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Before You Leap: What To Do With The First Draft Of Your Script

By Ray Morton

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You've been working furiously on your script for months. You came up with a great idea, worked it out to perfection and have been burning the midnight oil to get it down on paper. Spurring you on is the fact you've already informally pitched your story to a few industry contacts, all of whom have told you they can't wait to read it. Spurring you on even more is the steady stream of articles in the daily trades talking about how the spec market has never been hotter. Practically causing you to break the sound barrier is the fact that two movies in the same genre as your script have recently opened huge, creating a demand for similar product that you are certain you can ride to fame, fortune, and a great career. And now, here you are, typing out the last scene. The hero triumphs, the villain is vanquished, dangling plot strands are resolved and the principals ride off into the sunset. FADE OUT. THE END. So, what do you do now? The answer is obvious. You print that sucker out, run off a dozen copies at Kinko's, and blanket the town, right?

Wrong. At least in my opinion.

"You only get once chance to make a first impression," the saying goes and nowhere is this truer than in the world of screenwriting. The first read is the key moment in the life of a script. If the initial reader likes it, the script will move on up the food chain. If not, then the script will die on the spot. (Rarely will a script be given a second look if it has been found wanting on the first.) For a script to make an excellent first impression, everything about it has to be tip top, yet from experience I can tell you that most of the scripts that get submitted are not - either the plots are unclear or full of holes, the characters are poorly developed, the dialogue is fuzzy, or the presentation slipshod. The question then is, if writers know how important it is to present an excellent script, why do so many send out scripts that aren't? The answer, I think, is that these writers don't know their scripts are lacking. Given that these are talented, capable people, how can this be?

To me, the reason isn't hard to suss. Writing is, by its very nature, a solitary endeavor. Writers usually work alone, lost for months on end in the twists and turns of their stories and easily prone to being spun around by the constant thinking and rethinking any creative activity requires. Given this, it's not hard to see why even the best writers can lose objectivity concerning their work, without which they can miss seeing problems that an unbiased eye would easily catch. The issue, of course, is that if a writer sends out his script without catching and correcting these problems, he can find himself losing the race before he ever gets out of the gate. For this reason, I feel it is imperative for writers to find ways to get an objective view of their scripts so they can catch and fix problems and mistakes before they send it out to the marketplace.

To accomplish this, I suggest doing the following:

1. After finishing your script, let it sit for a few weeks. Put it in a drawer and go off and do other things - kick back, work on other projects, eat a lot of doughnuts. When the two weeks are up, give the script another read. After such a layoff your mind will be clearer and I guarantee that things will jump out at you that you never saw when you were caught up in the fury of creation.

2. Give the script to others to read. By definition, other people are able to see your work more objectively than you can. The trick, of course, is to choose the right people. Your Great Aunt Millie might make wonderful chocolate brownies, but she might not be the best person to assess your high-octane action adventure spectacular. Give the script to someone whose taste and opinions - especially about movies - you value and whom you know will be honest with you. This is tricky because people who care about you may have a hard time telling you that they don't like something. The problem, of course, is that potential buyers aren't going to care about your feelings, they're only going to care if the script works or not, so you really have to choose people you know are going to tell it to you straight. It's also important to ask more than one person to read your script. One person's opinion is only that, but if several people give you the same reactions to the same points, then you'll know that these are legitimate issues that you need to pay attention to.

Once your readers have finished, don't settle for a generic response such as "It was good," or "I liked it." Instead, ask your readers to tell you exactly what they did and didn't like about the script and why. To assess how well your plot works, ask your readers to tell you the story of your script. If the one they tell you is the one you think you wrote, then you're in good shape, but if it's not, then you better find out why your readers got a different idea than the one you intended to convey. What did they miss? What did you fail to make clear? What did you leave out or what did you include that took people off track? Ask your readers to tell you their favorite scenes Are they the ones you intended to be standouts? If not, find out what those scenes failed to make an impression and why the ones the readers did like made the impression they did. It's also important to make sure that readers identify your script's correct genre. If you think you wrote a drama and they tell keep telling you how gut-bustingly funny your script was, then clearly you have some retooling to do.

3. To assess how well your dialogue works, I suggest you hold a reading. If you know some actors, ask them if they will take part. If you don't, a group of enthusiastic friends will do just fine. Gather everyone together (offering to spring for beer and pizza is usually a great incentive), assign everyone a part, and let'er rip. Make sure you have someone whose sole job it is to read the stage directions to keep things moving. You shouldn't do this. In fact, you should not participate in any way in order to keep yourself clear and available to take everything in. Your only job at this point is to just sit back and listen. Hearing your dialogue spoken aloud by someone other than yourself is always an eye-opener - you can hear it if it sounds natural or stiff, determine whether or not the points you're trying to make are clear, assess the pacing and flow. If you're writing a comedy, then I believe that a reading is essential - it's impossible to determine how well a dialogue joke works until you hear it spoken aloud. You might consider taping the reading so you can have it available to review as you rewrite.

4. At the end of all this, you will have accumulated a tremendous amount of feedback about your script. The most important thing for you to do now is to LISTEN TO THAT FEEDBACK. It's hard to hear that something you've worked on so hard is not 100% perfect, but if you want to make your script the best it can be, it's important for you to resist the urge that so many writers can't to delude yourself. (The most common phrases uttered by a delusional writer: "You just don't get it." "It'll make sense when you see it on the screen." "Everybody else liked it." This last one is usually said with an adorably sulky pout. And, rest assured, it's not true.)

5. Use what you have learned to rewrite your script, addressing all of the problems and fixing all of the mistakes. The most important thing you need to do in this phase is to be absolutely ruthless with your work. Don't just tweak it here and there. Be brave enough to tear your script apart -- revising where necessary, rethinking where necessary and cutting where necessary (even if it means chopping bits you really, really love. Remember the adage - "In order to succeed, you must first kill all your darlings.").

6. When you're done rewriting, repeat this entire process from the beginning and then rewrite again. And again and again and again until you have made your script as good as it can possibly be.

7. These days, many people make use of professional script evaluation services. The best of these use industry script readers and story analysts and offer an excellent opportunity to get a sense of how your script will be received by Hollywood. I think such an evaluation can be incredibly valuable, but such services can be pricey, so you may want to wait until you're pretty sure you're finished before taking the plunge.

8. Once you've finished with the content, you must then address the form. Proofread your script - checking spelling, grammar, and format. If you're not confident of your skills in this area, then give the job to someone whose skills you do trust. If no one comes to mind, then consider using a professional proofreading service. When all of this has been done, print up a crisp, clean copy of your script - free of smells, stains, and any other weird, unidentifiable phenomena that will mystify, frighten, or nauseate a reader.

9. Now you're ready. Send it out.

Obviously, there are no guarantees, but if you follow these steps, you can rest assured that you've given your brainchild the best possible chance of making the best possible impression in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Good luck.

© 2004 by Ray Morton

About Ray Morton

Ray Morton is a writer, script consultant, and script analyst. A senior writer for Script Magazine, he writes its bi-monthly "Legends of Screenwriting" column. Morton's first book, King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon, was published in 2005 and his latest book, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film, has just been published by Applause Books. Both are available in bookstores and online at Morton is available for script consultation and can be reached at [email protected].
Screenwriting Article by Ray Morton

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