This week I opted to give myself a bit of a break among the writing and outlining sessions, and read some scripts just for the hell of it. Admittedly, some of them had been in my “to read” queue for quite a while, and right now seemed as good a time as any to finally get to them.
No notes. No feedback. Just sitting back, relaxing, and losing myself in the stories.
They ranged from a horror to a historical action, a western to a drama based on true events.
And each and every one was fantastic in its own unique way.
It also helps that these are the works of some excellent writers to begin with, so that made the overall experience that much better.
If I’d been asked when I was starting out if I could ever just read a script, I’m not sure if the answer would have been yes. I suspect I’d’ve been too concerned with thinking “what works in this script?” and “what can I learn from this?”
But the experience that’s come from reading and writing scripts has enabled me to look at a screenplay as more than an educational document. I can see solid storytelling, strong plots, three-dimensional characters, snappy dialogue, and all the other elements.
All of those elements combine to make for some darned good scripts.
It’s one of the best pieces of advice when a newer writer asks “How can my scripts be better?”
There’s a vast assortment from which to choose, making it super-easy for you to customize your reading list.
And to take it one step further, numerous members of the online screenwriting community would be happy to share or swap scripts. You just have to do the work in finding something that piques your interest. Believe me, they are definitely out there.
If your schedule allows, try to make the effort to read one to two scripts a week. You’ll be glad you did.
A few weeks ago, I’d mentioned on social media that part of my plan for this year was to continue doing script notes. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, as well as inspiring a few other writers to do the same thing.
(I’m really cutting back on how many scripts I read. I like the idea of putting more time into my own stuff.)
One writer commented that they’d love to be able to do the same for other writers, but they didn’t have much confidence in their own analytical skills.
We’ve all been there. Giving notes isn’t easy, and some are better at it than others.
Like with everything about screenwriting, there’s no secret formula.
It’s all about taking time and effort to learn how to read a script and be able to recognize what works and what doesn’t. And even that takes time to learn how to do properly, or at least effectively.
I’d suggested to the writer they start by just reading scripts. Could they see what’s good, and what’s not? Opinions vary whether it’s better to work with specs or produced material. I tend to favor the former because that way I’m not influenced by an existing film.
Another option was to get feedback on their own scripts, either from a professional or someone within their personal network whose opinion they trust. Do they understand why the reader made the notes they did?
As cliched as this may sound, when it comes to being able to recognize good writing, you eventually learn to know it when you see it.
I really hope this writer decides to start working on honing their analytical skills. Being a good reader really can help you become a better writer.
Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.
So I figured, how about the next best thing?
You guessed it. Guidance!
So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.
WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE
You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.
When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.
The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?
WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE
You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.
The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?
The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.
In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!
Here’s an example I like to use:
“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”
What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.
SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.
When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.
DON’T BE BORING
Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?
Which sounds more visual and intriguing?
He walks into the room.
He struts into the room.
Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?
The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.
Does the writing in your script do that?
BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS
Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.
Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?
This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.
Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.
Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.
And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.
Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.
Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is an expat Australian, a former TV journalist, writer on the globally popular soap opera NEIGHBOURS, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel called LAWRENCE OF AMERICA, and one of the key members of the original BORAT team. He has stories.
In his spare time, Tim is a husband, parent, tennis player, road tripper, and he and his family foster kittens. Seriously. Twitter: @write_la Instagram: @writela
What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?
I hate to be a cliche, but THE CROWN – sets the bar very high. Peter Morgan is a genius. His ability to tell story with and without words, and build tension in scenes that on the page might appear boring, is remarkable. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT had similar skill, attaching us to an unconventional character quickly and effectively. Feature films – I loved PALM SPRINGS – structurally, and characters/dialogue, and who doesn’t love a woman solving the problems using education and intellect!
How’d you get your start in the industry?
I was 22, living in Australia (where I’m from), working as a trainee TV News Producer. I had applied to newsrooms, and I’d called up various TV series, asking if they needed a writer. It was a simpler time. A nightly soap opera, NEIGHBOURS, let me do a writing submission, which they liked – and said they’d get back to me. In the meantime I got the job in TV news.
One day, six months later, I got a call in the newsroom, it was NEIGHBOURS, asking if I’d like to write an episode. I said yes, obviously. They mailed me the scene breakdowns, I typed my script on a typewriter, and ten days later mailed it back. All after working a full day in the newsroom. I did that 5 more times before it all got far too overwhelming. I was the youngest writer they’d ever had, and that experience made it clear to me that writing, in all its forms, was my future.
What was the inspiration for creating the Write LA competition?
We wanted to create a competition we’d want to enter. I’ve been writing for a long time – and I’ve entered competitions large and small. I’ve won a few, placed in a bunch, and it became clear that many of the writing comps out there don’t really do much when it comes to attracting attention, gaining industry access, or launching careers. And pretty much none put any kind of focus on helping writers improve their command of craft. So our goal was to build a competition that somehow combined both goals – to help with the craft, and to help with the access.
What makes Write LA unique compared to other screenwriting competitions?
Two things I think separate us. First, we are a competition run by actual writers. So we are able to deliver a certain degree of respect and admiration for the act of actually finishing a script and entering it – that many competitions lack. We know how it all feels.
Second, we stand proudly in front of the competition. Everyone knows I’m the co-founder and Head Judge. When you email a question, it comes to me. I do an enormous amount of reading, and I’m supervising every aspect of the competition. We try hard not to be a faceless comp where sometimes it can feel like you’re sending your script into a void, and then hoping something emerges. It matters to us that the entrants feel ’seen’.
A big concern for writers entering a screenwriting competition is the quality/experience level of its readers. How does Write LA address that?
I hear that. And I’ve experienced it first hand. A script will make the Nicholl semifinals, and won’t make it out of the first round somewhere else. And then you get ‘feedback’ that feels like it was written by someone who never actually read the script, they just strung a few buzzwords together.
So to address that – I’m heavily involved in the reading process. I’ve handpicked our small team, I do a ton of reading personally, and I set pretty clear parameters when it comes to what I’m looking for when it comes to command of craft. Every script that makes it into our top 15 semi finalists will have been read by at least three different people, including me.
We give every script, whatever the genre, or whether it’s a TV pilot or feature, full respect and attention. And all the additional feedback (offered at an extra fee), is done by me personally. So there is a consistency of the feedback, and a name attached to it (mine). I’m not interested in telling anyone what I would do, I’m focused entirely on maximizing the opportunities presented by the writer and doing my best to empower them to bring the most out of their idea, and their skills.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
Gosh – this isn’t easy to answer quickly, but I’ll try. For me, a good script needs fleshed out characters, who face clear challenges – no matter how big or small. Because no matter how detailed the world, or ‘big’ the story, if we don’t care about the characters, it’s all a waste of time.
Also, an understanding of the audience experience is awesome. A writer who is aware of audience expectations, and is able to manipulate those expectations is exciting. And finally, a clear sense of where the story is heading. Not a lot of extra clutter. Just a solid story, competently and confidently told.
What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?
Misuse of Scene Description is HUGE. Using it to reveal character details an audience couldn’t possibly know. Using it to show off a writer’s literary command – with all sorts of flowery descriptions that waste time, rather than establish ‘mood’.
Not writing an outline. I’m confident I can pick within 5 pages if a writer has an outline, and a firm idea of who this story is about, and where it is going. And taking too long to dive into story. Spending page after page building a complicated world, and then finally starting some sort of story – is a big mistake. Even STAR WARS had a brief title explanation, and then we were into Darth Vader storming Leia’s ship. The rest we figure out as we go.
Lastly, I have to add too many spelling errors. A sloppy script does not inspire confidence.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
A character waking up, turning off their alarm, and getting into the shower as the first thing we see. Happens WAY more often than you would expect, and is not only dull, but unwise. What viewer who sits in a darkened movie theatre wants to see a feature film start that way?
I’m also not a fan of drawn out action sequences. It’s great that you see the car chase in your head, but all a reader cares about is ‘does someone important die?’
Oh, and a shot of ‘overdue bills’ on the kitchen table. Anything but that please. I see a lot of stereotypes with the characters too – which usually tells me a writer is basing a character on another character they’ve seen in a movie or on TV – rather than an actual, flawed, complex human being.
What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?
What you are doing is more about hard work than flashes of inspiration. It’s less about talent than it is about grind.
Accept that re-writing is inevitable. Your first draft will not be a work of art. It’s a starting point.
Learn to receive notes as comments on the words on a page, not a personal attack, or a statement on your writing ability.
Characters are more important than story nowadays. Put the extra effort into figuring out who they are, and their emotional journey through your story.
What you are doing is brave, and awesome, and you should feel very proud of yourself every time you finish anything. Every time. Plenty of people talk about writing something. You went and did it. That’s huge and should never be ignored.
There is no work of art in the history of human beings that has ever been loved by 100% of the people. Accept that your work will not be universally loved – because humans are humans.
Details matter. Every scene matters. Every line of dialogue matters. Everything you do is conveying a message to an audience. Understand and embrace that.
Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?
I read many scripts like that! I read hundreds of scripts a year, so I regularly find writers who are very skilled. As for reasons, I would say the absolute, clear number one is making me feel something. I’m not alone in this. I tell anyone who’ll listen if you can make a reader feel a genuine human emotion, that is FAR more important and impactful than any set piece, world, intricate story or cute scene description. It isn’t even close.
Also, it’s fun to read scripts by writers who think about the audience, and work hard to provide us with a rich, enjoyable experience. I know the expression “write what you know” is popular. My version is “write what you know, but make it accessible to strangers.”
And while I’m here, let me add that writing what you know really refers to your emotional experience and authenticity. Not your time in middle school. If you can dig into your emotional space, which is uniquely yours, and share that on the page – that authenticity connects you with a reader/audience, and goes a long way to establishing what the industry likes to call your “voice”. I’d like to say it was easy to do. It’s not. But it’s important.
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I have to say I’m a big fan of custard. There’s a custard tart in my homeland Australia – a mini pie – which is very much my favorite. But as that doesn’t really exist here – I’m going to say I like banana cream, apple, peach, and I’m a big fan of all the cobblers and crumbles too. I don’t think I’d refuse any pie that came my way.
As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.
In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.
I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.
And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.
Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.
(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)
It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.
Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.
Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.
I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.
For the most part, the reactions were positive.
“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”
No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.
There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.
What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:
WHAT’S THE STORY?
Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.
If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.
The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.
SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?
A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.
For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”
You know what we’d see on the screen?
Bob washing the dishes.
Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?
There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.
A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT
By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.
This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”
I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.
Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)
There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.
“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?
There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.
A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”
This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!
I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.
But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?
Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.
Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.
Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.
DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?
You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.
Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)
And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).
The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.
As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.
Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.
And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.