Saturday, April 21, 2018

How do you know if your script is any good?

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!


DyHrdMET said...

I was going to make up a joke advertisement, something like "Not sure if your TV or movie script is any good? Send it along with a $100 check to 'Is My Script Good?', care of Ken Levine, PO Box 666, Hollywood, CA, 90210.". But that just sounds a bit shady. But are there people or services who, for a fee, would read your script with a TV insider's eye, and send feedback? And are those places trustworthy, regulated, and/or any good? Would you advise aspiring TV writers to avoid going there because they're scams?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

It's been three years since I wrote a spect that I submitted to the studio for a still-running animated series. The series is a co-production, so the producer/director of the animation production company helped guide me to the people I needed to contact with their writing and story department. After being put through to the show's production assistant, I signed a release form and submitted my spec, which I was told would be forwarded to their head writer during their next summer story meeting, and I would receive word after regarding whether anything would become of it. But that was three years ago, and the series has already had two more seasons since then - with another apparently in the planning stages as we speak - and never received a word, so I'm assuming it won't be used. It was still an interesting experience though; the producer/director from the animation company was even surprised I got as far as I did.

VincentS said...

I think it's imperative to have one's script read by ACTORS. Yes, it might be difficult to find good actors with enough time to read your script outside of New York (where I live) or LA or any major city but even if you have to scour the the theatre club in your local college or even place and ad on Craigslist it will be worth it because actors know how to deliver lines as opposed to well-meaning non-actors who not only tend to read by rote but also have tendency to miss their cues.

E. Yarber said...

Excellent advice. I always stress the need for classes and workshops for young writers. There was a period in my life when I used to know where at least one workshop met very night of the week, and I attended them as compulsively as some recovering drunks go from one AA meeting room to another. Writing is generally a solitary act, but accessing the work afterward is a communal affair. You really need to see your stuff reflected back at you from as many different perspectives as possible. If you pay close enough attention, it's possible to internalize the most helpful voices as you write further and prevent making the problems they'd find.

Of course, not all feedback is helpful, and you also have to understand your own work sufficiently to understand the value of their analysis. I commented recently about a story I wrote against violence that got a pan from a reader who considered violence a valid solution to problems. The telling point for me was that when he rather snidely criticized a supposed hole in the plot, I checked back in the script and sure enough, had spent an entire page dealing with precisely that issue. It seemed apparent that the reader had rather carelessly skimmed the text after taking an antagonistic stance against my premise. Sometimes you'll get knee-jerk attacks on your writing for any reason the reader can find, or have someone try to reshape your work into something they feel more comfortable with. You need to make sure they're honestly considering the project at hand and not just trying to grind an axe or act superior.

For the most part, though, you need to trust the response you get. It may be best to find a group working at your own skill level, since you can help each other learn together. I have trouble with some beginners because they don't want to hear how far they need to go. They just want me to tell them they're already operating on a professional level because they don't want to put in the years of practice it takes to get to that stage. Unfortunately, it takes constant effort to develop the eye for material that you need. I couldn't have broken into the majors if I hadn't spent night after night honing my ability at workshops before I came to Los Angeles, so it's probably better to concentrate on that level for a while and make all your mistakes there before trying to leap too high too soon.

Dave said...

Reading a script........ I think E. Yarber will comment in this post.

I think you should invite him for a podcast as someone suggested the other day. Will be interesting.

DBenson said...

I've always resisted workshops; largely because of the duty to be a good and honest reader of others' work. It's not easy to resist pitching your own voice as the proper one for everybody else. And when somebody presents something sufficiently outside your experience, you're hesitant to pass judgement at all.

Mike Bloodworth said...

The problem is that "good" is extremely sujective. I had one writing teacher that hated practically everything I wrote. Its not sour grapes to say that he had a problem with me personally which affected his opinions. I had another writing teacher that seemed to like everything I wrote. In fact, he liked the pieces the other teacher hated. I've also gotten the "I don't get it" comment in a class. Most did, however. One thing I've found is that quite often, eventually, you wind up writing for the other people in the class and/or to please the teacher. As opposed to trying to write for mass consumption. And as I've said in previous blogs its also hard to put your faith in "peers" who may not be as good as you are. Let me stress that I'm NOT anti-class as such, but they have their limits. Sarah Silverman was once asked what advice did she have for aspiring writers? Her answer was, "Just write." In other words, the more you do something the better you'll get. That's probably the main advantage of a writing class. It forces you to write and rewrite so you can build that muscle. That's my biggest failing is that I don't write enough. That's what happens when you wait for inspiration. Finally, last Sunday, 60 Minutes has a story on the Harvard Lampoon. They talked about how many famous writers came out of the H.L. and how many of them would up writing for the SIMPSONS. I'm one of those that believes that THE SIMPSONS wasn't as funny after the Harvard brain trust took over. And its virtually unwatchable now. So, even coming from an elite(ist) writing groupe doesn't necessarily mean success.
P.S. Please forgive the legnth of this comment.

VP81955 said...

"Seinfeld" wasn't quite as good after the Harvard guys succeeded Peter Mehlman and Larry David, both U. of Maryland alums.

Anonymous said...

Mike Bloodworth
It’s nice of you to apologize for a lengthy comment, but your comments are always interesting, and not too long imho. I am sometimes surprised at some other commenters who literally write 2 or 3 times as much as Ken writes in his post! I have always read every comment because many of them (like yours) add to the enjoyment of the blog, but I’m going to have to start doing some kind of censoring.

Hogne B. Pettersen said...

I'll go with John Cleese here, when he told me about all the successes he's done that one or more people in the business have advised him against beforehand: "Nobody knows anything! As long as the audience likes it, it's good!"

MikeN said...

If you are sharing with other writers, don't you risk having your work stolen?