Script Readings: Listen and Learn

By Michael Schilf · January 31, 2011

It’s one thing to write a screenplay, another to rewrite it, and something else entirely to listen to what you have written. And creating an opportunity where a screenwriter can observe and listen to the story – to what’s surprising, what falls flat, and see how an audience responds – is a tremendous asset.

The truth is that as screenwriters we have already shot the movie, designed the sets, and played every part in our mind’s eye, but film is a collaborative process, and what we think is fantastic is often flawed. Dialogue that we’re certain is necessary might be redundant and long-winded, or scenes that we think are compelling could actually be a bit of a bore and not essential to moving the story forward at all. But it’s incredibly hard to see all this when we’re stuck inside our own movie heads.

This is exactly why an organized reading of your screenplay can be a great benefit, but if you do it, make sure you do it right. It’s your job to pay attention, not impress your friends with interesting dialogue delivery. Just because you love a particular character and secretly dream of playing the part on the silver screen does not mean that a script reading is the time to indulge your fantasies.

Readings are done primarily to help writers observe what’s working and what isn’t – often followed by a creative discussion with the readers and/or audience, if there is one – in order to aid the writer(s) with the next draft. And regardless of the level of reading execution – a tenth revision performed by professional (or semi-professional) actors or simply a first draft table read with friends (coffee included, of course) – writers should be far removed from the actual presentation.

When you are too intimately involved with the performance of the reading itself, you miss too much. You’re more concerned with delivering your next line than being open to new interpretations of character, or paying attention to audience reaction, or listening to how each scene plays out: what’s working, what’s not. If you want to improve your screenplay, check your ego at the door and sit back, with pen and paper in hand, so you can truly listen and learn.