your chances of breaking through those difficult-to-scale Hollywood walls. Here are five insider tips on how to keep the script reader happy during the read of your screenplay.
1. Simple, Straightforward, and Easy to Decipher Script Format
A script reader’s worst nightmare is choosing a script from their endless pile of assignments and opening it only to discover that it’s horribly formatted. It’s inconsistent, busy, and just overly complicated to read. It has flashbacks, montages, dream sequences, camera angles, camera directions, inserts, complicated location headings, overly detailed scene description, and multiple transitions (all of these or variations thereof).
Reading a script like that means that there’s going to be a lot of stop-and-go with each page. That drastically affects the read of the script and drastically affects a script reader’s ability to visualize the cinematic story without having to interpret so many visual elements that novice screenwriters feel the need to force.
Keep it simple. 99% of the script should be comprised of nothing more than the basics elements of format — slug line (INT/EXT LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT), brief scene description, character names, and dialogue. The remaining 1% can allow for added stylistic elements like using CAPS to accentuate an important part of the scene description, maybe a transition or two (DISSOLVE TO), perhaps a montage if needed, etc. Beyond that, keep it simple. Whoever reads your script will thank you for it.
2. Have an Intriguing Concept
Let’s face it — if you want to break through the incredibly dense spec script market, you need a concept that pops. You need something purely original (Memento), or you need a unique take on a familiar premise or genre (A Quiet Place).
The concept is so important, so you must choose what you write and market wisely.
As an unknown, you’d be better off having an amazing and original concept accompanied by average writing as opposed to small dramatic character studies or quirky little comedies written amazingly. Sad, but true. And if you have an amazingly written high concept script? Even better.
The concept is what will excite the writer. It’s what will keep them engaged. It’s what will trigger their curiosity when the concept is introduced early on in your script (see below), enough for them to ask themselves as they read, “I wonder how and if they’re going to pull this off.”
3. Introduce the Core Concept of the Script Early
All script readers have been there. They’ve found themselves ten to twenty pages into a script and had no clue what the script is about. Sure, the writer introduced characters and their world, but if the concept is clear and present within the first few pages of a spec script, it can be frustrating and force readers to disengage.
In A Quiet Place, the concept is introduced during the opening sequence. We know the characters, we know the concept, and we know the conflict — all in the first few minutes of the film (and shooting script).
Slow burn scripts in the spec market and frustrating reads because it can take even up to thirty pages to really know what the concept really is. And that script reader has dozens of other scripts to read.
So if you want to keep them happy, introduce that engaging concept in the opening few pages.
4. Keep the Reader Engaged Every Few Pages
Most novice screenwriters make the mistake of just presenting their concept and then letting things play out as characters deal with the conflict of that concept. That’s not enough.
You have to actively shake things up every few pages from beginning to end. You have to offer reveals, twists, and turns, no matter what the genre is.
Here’s a simple trick to accomplish this. Most screenwriters waste the first ten or more pages introducing the characters and their various arcs. Why waste those precious pages with character development? Instead, just toss the characters into the concept and let the reader learn about those characters as they are forced to act and react to the conflict at hand. That offers you the ability to reveal things every few pages.
Beyond the characters, when you’re dealing with the story and plot, you have to remember to offer up twists and turns every few pages — big or small. Lead readers down what they may feel is a predictable and obvious path, only to push them in a unique, original, or surprising different direction. Don’t let them be able to put that laptop or script down because they’re so enthralled with the constant engagement.
It’ll keep the reader utterly engaged throughout the whole script because they won’t truly know what’s coming within the next few pages. They may think they know until you surprise them once again. And yes, that will keep any script reader very happy.
5. Keep Them Invested
It’s one thing to keep a script reader (or anyone) engaged in your screenplay, and a whole different thing to keep them invested.
When a reader is engaged in the script, you’ve managed to offer writing that has the key elements of character, story, and plot progressing well from beginning to end. You’ve provided some twists and turns throughout, keeping the interest of the reader.
But when you’ve offered a sense of catharsis, the script reader is invested in the characters and story. Catharsis is the ultimate element of every great film. It’s the highest level of excellence a screenwriter can achieve. It encapsulates the reader’s connection to the characters you’ve presented and the peril or conflict you’ve put them in. In short, when you’ve written the script well, the reader is invested because they care about the characters. They want them to survive. They want them to overcome.
You accomplish this by making the plights of the characters real and in touch with universal themes that everyone can identify with. It’s not enough to just showcase a concept and then go from Point A to Point Z by plotting out a story. There has to be emotion and themes present in your concept, your story, and your characters. For dramas it could be sadness, for horror flicks it could be fear, for romance stories it is usually love, for thrillers it is often about survival, for action flicks it can be exhilaration, and for comedies, it’s the hilarity of the situation you put those characters in.
Don’t rely on your concept to carry otherwise bland characters. The script reader needs and wants to give a damn about those characters. That’s what keeps them invested — and happy.
These are all ways to keep that script reader happy. Whether or not they respond to your script and whether or not your script is something they (or their bosses) are looking for is out of your hands. But these five directives will increase your odds of them staying engaged and invested in your script from beginning to end, tenfold.
The bonus directive is to keep things consistent. Let the format remain consistently simple and easy to read. Let the promised concept you introduced early on be consistent throughout the whole script — you sold them on that concept, now it’s time to deliver from beginning to end. Let every few pages consistently engage them — and offer elements that keep them invested as well.
Take these five directives to keep script readers happy to heart. These elements are important. With each and every script you write, make sure that you can honestly check these five boxes, and also make sure that you’re consistent with each and every one of them.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies