How Script Readers Look at Screenplays

“Script readers… what is their deal?”

– Not Jerry Seinfeld

In this post, we’ll cover specific tactics to help make your screenplay more appealing to script readers and to increase the chances of getting a favorable review from them. We can always use more help with that, right?  But more that that, these topics can help improve your screenwriting skills in general.

YOU WILL GET IN THIS POST:

  • Greater insight into the mindset and personal experience of script readers.
  • A list of important “big picture” elements that script readers look for.
  • Over 14 ACTION ITEMS you can take to help improve your screenplay.

While writing our screenplays, we can’t help but think about that first person that will read our script:  the Script Reader.  Who are they?  More importantly, what are they looking for?  What things will both help and hurt my screenplay in terms of garnering their favorable opinion?

Can these questions even be answered definitively?  Sorry, but the answer is… nope! The industry is too broad and there are too many different script readers to ever be able to create a single answer to these questions.

But we can identify some topics that can help us avoid pitfalls, include stronger material, generally improve the overall quality of our writing and submissions, and most importantly… have the script readers promote our script for further consideration!

Script Readers: Who They Are and What They Experience

So who are these script readers?   Sometimes they’re exactly what the name indicates – people hired to read scripts on behalf of of individuals or companies to help wade through the huge number of screenplays they receive in submissions.

But other times, the people reading the screenplays are producers, agents, writers, directors, actors, or other entertainment professionals. So not always are the script readers people in entry-level positions.  What does this mean?  You never really know who is going to read your script when you send it out, but one thing is certain: they all want the screenplay to be good.

  • ACTION ITEM:  Make a list of anyone you know who reads scripts in any form or level (producers, agents, directors, actors, anyone else in the entertainment business), and ask them for their perspective on what makes for great scripts.

Script readers determine the overall quality of the idea and writing of the screenplay and make a recommendation on how to proceed with the material. This usually comes in the form of three words: “recommend,” “consider,” or “pass.”  These words are the script coverage versions of “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.”

How hard is it to get a “recommend” or even “consider”?  Well, in general… it’s hard.  But there are many things we can do to increase our chances.  First, it’s important to understand what script readers experience as they read – putting ourselves in their shoes is the first step to knowing how best to approach our own material.

  • ACTION ITEM:  While talking to people on your list (above), also ask them what makes them grant scripts “recommend,” “consider,” and “pass.”

Understanding the Script Readers’ Experience – Good News and Bad News

Before we can make our material better, it’s helpful to understand what script readers go through on a daily basis.


The Good News About Script Readers

The good news is that most script readers are on your side.  They want your screenplay to be good – really they do!  Script readers have read tons and tons of bad scripts already, and it can generally be said that when they read any screenplay, the script reader is hoping for the best.

Here are a few other pieces of good news:

  • A good script reader will see the potential in in a project, even if the script isn’t well executed.
    • Even if you’re not the most expert screenplay writer, if your material has heart or entertainment value or marketability, there is a good chance that a good script reader will not just dismiss it outright.  Our job as screenwriters is not to bank on this, but instead to impress the script readers, and on many levels.
  • Script readers can forgive a fair amount.
    • Is your script hitting many good marks but also missing many?  Script readers will understand this.  Whether it’s something difficult like structure execution (see below) or something more basic like typos, script readers are prepared to forgive some things if others are working.  They understand that no script is perfect, and they don’t expect yours to be either.
  • You are not alone in your mistakes.
    • No matter what mistake you’re making, many other writers make the same or similar mistakes, and script readers are prepared to see them.  This thought may or may not help your screenplay for any particular evaluation, but it’s a good thing to remember so that we are not too hard on ourselves all the time.


The Bad News About Script Readers

Did you think there was only going to be good news?  Don’t we all wish!  Here are some sobering realities:

  • Script readers need to say “no” more then “yes.”

    source – christoperming.com

    • Think about it: any particular company, production arm, development staff, producer, agent, or actor can only take on so many projects.  Inevitably, there are far more screenplays than there are opportunities to produce them, so only a very small number of screenplays can be selected for actual consideration.  Unfortunately, the chances of you getting a “pass” over a “recommend” are big, simply because of the huge number of scripts in the world at any time.
  • Some script readers are new to the industry.
    • Sometimes the people who are hired to be script readers are just starting out in the industry and therefore have not yet had much experience in the business.  This means they may or may not understand your particular script or genre or marketability factor.  There’s not much to be done about this, but the silver lining is that script readers tend to learn very quickly, so take comfort in that.
  • Readers have different agendas and tastes, and you will never win all of them over.
    • Sorry to burst any bubbles here, but it is extremely unlikely any single screenplay will be given a “recommend” by 100 percent of all script readers.  Just like in life, you can’t please everyone all the time. And don’t try– make your material geared toward certain markets and become more savvy about submitting to the right people for those markets.   One person’s “dumb teenage comedy” is another person’s “hilarious teenage comedy.”
    • ACTION ITEMS:  First, if you have the mentality of “I’ll submit to everyone and see what happens,” change this thinking to “I’ll submit to a strategic list.”  Then make that list. While making your list of who to submit to, include a REASON why you think this would be a good person or organization to submit to.
  • Script readers are tired.

    source – scriptmag.com

    • They’re usually overworked and have to read many scripts per day or week. Try to make their job is easy as possible by making your screenplay as easy as possible to read by addressing as many topics in this post as possible.  Also, keeping your story and scenes efficient and engaging will help a tired reader stay engaged.
  • Some scripts readers are jaded.
    • Some script readers have seen it all. And many times over.  You think your screenplay is original and clever – and it might be – but these particular script readers are harsher critics and are more difficult to impress.  Hopefully you won’t get a jaded script reader, but it happens.
  • They see you.
    • For better or for worse, script readers can usually determine how seasoned of a writer you are, whether you’re advanced or more new to screenwriting or something in between. Even script readers with minimal experience can often see this.  You might be able to hide certain shortcomings through multiple careful passes, touch-ups, and proofreading, but for the most part, skill level cannot be hidden.

Now that we understand some of the script reader’s mentality and experience, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of what they look for in the writing.

What They’re Looking For

So how many different, specific topics are there that script readers can possibly look for?   A LOT.

Depending on what kind of read they are doing and for what purpose, each reader will have their own list of exactly what they’ll cover in their evaluation.  These topics can range from large-scope elements to fine details, and there is no standard list of them.  Here are just a few of the many specific items they could look for or consider:

Pacing                                                                       Stakes
How characters are developed                   Tone
Scene execution                                                 Does the first scene grab the audience
Emotional punch                                                Believability
Efficiency of plot                                                 Efficiency of scenes
Turns of story                                                        Pursuit of goal(s)

… and the possibilities go on and on.  In reality, there is no telling exactly what each reader will be checking for.

BUT – Here are some topics that are probably looked at the most, and would probably be agreed on by the majority of script readers as “very important.”


“Big Picture” Topics Script Readers Look For

The following are some of the broader topics that script readers evaluate and look for during their reading.

  • You have a new idea / fresh concept.
    • It can’t be stressed how important a fresh concept is in screenwriting.  Many screenwriters think they have a new idea but they actually don’t.  The result is, many submitted screenplays are derivative of something we’ve seen before.  How to tell if your concept is new?  Do your homework and make sure you can prove that nothing like this has been done before, whatever the medium and/or genre. If it is similar to an existing project, then you will have to identify how your idea is different.
    • ACTION ITEMS:  Check to see if your idea is fresh by doing multiple internet searches: one that includes your specific story idea, another in the genre (and subgenre) of your project. If you find a project that is similar, tweak or overhaul your idea with other choices that make your screenplay definitely different from the existing project(s).
  • You understand genre, specifically the genre of your own screenplay.

    • It’s mind-boggling how many writers don’t understand genre fully, and more importantly, cannot accurately define the genre of their own screenplay.  Not sure what the difference is between sci-fi and fantasy? Can’t tell us clearly what makes an action different from a thriller? Didn’t know that “coming of age” is not a genre?  Don’t know the difference between a genre and a subgenre? If you find yourself not sure about your answers to any of the above and/or you can’t succinctly explain the genre of your project, then you need to learn more about genres.
    • ACTION ITEMS: Read our tutorial on Genre, read five (5) or more books and eight (8) or more webpages devoted to the explanations of genres.  Look at 50 or more IMDB pages and note what the genre of each project is.
  • The idea is marketable.
    • Yes, your screenplay’s idea needs to be new and original, but if you want serious consideration from most people in the business, it also has to have the ability to succeed in the market.  Some ideas, even if completely new, end up being “interesting,” but that doesn’t automatically make people want to buy a ticket.  While it’s not our job as screenwriters to understand marketing on an expert level, we have to have the basic grasp of what people will want to see and or pay for.  Of course this is a broad topic that extends across many different markets and levels, but within each market you should have an idea of what will sell and why.
    • ACTION ITEMS: Research the specific genre in which you’re writing and identify 10 or more projects that have been successful within that genre within the past 2-5 years.   Make a list of qualities that these projects share and determine if your project also shares these qualities.  ADDITIONAL ACTION ITEM:  Make a list of movies or television shows that you thought were “interesting” but didn’t work on some level.  Identify why you think they didn’t work or succeed.
  • Structure execution.
    • In the screenwriting community and in its related materials, you will constantly be told about structure and how important it is to screenwriting. Here at Open Screenplay we are no different.  Screenwriting is all about structure!  Do you understand approximately how many pages each Act should take up in your screenplay? Do you understand how storytelling structure applies to each story line of a television episode?
    • ACTION ITEMS:  Find five (5) books or articles on story structure and read them.  Also read our tutorial on Story Outline, which includes information about story structure.
  • Your Act 2 Adventure pays off your new idea.


    source – shutterstock.com

    • If the middle half of your screenplay does not show what was promised in the logline, the script reader will either be confused or chalk it up to you not being a good enough screenwriter yet.  We need to give the audience what they’re paying for, and in general, that refers to Act 2 entertainment.  Give us what you’re selling!
    • ACTION ITEM:  Check each scene within your Act 2 (regardless of medium) and ask if it is paying off or referencing your logline’s Adventure.  If any particular scene does not, consider cutting it.  You can also rework the story if that’s the more appropriate action to take.
  • There is a point or message – also known as Theme.
    • Sure, it’s great to read fun scenes that have awesome genre moments and attention-grabbing lines of dialogue.  But if there isn’t a bigger point behind it all, then it won’t mean as much to the audience as it could.  Theme is the “bigger idea” behind your plot.  It’s what will make the screenplay really resonate with the audience and make the experience more satisfying.
    • ACTION ITEMS:  1) Do a brainstorm of the Theme for any screenplay idea you already have by writing multiple versions of what you are trying to say or what point you’re trying to make in your screenplay.  2) Choose some movies or television episodes you love and identify what resonates with you on a deeper level, and write out a Theme statement for each.  3) Read our tutorial on Theme.

Those are some of the biggest and most common elements that will be under scrutiny by the script readers.  Sure, we understand that those are some large, difficult topics to cover in screenwriting.  But they are vital. No one said this was easy!

You can use the action items provided to help you get a better evaluation from script readers.  And hopefully, that coveted “recommend!”

Enjoy!

8 Comments

  1. Lisa Street February 16, 2019 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    It’s so Much to write about today, where do I Start?…

    • Jason Bash
      Jason Bash May 18, 2019 at 3:24 am

      You’ve very right, Lisa… always lots to write about. Start wherever you’d like! There’s no wrong way to get into it, and in screenwriting you can start with any idea and grow out your story from there.

  2. Lisa Street February 16, 2019 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    It’s Everything And Everybody To Write on These Days. From Social Media To Your Hone For Work, Stories Are Everywhere.

    • Jason Bash
      Jason Bash May 18, 2019 at 3:25 am

      Agreed, stories are everywhere. Let’s create more…

  3. Chareese E. Livingston May 28, 2019 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    SMH . I’m telling the truth ! I’ve been a writer and photographer for 15 yrs. !!! How do I submit my screenplay ? Is this contest real ?

    • Jason Bash
      Jason Bash May 28, 2019 at 5:28 pm

      Hi Chareese, thanks a lot for your question. Yep, it’s a real contest! You can enter your screenplay by going to http://www.openscreenplay.com and clicking “Start Screenplay” from the top menu. The guidelines for the contest will be in a link there. Cheers!

  4. Sabije September 6, 2019 at 9:15 am - Reply

    Hi
    I’m ghost writing and I have 4 screenplay
    Did I have write to submit my short screenplay here and is this contest real.

    • Jason Bash
      Jason Bash September 6, 2019 at 9:37 am

      Hi Sabije,
      Thanks for your question. Our contest is indeed real, however it has closed and the winners were announced in August. We will have other contests in the future, so stay tuned for those. In the mean time, that’s great that you have 4 screenplays and we hope that you participate in Open Screenplay. Cheers!

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