Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reading a Script

The more time I spend with screenplays and screenwriters, the more I realize how many problems are tied up with a single problem: writers don't know their audience. I'm dealing with a script right now that very generously lets me know when I've come upon the inciting incident and the tragically flawed hero by indicating that directly in the script. He's also included a list of characters, scene breakdowns, and a three-page synopsis. He's got extensive action lines to give me all the backstory and drama, and, just to make sure we're up on all the details, has the characters remind us who they are, why they're here, and what the essential conflict is at the moment in their dialogue. Then there are the flashbacks, the flash forwards, and the montages so we understand the historical context.

The problem is that a movie audience doesn't have access to his copious notes of back-story, character motivation, and survey of the historical period in question.

You can't SEE the movie, because you're too busy reading the story.

A screenplay isn't a novel, of course. And screenplay readers aren't novel readers, either. In fact, they aren't big fans of reading at all. A studio reader may read 6-8 scripts a day, and is responsible for producing detailed notes and making an initial decision on the viability of a script. That's hundreds and hundreds of pages every night. How do they do this?

Basically, they watch the movie. They play out the visuals, the actions, and the set ups in their heads. The last thing they want is someone telling them what's there, or what it's supposed to mean. This just slows them down. They want to see it for themselves. If you need to explain a plot beat, it isn't going to work on screen. A good script reads quickly.

Now, how does a reader keep all the plot beats straight in his or her head? Think back to the discussion of three-act structure. A reader looks for the inciting event, and the second act complication, midpoint, etc. Everyone has their own way of looking at this stuff, and different ways of interpreting the material, of course. But there is a basic way that movie audiences watch a movie. There is a huge set of expectations that we all share. The studio reader simply applies that set of expectations, and measures your script against them.

It's ruthless. It's unfair much of the time. But a good reader doesn't measure how close you are to hitting that perfect formula. She's much more interested in how you exploit those expectations to tell us a good story.

It's stressful giving up action lines and dialogue that tell the reader directly what's going on. But when you start using action lines to SHOW the story -- to bring it to life in front of your audience -- you'll never look back.


A. Dr. Fibes said...

Good advise.
The "reader" is the gate-keeper to your sucess as a writer, your world depends on making them understand your script and love it if possible.

If I were a reader (which I'm not) it might depend on my mood:

Bad mood; I'm looking for a way out of reading the script, spelling errors, weak inciting incident.

Good mood: I want to curl up in my bed with a good script much like a book and when it doesn't deliver ... I wasted my time and the review will be brutal.

How to make a reader happy:

Assume they are super smart! Yes, they get it before you wrote it! Believe it or not ... It's true. They know where you should be in each act, each beat, they are looking for clues that you know what you are doing.

Most of all:

Give the reader what they want, what they expect. You can write your "experimental blockbuster" after you've mastered this phase of getting past the reader.

Any other suggestions to make a reader happy?

Rich said...

For me, there are few turn offs as bad as long description that really has nothing to do with how you'd shoot a scene. When a writer gets caught up in the internals but leaves out the nuts and bolts, it lessens my confidence in the script.

I was lucky enough to write for a production very early in my career. I knew the actors, and could write to their strengths. I watched the director and the DP duke it out over what the meaning of a scene was, because I hadn't really communicated the set up. I realized that the art director doesn't want to read the backstory, but he does need to know what props to buy. It's got to be simple and clear. That's great discipline for any writer.