The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-consultant-Scriptmag contributor Ray Morton.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. He writes the Meet the Reader column at Scriptmag.com and is the author of seven books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting and A Quick Guide to Television Writing. Ray is available for script consultation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
I recently re-watched ORDINARY PEOPLE for the first time in a long time and was blown away by how precise Alvin Sargent’s wonderful screenplay is. To begin with, it’s a very moving story. The construction is incredibly tight — always moving forward toward the climax. And every scene and moment in the script both reveals character and moves the narrative forward. It is masterful work on the level of a Swiss watchmaker.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
A friend of mine worked in development at Castle Rock. She told me they were looking for readers. I was already a working writer, but was looking for work in between gigs, so I did a piece of sample coverage. They began using me and things went from there.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
I think you have to have an affinity for good writing. Whether that can be taught or not, I don’t know. For me, it developed naturally as a result of doing a lot of reading, which I’ve always done since I was a kid. I think you can be taught what elements make a viable screenplay.
4. What are the components of a good script?
A good script starts with a strong premise. From there, a story must be developed that is well constructed and makes the most of the premise. A good script has a protagonist with a strong, clear goal that develops in the first act and that he pursues throughout the second and third acts.
The protagonist must be someone we care about — not like, necessarily, but who we have some sympathy for and in whose plight we can invest ourselves emotionally. The supporting characters should be vibrant and distinctive. The dialogue should be strong — each character should speak in her/his own unique voice. The script must be what it promises – a comedy must be funny, a horror movie must be scary, a drama must be moving, and so on. And the ending must be satisfying — it must feel like the absolutely right conclusion to the story we’ve just witnessed.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
By far, the most common mistake aspiring screenwriters make is to spend all of Act I setting up a particular premise and then abandoning that premise in Act II and taking off on an entirely different tangent, so that the script ends up reading like two entirely different stories that just happen to feature the same characters. The other most common mistake is a lack of clarity — as to what the premise of the story is, who the protagonist is, what his goal is, what the motivations behind the major actions and events in the story are, and so on. A third common mistake are scripts written like novels, with paragraph upon paragraph devoted to telling us what a character is thinking and feeling on the inside — things that will never be seen on screen.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
I’m tired of non-linear storytelling — there has been so much of it in the last ten years and so little of it done well. I’m tired of flashbacks, which are overused and ruin the flow of stories. I’m tired of stories that begin in the middle, jump back in time, then catch up halfway through. All of these things have been done to death to the point where I am longing to read a story that begins at the beginning and unfolds chronologically until it ends at the end.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
I’m not a big believer in rules per se, but the three things I think screenwriters need to know are:
-Screenwriting is dramatic writing and you need to understand the basic principles of dramatic writing to be an effective screenwriter.
-You need to rewrite. Too many aspiring screenwriters are reluctant to rewrite – they’ll futz around the edges, make a few cosmetic changes, and leave it at that. You must be ruthless with your work — willing to go over it again and again and really fix what doesn’t work, or you will never write a good script.
-This is a business and you must act accordingly — there are no shortcuts or magic tricks, no one owes you anything, and you must behave professionally at all times even if the people you’re dealing with do not.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt recommend? If so, could you give the logline?
I’ve read two. One was the script that eventually became the Geoffrey Rush film SHINE. The draft I read was just about perfect (although the final film was very different from the screenplay and I didn’t like it nearly as much). The second was a script called CRICKET SPIT, about a young girl whose doctor father lies to her (out of well meaning kindness) about her best friend’s terminal condition, which causes a rift between parent and child. It was a “small” movie and never got made but it was terribly moving and just brilliant.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
The top 5 or so — the Nicholl, Big Break, etc. – can be very worth it, because most of those contests can bring you to the attention of the industry in a number of ways (hooking you up with producers, introducing you to managers and agents, etc.). The lesser ones – ones sponsored by no-name organizations and ones that keep urging you to add extra services (buying coverage, buying a seat at the awards ceremony, etc) – are a waste of time and money.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Chocolate silk, hands down.