Script readers are the gatekeepers of producers, studio executives, financiers, directors and actors. If you want to get your screenplay into the hands of the influential people in the entertainment industry, you first have to impress a script reader.
I can tell you how because I am a professional script reader!
You might think that readers are cynical people who are looking to keep you out, but we’re not!
We LOVE great scripts.
It’s easy to get through a compelling story quickly, and we’d all like to be the one to discover the next hit movie. However, script readers also get tired of seeing the same ideas over and over again.
So here are 20 ways you can impress us with your own screenwriting:
1. Create an Original Concept
Around 80% of the scripts sent to me by amateur writers would earn a conceptual PASS. Many writers do not clearly establish their script’s premise at all; others choose concepts that are familiar and predictable. If you can make a reader say “Oh, I’ve never seen that before,” you’ve won.
2. Value Concept Over Execution
If your screenplay is the tenth World War II script I’ve read this week, you’ve got a pretty high bar to hit. But if your script is the only alien fashion movie I’ve ever read, you don’t need to wow me in every area.
3. Stop Referencing Other Movies and Shows
Don’t use description to tell me that your protagonist is just like Rocky, and definitely don’t have him/her say the same lines as Rocky did. Do the characters in your favorite movies quote other movies? Write ORIGINAL material.
Here is a little help on character descriptions with some good examples as well.
4. Include Specific but Efficient Visual Details
Reading a good script feels like watching a good movie. To help me envision exactly what your movie will look like on screen, include visual details about the geographic setting, interiors, action sequences, etc. If you write “She walks down the sidewalk,” should I imagine snow or palm trees? Do I hear traffic noise? Is it crowded or vacant? What is the mood or atmosphere of your movie? A crowded street might feel frenetic and suffocating, or it might be exciting and thriving. An empty one might feel calm and peaceful, or maybe it’s desolate and creepy. No, I don’t want a novelistic paragraph of things we can’t see – but I want enough of what we can.
5. Know Your Genre and Audience
Think about how to please the kinds of audience members who go to see movies like yours. Write what you’d like to see! If you’re writing a romance, include plenty of scenes of flirtation or passion. If it’s a broad comedy, give us some physical humor. In a sci-fi script, you need to do a lot of world-building since readers can’t make assumptions about your world the same way we do about our own world.
6. Find The Most Interesting Angle
A few years ago, a script went around town with Jennifer Lawrence attached to play the daughter of Sean Penn. I want to see that pairing! But the script didn’t get a RECOMMEND from me because the story was about a criminal, and we didn’t see any of his clever crimes. It just didn’t explore the most interesting aspects of the characters’ lives. I feel similarly about the trend of limited-scope biopics. Although I’m glad every biopic writer doesn’t feel the need to write a 140-page cradle-to-grave story, I dislike scripts about A) boring parts of interesting people’s lives and B) boring people who are only tangentially connected to interesting people. Choose “interesting” over “realistic” or “typical.” Most women wouldn’t become drug dealers when their husbands pass away – but Nancy on WEEDS gets to be the center of a TV show, and most women don’t.
7. Run Away From Clichés
It can be helpful to think of successful movies that are similar to yours – but you don’t need to copy all their story beats. What is the way it’s usually done? Ok, great. Write the opposite!
8. Include Women
Women make up over half the population. Do they make up over half the characters in your script? It’s fine if you’re writing about a man – but I’ve read a lot of scripts in which an entire big-city police department or the FBI is 100% men. Come on, that’s just not even accurate. And if you ARE writing about a world that was entirely men (like a period piece) – ask yourself what the women at the time were doing (they existed!) and why an all-male world is so appealing to you. Also, remember that women buy more movie tickets than men, so a more balanced cast is a good financial decision.
9. Aim For Polished Clarity
When a script is filled with typos and formatting mistakes, I assume the writer didn’t care enough to be thorough. No, of course some typos wouldn’t earn an automatic pass. But do you want to give me a reason to be annoyed by your script? Whether you’re formatting an INTERCUT phone call or explaining where a person is standing in a warehouse, your goal should be clarity. Ideally, I’ll stay engrossed in the story and won’t ever need to re-read portions of text to figure out what you’re trying to say. Also, be careful if you use “Find and Replace” to change character names – sometimes you’ll miss things or inadvertently change other words.
10. Work On Your Character Descriptions
The phrase or sentence you use to introduce your character will stick with the reader. Is hair color and eye color really important? Some physicality can help me envision the right person, but I’m more interested in the person’s essence or vibe. Action can also help; instead of telling me someone is “the kind of person who would drop everything to help you,” you could SHOW me a scene of this instead of TELLING me about it.
11. Cut Things Down
I can’t help but groan when I receive a 130-page script (unless a writer has specifically asked me to help them make cuts – I’m happy to do that). Anything under 120 is considered acceptable, but do you really need all the scenes you’ve included? You don’t necessarily need a scene in which a character says “let’s go to the bar” followed by a scene of characters in a bar. We’ll get it. Try to establish multiple things and move the story forward in each scene. Trust your reader to understand what’s going on (you can always have a reader or friend tell you when things are confusing). Also, watch out for lines of dialogue or description that repeat information the audience already knows.
12. Don’t Take “Write What You Know” So Literally
We all like to write what we know. Authenticity is good! But that doesn’t mean your script has to be about a person who moves to LA to be a screenwriter. “Struggling artist” scripts are very common and rarely interesting. Can you put that struggle into a unique world or subculture? Can you write about a person in your life besides yourself? If we only wrote about our own literal experiences, we wouldn’t have any zombie or alien movies.
13. Create an Active Protagonist
What does your character want? What goal must be achieved? What problem must be solved? What obstacles are in the way? What will happen if he or she fails? Who wants him or her to fail? These might seem like basic questions, but I read a lot of scripts about people who sit around and philosophize about life or merely react to what happens around them.
14. Create a Starring Role
Especially for new writers, I recommend zeroing in on a protagonist as opposed to trying to balance an equal ensemble. Beyond helping establish a clear and focused narrative, a strong starring role can help you attach a top actor, which can in turn help you get your project off the ground. Think about your dream actor – how can you get him or her excited about playing the character?
15. Establish Relationships
Once you’ve figured out your starring role, take some time to give your supporting characters their own identities, personalities and goals. Think about how they can challenge or provide contrast to your main character – and don’t be afraid to test their relationships. I’ve read too many scripts about one dude going through the world alone. Who cares about him? Who will he let down? Who will betray him? Moments of relationship confrontation give your script emotional impact.
16. Read Professional Scripts
WE CAN TELL if you’ve never seen a professional script. Now that there are so many available online, you have no excuse! Everything – from how to format an indoor/outdoor flashback to how much description to include for a sex party scene – will be easier once you’ve read a lot of pro screenplays. Eventually, you won’t even need to think about format.
17. Take a Position
I’m on the lookout for interesting characters, not necessarily likable ones. But if your character is doing horrible things, is it clear that the script doesn’t condone these things? I’d also ask yourself if the bigoted guy learning to be woke is really interesting or progressive when you could be writing about a marginalized person instead.
18. Surprise Me
The best twists make readers assume something without realizing we’re assuming something. We assume that people are alive, that time is moving forward and that people are who they say they are. See if you can subvert expectations!
19. Study Structure
Some writers chafe at Hollywood’s classic feature three-act structure, but industry pros will expect you to adhere to it. One company I wrote script coverage for even required that I break down the plot based on typical structure points. Learn the basics before you try to break the rules, especially in your first scripts. All too often I see scripts without clear act breaks or scripts that don’t really move into act two until page 50. Halfway through your script, I shouldn’t still be wondering what your concept or genre is.
20. Aim For Tonal Consistency
Does the tone of your script match its concept, genre and theme? Does a lighthearted plot turn too serious or dark? Is there too much violence for your intended audience? Make deliberate choices when it comes to tone.
Sure it's a lot to take in, but if you can even just get about 10 of these ways checked off next time you submit a finished screenplay, you'll be way ahead of the game.
If you have an idea and want to get started writing then use our Free Screenwriting Seminar to get started!
Amanda Pendolino is a screenwriter and script reader. If you’re interested in getting TV or feature script notes from Amanda, you can find more information on her website: www.AmandaPendolino.com