Don't Shoot The Script Reader Get coverage without bleeding
By J.R. Kambak
When writing screenplays aim for specific, useful feedback and nobody gets hurt.
Poof! Your screenplay in a test-of-public reader's reaction just got a pinprick that popped your scribe's ego. Ouch! "It's criminal," you think, as you stand with your script in hand over the bathroom toilet. Get over it; we all have bad publicity days.Getting script coverage is an absolute must in the screenwriting business; developing a tough armadillo hide comes with the territory. But, finding credible coverage for your script that won't push you over the emotional edge is as tricky as, well, writing the script in the first place. Enlisting an objective reader or a writer's group will push you to be your best, or on the flip side kill your inspiration with shark attack notes. If the later is so, they deserve to be shot, figuratively speaking of course. Being a reader doesn't give him or her license to dump their angst on you.
I'm not saying that a critique should be watered-down as a co-dependent poor-me wanna-be enabler of bastardized English, but more often than not, toe-in-the-water script feedback feels like a no-holds-bar, slash-and-burn siege. It feel akin to a knee-jerk reaction formulated in a hodgepodge of condemnation, unmercifully ridiculing your most vulnerable side – the intimacy of your ability to write efficiently both in accordance to grammar and screenplay structure.
The complexities of writing a screenplay always reveal our strengths – for example, dialogue – in one part, and weaknesses – for example, character development – in another. Reader's seem to focus on the later like a pit bull terrier off its leash, consequently killing off your precious germinating seed of inspiration. All you wanted was a few positive strokes, some guidance in how to perfect your writing, a leg up or at least some renewed faith that you can make it as a screenwriter.
Your innocent script is in the first inspirational draft, so all you want is some feedback before plunging into revisions. Why do reader's seem so abusive? My own hard knocks experience indicates that more are coming from a place of my-words-walk-on-water feedback than constructive guidance – most likely because they are perpetuating the caustic paradigm of knocking off the competition before it gets in the door. Therefore, a creditable reader takes on the role of a coach; one who comes from a place of "What I liked about this story . . . and what can be improved upon is . . ." comments, respecting your level of skill and knowledge. Personally, I read through every script, regardless of all the mistakes. I stick it out to the bitter end, and base my notes on the rudiments of script writing.
Rudiments? Well, before you go tossing your script into the city sewer system, I recommend giving yourself a confidence building buffer zone by clearly understanding what feedback you can use, and hold your readers accountable. This is a win/win strategy, a #5 brass tack check list before offering up your script to the reader coverage gods.
Overall, you want to know that your script hit the plot mark, and if it didn't, you want to know why and where this can be corrected. This is broken down in structure analysis, plot and subplot definition, character development that establishes a link between the character and audience, and character arc with emphasis on protagonist/antagonist conflict resolution, momentum, and finally style. All of these elements spin on the "dramatic center" or the nucleus of your storyline.
Another aspect for you to consider is how "light" your pages look. To do this, use sharp, evocative action verbs, nouns, and adjectives to carry the action forward, both in dialogue and scene sequence. Keep it concise and to the point. Think: Zillion dollar words.
Momentum is crucial, as a reader doesn't want to get bogged down with stage direction or expositional writing, which kills the roller coaster ride that you built with your plot pillars. Plot pillars? These are planted within each scene, establishing a bond with your audience through suspense, doubts, desires, foreshadowing, and curiosity, while conveying the next set up. They are the bread crumbs in the forest that build your story to its ultimate climax. The script should hit the ground running on page one and keep up the marathon pace until The End. If it doesn't, then it's ultimately going to get a "pass" instead of a "recommend" to a producer or production house.
Good style involves using good grammar and correctly spelled words. Granted we all make a typo here and there, but to deliberately destroy the English language for the sake of being creative is unacceptable. Having said that, if you take the time to read successful movie scripts, you'll find diversity as wide as your daily thoughts. For example, compare Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill to John Logan's The Last Samurai. Both are martial arts films in different phylums written by the same ontogeny; mammals. In both scripts, the rudiments are there – just tweaked for each writer's particular conceptual genre.
One more thing readers should be looking for is your ability to have tackled the basics. Sometimes your first script is referred to as the "tech" script – the one that proves you know how to build a script with the correct materials and that you're up to speed on the current script format. Once you've got an Oscar nomination under your belt, than you can start to reinvent your script writing to your particular taste, and the rest will follow.
In conclusion, write your screenplays in the vein of the theatre-in-mind for an audience that is hungry for cathartic patterns at the deepest levels, going beyond words, logic, conscious understanding, or rational analysis in the reality of life. If you can accomplish this, you'll have script readers begging for more.
J.R. Kambak is a regular IN contributor and award-nominated screen-playwright, award-winning videographer, and former corporate communications/media relations executive. Contact J.R. Kambak for more information and resources:firstname.lastname@example.org