Dos and Don’ts in Screenwriting: The Best of Meet the Reader
The true gatekeepers of Hollywood are the script readers. They are the people who read script after script for a living, looking for the next great film – or at least ones that are saleable.
They understand the importance of story flow and the hero’s journey. They know the three-act paradigm like the back of their hands. If anyone knows what makes a solid screenplay work – and what doesn’t – it’s a script reader.
And that’s what makes the advice given by the various readers and analysts in my “Meet the Reader” column so valuable to screenwriters.
I’ve been fortunate to interview many script readers, some working independently, some for small companies, and others for major studios. And they have shared both what they both abhor (spelling errors!) and love (reversals!) in the screenplays they read.
Below, then is a compilation of “Do”s and “Don’t”s, containing some of the most sage – and sane – advice from these readers. Hopefully they will inspire you to write your best screenplay yet. And may you all receive a “Recommend” – or at least a “Consider.”
Do make sure your story flows.
It sounds incredibly pat and unimaginative, but a sense of story flow has got to be number one. Take me through your story scene-by-scene organically and you’ve got me committed to your page count.
The problem there, of course, is: how does one define organic scene build?
I think it is something that becomes part of the mental muscle memory of a writer as they grow in experience and technique, and so it does remain a vague concept in a way, especially to a new writer. But one sign of when story flow is not working is when many scenes relay the same information over again. That’s a nice red flag for writers to look out for.
After the story flow, that other elusive and tough-to-pin-down quality: a voice. The voice of a writer is closely allied with tone. If a writer can keep a consistency of tone – oh, tone, there’s another hard-to-pin-down term! – then it’s usually a sign that his or her voice has evolved over the course of their experience as a writer.
But I bring up these somewhat ethereal terms as another way of saying that I think they are more important to the overall success of the script than just saying, “Oh, the dialogue is good, the characters were great.” These things will be a natural extension of a screenwriter with a voice, who keeps the tone consistent and the story flow organic. And that becomes innate with experience.
If you can’t sense whether it’s there yet, you need more time to develop it.
Do throw your hero into the deep end.
What really grabs me and makes me want to recommend both script and writer is a hero who’s been thrown violently into the deep end, emotionally speaking.
Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive has not only lost his beloved wife but had life as he knows it stripped away; he’s on his way to prison for the rest of his life. Let Me In’s boy hero is living a nightmare of his own. Viciously bullied at school, his parents are absent and when he finally makes a friend, she turns out to be a vampire.
But all this isn’t enough. Too often, the writer comes up with a fabulous first act, then has no idea where to go with it. So the second act has to be rock-solid, with action, twists and/or reveals that make perfect sense given the setup, but that viewers won’t see coming.
Do reverse expectations.
One of the most important things that speaks to me as a reader is when I see a reversal of expectation. I think reversals are so powerful when done right.
Whether it’s in a comedy that gets a huge laugh, or creating a situation that delivers a lot of conflict, or something that just grabs me and surprises me. It doesn’t have to be a premise that is super new or inventive, but just having something that you wouldn’t be expecting.
I think that is the clearest indicator of someone worthy of a pass. Someone who really brought their A game to a project. I think an early reversal, generally in the first 10-15 pages, is the strongest way to get the ball rolling.
Other readers might think strong characterization or a strong premise are the most important, but I think a reversal is the strongest way to go.
Do introduce your characters briefly.
I want to see characters that are introduced briefly.
What I have been seeing a lot of, for instance, are these very long paragraphs of descriptions for who this character is. It’s like, “Joe Blow is early 40s who has always been troubled and he has to overcome a past by being glib and funny.” And then none of that shows up in the character’s actions or words.
So if I see a whole bunch of prose that doesn’t translate into action or words or actual character development, I am not going to trust that writer to be able to tell a story.
Do know what you’re trying to say.
Your message defines what you want to say with your story. By understanding what you want to say with your story, your message forms. Sometimes, this is conscious. Sometimes, it is subconscious. I think when you have a clear sense of what you’re trying to say with your story. It helps you to write from a deeper place. This is important because it helps us to feel your story and to see you in the stories that you tell.
You begin to find your message by thinking about your why behind your what. Why do you want to tell your story in the way that you do? What inspired it? What do you want to leave behind with it? What do you want your audience to feel? What is the significance of what you are trying to say? By thinking of these things, you will find your message.
And do hard sell.
To get a reader on your side, ideally within the first ten pages, you have to establish what the genre and tone is: how we’re supposed to contextualize this story and how we’re supposed to feel as a general baseline.
You have to set up whose story is being told and why we should care. And you have to get the ball rolling on the premise and/or key conflict(s), or at least foreshadow what kind of premise and conflicts are soon to come.
I always tell writers that, crass and commercialist as it sounds, your job coming out of the gate into Act I is to hard sell. You’re a car salesman and I’ve just wandered onto the lot, but I look like I’m about to change my mind and take off running. You have to jump in front of me, block my egress and convince me why I need to buy this particular car right now.
Those first ten to twenty pages have to shout, “This is my story, this is what and who it is about, and this is why you should care.”
Hooking a reader isn’t about any one singular element. It isn’t about great dialogue, it isn’t about a great character introduction, it isn’t about an awesome image. It’s about collectively using all of those elements to trap the reader and make them care.
Don’t make typos.
I get especially annoyed by typos/mistakes and improper format, because that stuff is so easy to fix. If you don’t care that much about your script, why should I?
If you want to be viewed as a professional, you need to make your script look professional.
I also get frustrated by wooden dialogue, characters who make unbelievable decisions, cliches/stereotypes and concepts that aren’t fully formed.
Don’t get carried away with scenes.
I think action is very hard to get onto the page. I’ll read an action sequence, and I’ll think, “I don’t know who is in this scene or where it’s taking place. I don’t know who lives or dies.” I think it makes sense to the writer, but I can’t figure it out.
Sequences are hard to write. You’re trying to write lean, you’re trying to write active, but you have to write so the reader can figure out who is shooting and if the car has crashed, and whatever needs to happen.
I also think writers can get carried away with their scenes, which I can empathize with. They just keep writing, and they get involved with the dialogue and they don’t know when to stop. At some point there is nothing else being accomplished in that scene. There is no advancing the plot or revealing a character or getting a laugh – the characters are just chit chatting.
Don’t give more information than you give the audience.
It’s a little thing, really, but writers need to be careful that they’re not giving a reader more information than they’re giving the audience.
Writers often include backstory that never comes out in action or dialogue. They’ll often include information that speaks to a character’s state of mind; information that not even Meryl Streep could interpret in a visual way.
Don’t make these common mistakes.
Here’s a handful of common mistakes of writers that come to mind:
One-dimensional characters with unclear aims.
Rambling scenes that go nowhere and do nothing.
Unnecessarily unusual layout.
Poor spelling and grammar.
Don’t describe your female characters as sexy.
It definitely gets pretty tiresome to read women described solely as “beautiful”, “pretty”, “sexy”, etc. I always push writers to go beyond the physical when describing their female characters.
Similarly, I read a ton of female characters that don’t have their own goals and motivations, and exist simply to further the storylines of the men in the script.
Well written female characters, with goals, flaws, and motivations are, sadly, still the exception rather than the rule.
Don’t fight structure.
Writers waste time fighting basic structure. It irks me because I see the very best writers—ones who will win an Oscar some day—waste so much precious energy on wanting to be free, or unique, or defy convention. You can’t.
If you are writing a story, you are taking from things you have experienced, read, seen, heard and felt, and therefore nothing is ever completely new. But you can make it yours. You can make it powerful. You can make sure that when I read your story I can hear your voice in every delightfully constructed scene.
All the great stories, the stories we truly respond to as audience members, hit the basic beats of story structure. You can read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, or Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, or Robert Mckee’s Story, or Sydney Lumet, and you will see they all preach to the same choir: use the basic structure to make your story so powerful that we are left with nothing to say but, “What a ride!”
The strongest writers take structure and use it to make their material the best it can be, rather than wasting time and energy fighting structure, which leads to weak storytelling… and no development deals.
And don’t compare your work to major films.
If you pitch your script as “The Godfather meets Interstellar,” I’m probably not even going to bother reading it.
Don’t try to compare your work to major films. If your script was that incredible and genre-bending, you wouldn’t be submitting it to me. No one buys this. Ever.
Similarly, avoid loglines like “George Washington travels through time to kill Hitler on the Titanic.” A lot of writers mistake randomness for originality — sure, I bet no one has ever written that screenplay, but what are the odds that it’s genuinely rooted in character?
And avoid writing screenplays that talk down to your audience. I’ve read more than my fair share of scripts where characters will go on multi-page monologues about absurd philosophical concepts, where it just sounds like the writer is trying to prove how smart they are.
Being a good writer is distilling complex emotions into something an audience can consume. Some people will argue that writers should only write for themselves, but I disagree completely. I think a writer’s responsibility is to write for an audience. At least, if you want anyone to see your movie.