7 brilliant tips from script readers

Apologies for the click-baity title. I’ve read an article about how placing a number at the start of your blog title vastly improves clicks. It lets the reader know how much of their time they’ll need to invest. I almost went peak click-bait with ‘You won’t believe what Todd from Neighbours looks like now!!’ , but I don’t need the clicks that badly.

I have now received script reports from eight different script readers. Many of them I received cos I clicked…

‘Enter Competition + Script Feedback: $349.00’

…on some dubious American screenwriting competition. But some have been from excellent readers that I have built a little relationship with, people who really know their stuff. I have distilled their tips down into the 7 best ones, and given my slant on them. Here they are…

Fellow airline passengers couldn’t believe what happened next!!

‘Shorten your scenes, get in late and get out early.’

An absolute classic. A new writer will have two characters walking into a café, greeting the waitress, ordering their coffees and talking about the football last night. An experienced writer cuts straight in to them glaring over their coffees at each other, before one says, ‘Like fuck I’m wearing a wire into McGlinty’s’.

An early script of mine was set in a picturesque town in the South Wales valleys. Now these places are lovely. The warmth, the humour, the steep streets and the wind battered mountain tops… I was so keen to get across the unique atmosphere of this town that I wasted half a scene describing it. Give the audience some credit, they can get a feel for a place immediately, you don’t have to take them on a guided tour of the gaff before the dialogue starts.

Yeah, it’s nice but don’t labour the point.
‘I did not care for the protagonist, and jeopardy was lacking.’

Make your protagonist nice. Well, they don’t have to be nice, but they ought to carry out a wordless act that shows kindness resides in their soul in the first ten pages. The classic line from Blake Snyder is ‘Save the cat’. But it’s important we SEE them save it, rather than just walking into a room holding a cat and saying ‘I just saved this cat’. It is through actions that you define a characters goodness (or badness), not through words.

And once you’ve established that they have kindness in their soul, start punishing them. Make something terrible happen which creates a single, over-arching mission for our kindly protagonist, then pepper them with horrific misfortune while they try to complete said mission. I know as a newbie, it’s hard to really punish these people we have created, we love, we admire… Sod that, drop a helicopter on their head.

Drop a helicopter on their head

I have a script where the fisherman protagonist, who has spent his life seeing traumatic things happen in advance (via a mix of block universe theory and quantum entanglement), has a vision of the local infant school fall off a cliff while everyone’s inside. He then has to either prevent this happening, or find out if it’s possible that it won’t happen. In the process he is sent to an institution for the criminally insane, ostracised from his community and he attempts suicide. I mean, I like this guy, but if he just spent the entire film sat in his kitchen, twiddling his thumbs and going ‘dooby dooby dooby dooo…!’, ‘Dooby dooby doo…!’, then it would be a rubbish script. He has to suffer. Repeatedly.

Maybe you have some fanciful idea of your protagonists wonderful journey through her captivating new world… No. Your protagonist needs to have her mother murdered, or her village burned down, or her best friend needs to shag her husband. The sooner you can dish out some severe punishment to your beloved characters the sooner you’ll have a producer or agent read your script all the way through.

‘Mr Hamer, you have bloated action blocks.’

This is a newbie failing. My first ever script had good feedback and led to meetings with production companies, but I shudder when I read it now. It had many action blocks of 8+ lines. My third script, a ridiculous 180 page behemoth, had three separate action blocks of 19, 13 and 10 lines. That script also had an seven line action block simply to describe that Annie was looking stunning in her pale blue dress. I cannot believe I’m showing this to the world, but here it is…

i.e. ‘Annie walks into the garden looking stunning’.

I think I just fractured my toes cringing so hard. Listen, we ain’t poets. Or novelists. We’re screenwriters. Let the directors direct and the actors act.

In one early script I had four separate dialogue blocks of over four lines on one page. It’s ugly. Readers want to see white space. They want to breathe. Nowadays my action and dialogue blocks never exceed 4 lines, even if it means breaking up dialogue with an action line or vice versa.

‘Jarring tonal shifts. Set your tone, then stick to it.’

Another one for those of us in the early bloom of our writing. In my sepia-tinted, haunting fisherman story I had a character turn up called ‘Jumbo’ who was like one of those vulgar-but-funny sidekicks for Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis film. (I hate those creations, probably cos they were usually dim-witted Welshmen and I’m a dim-witted Welshman). Jumbo’s rude jokes were straight out of a nineties sitcom, and he was practically doing a Bruce Forsyth look to camera before every line. You can’t switch from ornate 1950’s coastal Scotland to ‘Men Behaving Badly with Martin Clunes’. Once you’ve set out the tone of your story, stick with it, or your script will be in a beautiful arc toward the waste paper basket.

On the subject of waste paper baskets, I feel vaguely cheated that I have come to screenwriting in the 21st century and thus will be deprived of that ‘motif’ screenwriting moment; tearing the page of script out of my typewriter, crumpling it up and tossing it over my shoulder into a waste paper basket. I recently read ‘The Definitive Guide To Screenwriting’ by Syd Field. It is the best book I have read on the subject, just sublime. But there is a wonderful section at the end titled ‘After it is written’, where the author implores you to find the best typist you can afford, even if it means asking all your screenwriter friends in Hollywood for references. Then, photocopy the master script ten times. Send one copy to your Bank or Lawyer, and send one to yourself, special delivery, this way you will have proof that you wrote it first. This leaves eight scripts to send to producers. Do not, under any circumstances, send your master copy to a producer, however well-known they are… You might never see it again.

Actually, on second thoughts, I’m glad I’ve come to it now. All that stuff sounds like an enormous faff!

‘You have no antagonist. Where is your antagonist?’

It has taken me fourteen months and six scripts to reach acceptance on this. My protagonists used to wander around fretting about worrisome situations, i.e my future-seeing fisherman was worried about a school falling over a cliff, my 1980’s school kid was curious about a friendly ghost in his school and my unemployed Valleys youngster was battling to avoid the pathway to drugs and crime. Three decent stories, but the opposing forces were all situations. That just won’t cut it. Danger needs a face.

Now, my fisherman has a corrupt, evil local Mayor trying to destroy him, the schoolkid has a monstrous, murdering school teacher hiding in plain sight and the unemployed youngster has a malevolent County Lines drug boss to overcome. The viewer needs a person (or shark, or dinosaur) whose appearance on screen causes a release of cortisol into the brain. Someone to fear. Even now, when those yellow barrels plop up to the surface in ‘Jaws’, while Brody, Quint and Hooper are singing in the boat, I can feel my endocrine system shift into overdrive.

‘Mr Hamer, what in Dickens name is your theme?’

You don’t need to know your theme as you start your script. It can be glued on afterwards. I built my ghost story on a single supernatural event I witnessed in 1987, just a spooky thing that happened and which I built more spooky things on top of. By the time I’d finished my script the theme was ‘Towns ignored or forgotten by local government enter a cruel purgatory’. Maybe you start writing the story with one theme in mind but end it with an entirely different one. I started my sitcom pilot with the theme of ‘Modern men in the western world are struggling to find their identity’, but ended it with ‘Towns ignored or forgotten by local government enter a cruel purgatory’.

My most recent script started out with a theme of ‘Towns ignored or forgotten by local government enter a cruel purgatory’, but it has ended up with ‘There’s no better judge of appropriate footwear than a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig with a Degree in Economics’, but I think that one needs more work.

But, this is the thing! Theme is the one thing that you can easily change afterwards, with a few well placed lines inserted. You don’t need to know it from the start. As you follow your characters down the twists and turns of your narrative (within the scaffolding that you put up beforehand of course), the theme and the lessons you want people to learn from your story will magically show themselves to you. Just make sure that your theme/lesson is easily describable in one sentence.

Don’t take all script readers word as gospel!

They are only human (for now). They can be wrong. I had one elite reader describe a montage I wrote about a couples deteriorating relationship as ‘excellent visual storytelling with some poignant and comic images’, but another reader said the montage ‘brought the momentum to a screeching halt and should be cut immediately’!

In one sitcom pilot, I had a character who was a struggling welsh screenwriter. One reader said the script came alive whenever he was onscreen. Another reader said ‘This character is obviously an avatar for the sitcom writer, and as such, I turned against him immediately. Suggest removing him entirely.’

Fortunately, as you read the criticisms and advices of these script readers, you will instinctively know what to take on board and what to ignore. The best advice I’ve received has always triggered something at the back of my mind… ‘Yeah, deep down I knew that Jumbo was out of place in this story, however much I love him and his humour’. ‘Yeah, deep down I knew I shouldn’t end my bleak Exmoor noir murder drama with the grieving wife at the funeral turning to camera, grinning and shouting ‘Th, Th, Th, That’s all folks!’ in the style of Porky Pig.’

Knowing what to ignore and what to take on board is in itself a learned skill. But be brutal, and acknowledge that they probably know more than you. I hope these pro-tips may be of some use, and I will be back with more meanderings at an unspecified point in the future.

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