Wednesday, May 02, 2012

How do you know if your script is any good?

Note: When I can't find an appropriate picture I post Natalie Wood photos
That’s always the big question for young scribes writing a spec script. You may like it but will anybody else?

Giving it to friends and family rarely yields objective reactions. Of course they’re going to love it. They want to love it. (Or hate it depending your family).

And the truth is most people not in the business don’t know how to read a script (as opposed to those IN the business where only half don’t know how to read a script). It’s difficult for many people to read stage directions and dialogue and be able to picture the scene. That’s not a knock on anybody. I can’t read a blueprint or a shopping list.

This is why I always recommend young writers take classes and meet other aspiring writers. Surround yourself with peers. There will usually be one or two whose opinions you value. Give the script to them. Be mindful that there may be some jealousy or competitive dynamics at work but you can generally sift through that.

Teachers are another good source of feedback if you value their assessment.

Generally, it’s best to give you script to several readers. There is a downside to this of course. You may get five different reactions from five different people – and some of the notes might be contradictory. Just like you'll get when you do make it in the business. You have to decide who (if anybody) is right.

But the good news is if you hear the same note from four sources it’s a pretty good bet they’re right. You can address all these issues before sending out your script.

There’s no clear-cut formula on how to know whether a note is a good one or bad. And especially, with people not in the business (dreaded “non pros”), their notes might be bad because they’re not adept at solving script problems, but you as the creator have to see beyond that. Don’t just dismiss the notes. Something bothers them and they don’t have the experience to identify just what it is. That’s your job. Based on their note, try to work backwards and guess what exactly might be the problem.

Always consider seriously the note, “I don’t get this.” You may think you’ve explained something sufficiently but you haven’t. We often get too close to our work. Those are generally helpful notes.

The very best way to judge your script is to arrange for a table reading. HEAR IT. Taking into consideration that the actors you use will often times be busboys at Costco and a foreign exchange student from Norway – not exactly Meryl Streep and Christian Bale, and the small audience will be somewhat biased in your favor (don't invite your family if they're not) – but you can hear the rhythm, hear the flow, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a comedy, laughter (or lack of it) will tell you what’s funny.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. YOU have to decide whether your script is good.  Just remember, Universal passed on STAR WARS.

Best of luck!


Dave said...

Regarding your comment about it being difficult for people to "hear" a script, spot on.

I write copy for radio commercials and have given up on sending scripts to clients. I'll record it in my own voice and throw a quick flash of sound effects or music onto the ad. Not broadcast quality production yet, but enough for them to "get the picture" so to speak.

The amount of good ideas that have been binned quite simply because the client didn't "get" it is staggering.

Dave said...


Katie Kosinski said...

Comforting advice and great timing on this post. Thanks, Ken!

Anonymous said...

Readers Request:

The next time you can't find an appropriate picture, would you consider posting a photo of Honey West?

Becca said...

I've done numerous fiction workshops (short fiction as well as novels), and all of your excellent advice applies equally well in that realm. It's a fine balancing act, responding to criticism even when it's vague or seems wrongheaded, yet not taking every specific note to heart and ripping apart your work in order to address every concern. You nailed it.

Heather said...

Hi I’m Heather! Please email me when you get a chance! I have a question about your blog. HeatherVonsj(at)gmail(dot)com

lucifervandross said...

Except I fear people think I am going to hulk out or something. All I get is positive feedback and then I don't get anywhere. I assume I'm just average. Good enough to not get a lot of notes, but not "great" so I don't get noticed.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I don't buy into that whole, "Your family and friends are your toughest critics, if you can please them, you can please anyone" jazz... of COURSE you're going to "please" them, they don't want to hurt your feelings, so they're not going to give you any constructive criticism, even if what you have really is bad, they'll still say it's good to make you feel better.

Anonymous said...

No one then or now, could rock a B/W photo like Natalie Wood. Lovely!

Oh, and the advise is spot on.


Larry said...

It's important to get a few friends who you know will be truthful. You've got to make it clear to them not to cut you any slack, because the people you want to sell the script to sure won't.

Frank said...

I was silly enough to post my pilot script on my blog if anybody wants to scoff at it.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post! Another great bit of advice I heard from comedy writer Graham Linehan: Put what you've written in a drawer somewhere and don't look at it for a month, or three months. I've heard other writers rave about this advice.

In other news, I've finished Frasier and am now watching Cheers. Holy cow. I forgot how amazing Shelley Long was. Also the writing is great right out of the gate. Given Cheers's slow start in the ratings, you can't help but feel that all good shows will eventually find an audience if they're allowed to.

estiv said...

You are, of course, not the only blogging N. Wood admirer. Try this one:

Anonymous said...

My answer to that question is always a resounding "You don't. You can't."

Success doesn't mean your writing is good, failure doesn't mean it is bad. Reviews are pointless.

Avery Hopwood had five hit shows on Broadway at the same time, and nobody but the people who have won the writing contest he sponsored know who the hell he is. Nobody is looking to revive his musicals. Likewise, somebody like Buchner dies an unrecognized failure but changes the course of dramatic writing.

Playwrights do not control the way that audiences (readers or otherwise) react to their scripts (oh how they try!). The only thing the writer controls is his or her own work.

Is it any good? Who knows? Nothing anybody else tells you will answer that question. What you want to know is if you evoked something in them that approximates what you were trying to accomplish.

Adjust from there, playwrights! If you really want to know if your script is any good, just ask me and I'll tell you:

"It's wonderful! Keep writing."

Cap'n Bob said...

So, Ken, what did Heather want?

I spent many years in critique groups for writers and the comments ran the gamut from incisive and helpful to downright idiotic ("I never heard of green-and-white police cars.") You always have to consider the source.

Danielle Solzman said...

I'm enrolled in a UCLA Extension course on screenwriting right now though I fear I turned in a script treatment in lieu of a synopsis.

Don K. said...

Costco has busboys?