How to get your Script ReadA Lesson by Gabriel Strange
Some basic that all script writers need to know.
This is the golden question on any writers lips. If someone can read the script then they will at least have given the story a chance. But most scripts are rejected for some devastatingly simple reasons, so simple no one tells you unless you pay them. I’ll divulge some things that will increase the chances the right people will read your script; the rest is up to you.
I’ll cover how I know this is the right method to getting your script read by divulging a few secrets I learned from publishing.
When I ran my own publishing company, we would get 10-15 prospective novels to read a month. Many of these were 100,000 words plus so reading them all and running the company was impossible. I developed a method where I could judge the quality of a novel in less than 30 seconds. First and foremost you need to know the writer can write otherwise your opening up a can of hurt for yourself.
Any novelist worth there salt will write the novel, then go back and rewrite the first chapter, then the first page, first paragraph and final some spend weeks even months on that first line. That first line should have the tone of the whole book while being exciting and have a strong hook, it has to grab you and slap you round the face saying read on this book won’t be a waste of your life.
I perfected the skill of judging a novel on its first line and did accept a few novels without having to go beyond that first line. It’s vital in the novel writing business to have a good first line.
The best first line we ever had was by Steven Pirie in his novel Digging up Donald, it went like this: “It was biscuits at ten paces.” I was sold at that, only six worlds and they are the best six words to start that novel with. The rest of the first paragraph was sheer joy:
“The Mother dunked a custard cream aggressively and peered out over the rim of her teacup. Maureen tapped a shortbread finger against her lip as if she was nervous. In the brief lull in hostilities, the Mother lurked as gentle as a thunderhead in Maureen’s armchair.”
I rang up my business partner at this point and told them were taking this book, I haven’t read it yet but here’s the first line…
The rest is legend. Here are some other great first lines by Iain M Banks.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – The Crow Road
“Apparently I’m what is known as an unreliable narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get” – Transition
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me. ” – The Wasp Factory
Applying this Methodology to Scripts
Like when I was in publishing most agent and producers don’t have time to read the thousands of script they get. So like the first line methodology of novel reading they are looking for evidence that the writer has skill and knows how it all works. Script reading short hand has been developed this is called the Rifle Method.
With this the skill of the script writers skill can be tested in about five seconds, failed scripts get rejected the others will at least get there first page read. This involved picking the script up by the spine with one hand you hold the other edge with your other hand and using your thumb rifle/fan through the pages much like you would rifle through a dictionary, phone book or flick book animation. The things that are instantly apparent from this rifling is firstly formatting, secondly is the use of descriptive test and white space. If there are large blocks of descriptive black text then it hits the reject pile because the script hasn’t been written vertically (I’ll come to this next). The Rifle Method tells the reader you know structure and you can efficiently write your descriptions without flowery prose. If you pass this more than likely the first page will be read.
Novels are written horizontally you read from left to right, script are written vertically you read from top to bottom. In essence if you can describe the scene in five to six words do so, and use even less for actions. Also when writing action, what you perceive as each individual camera shot should be on a new line.
This is the description I wrote in the past, It’s horizontal and would be rejected:
It is a mess but that was me two years ago, now I tend to write vertically, this would at least be considered and probably read.
Now you can see the scripts images better rather than reading them. A shot of Danny looking at the station the next shot a close up of him being roused, a wide of him crossing the road, an insert of HIS trollies contents.
It’s okay for your first draft to be a mass of text blocks, but by the time you come to show it to anyone in the industry get it vertical. It’s taken me two years to find this info out, now I have saved two years of your life you can dedicate to storytelling.
Okay you have passed the Rifle test your script is thoroughly vertical, the next hurdle is structure. Your knowledge of structure should be evident in the first three pages of the script if not the first page. I’d say in the first half of your first page you need a hook, some question you will answer by page ten. This first hook will lead you into the main story hook on page three. This first hook can be as simple as what going on what are we seeing here.
Watch films, but only watch the first sixty seconds then ask yourself what to do I want and expect to know in the next few minutes. If you hook the reader here and again on page three (This hook needs to lead to the main question the film revolves around) there is a good chance they will get to page ten where you have the main question. That question at the ten minutes mark needs to be setup in the previous pages mostly starting at page three after you have established the normal world. Now by page ten you have your plot running you have to keep running until the end, only slowing down to give the audience time to digest a big story event.
Structure is the scaffolding you use to build your story around, it’s vital because if you don’t you end up with a pile of words that don’t make a story. Many people say structure kills creativity, I’d say it gives you goals to aim for marks to hit to keep it interesting, sharp and above all else entertaining. People aren’t going to watch a film if the story isn’t moving forward all the time, structure keeps it moving forward if you follow it you don’t need to worry about keeping it moving.
If you ignore structure you will find a reader and your audience ripping their eyes out because you have made what is technically called a clusterfuck. A cluster of f*****g pointless drivel with no focus or drive. I have to swear there to emphasis the point, I have read a lot of scripts with no structure and I cannot get those hours of my life back, I really want them back. Now do you really want a potential agent/producer to waste there life reading your script, or do you want the hour it takes to read it to be rewarding and fulfilling leaving them with the sense of euphoria good entertainment brings.
This diagram is a good cheat sheet for structure, print it out stick it to the fridge, under your TV, next to your monitor and wherever you write. You need to absorb this and know it by instinct, in reality you subconsciously know this, but you need to make yourself aware you know this.
They need to feel real, they need a reason to exist outside the boundaries of the story. Just like you know when someone is telling you a heap of bullshit about their lives, a reader/producer can tell when a character is doing the same. If the character is telling someone something they have to be living it in that moment they may be re-experiencing a previous event. Now this is where life experience comes in, the lonesome writer locked in a room all his life with no friends because he is dedicated to his craft, is also the worst writer in the world don’t read his s**t.
A good writer will often sit in a bar or coffee shop watching and listening to people, how they talk, emote and the words they use. A great technique is to sit in Starbucks for a day just watching people and listening to how they talk. From the way they act and talk to each other try to work out there relationships, are they telling the truth, are the lying or are they doing what we all do and exaggerating. Then also look to see if they are insecure, our outgoing what single action gives this away, then see what other character traits you can pick up on.
Then listen to their words do they describe everything if so then they are probably acquaintances, or do they have a verbal short hand using half sentences and single words, in which case they are probably best friends. If you spend eight hours watching people in Starbucks that is better than six months on how to develop characters. Take a pen and paper with you and write down words that come to mind that describe the people you see, this will give you a good descriptive resource for character descriptions.
Also you might want to play a game, I love playing, and try to work out there life story just from a few moments of watching them. It is true we all ware our identity externally. The clues are there and once you start to see them you can tell a lot about a person, from the way they walk, talk, act, overact and dress.
People watching is what you have to do and do it all the time, from your desk at work, at the bus stop everywhere you go watch people. You will find that after a month or so of doing this your characterisation will improve so much your previous writing will make you scream and rip your eyes out.
This simple technique will help you develop solid believable characters, that people will engage with and want to know more about how they resolve the stories main question.
That’s the three most important things I can tell you about scriptwriting, vertical writing/formatting, structure and characters. Now the rest is creativity and that is something you cannot be taught but you can develop. A good story is just that, and a good story will always stand out if the above is adhered to.
Doing all of this greatly increases the chance someone in the industry will read your script and enjoy it. If your story is good your next hurdles are: Will the story sell in the current film climate? What marketing hooks will work for the audience this is aimed at?
Genre is firmly in the territory of marketing sticking to one solid genre makes it easy to sell. Genre can be creatively broken so become less relevant to getting it read, and more relevant to the unteachable discipline of creativity.
I will tell you one book to buy, if you only buy one book on storytelling this is the one, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It gives you everything you need to know about story structure, why it works, why it is essential and how character stories work. If you read any other books see if they author has a screen play made into a film then at least they are talking from experience.
Added on September 1, 2012
Last Updated on September 1, 2012
Cardiff, South Glamorgan, United Kingdom
AboutA long time ago in a galaxy far far away I found myself huddled up in a Grebo community in the Midlands, here I started working in Publishing, well not really working more running around panicking as ..