When I read scripts, there are certain elements I look for that will tell me whether or not a particular spec script should be optioned. I hate to say it, but 90% of the scripts I read are recycled junk. Nothing personal, just business. I usually know if I would pass on a script within the first ten pages, and any serious script reader knows the same. Why would I reject your labor of love?
The fastest PASS would have:
- Grammatical errors. I overlook one or two, but when becomes obvious you did not proofread your script before submitting it to production companies and agents, why should I care as well? NEVER turn in your first draft as a spec.
- A copy of a story recently released. Audiences do not need another copy of an already popular movie. Let the studios fight among themselves.
- Complicated, hard-to-follow plot. Plot holes, new characters not introduced earlier, unanswered questions, and illogical obstacles all scream pass. If I, a cinephile with a degree in film studies, cannot follow your plot, a lay audience sure as hell won’t.
- One-dimensional and boring characters. No one wants to see a blasé character on screen for 90 minutes. Your main characters should follow some type of character arc. See my earlier blog on characterization for examples of boring characters.
- The director’s job done for him/her. One of my largest pet peeves. Do not expect to direct your spec script. If you want to direct, produce it yourself. When writers write in long montages, camera angles, and invisible actor motivations (eg, “he doesn’t know how attracted he is to her”), you are doing the director’s job. Stick to the bare storytelling bones.
- Flowery and overly-descriptive actions. A script is not a novel. A screenwriter should not go into too much detail about a scene or what a character is wearing, but rather the action itself. Too much description clogs the script, stops the story, and does the job of the director, the cinematographer, and the art director.
- A story that goes nowhere. A script has to progress to some climax and conclusion. Open conclusions are in vogue, but they are still conclusions to a story. Nothing is worse than a story that runs out of steam halfway through the script.
- An unoriginal story. Why should I care about this particular story? What is unique about it? If you believe everything has been done, I can accept this philosophy as well. Some formulas just work. However, what do you have to bring to the table?
- Clichéd characters. This is dangerous ground. We all are comfortable with the hard-drinking, crusty detective and the love-sick, 30-something career woman, but a writer starts treading on thin ice when stereotypes form. For example, I read a script that took place in 19th-century New Orleans that had every stereotype imaginable. The story took place during Mardi Gras and involved an out-of-touch Northerner, Afro-Creole dock workers eating hot sauce, a morally ambiguous Cajun man, prostitutes in Storyville, zombies, a trip to Jackson Square and Bourbon Street, and a Creole voodoo priestess who lives a bohemian lifestyle. As a native of the Creole Gulf Coast, I was offended to say the least.
- Elements in the script that would unnecessarily inflate the budget. Do you have to have one of your characters meet Will Smith? Can’t you just make-up an A-list celebrity in the universe you create for your character? Also, having a character bungee off of Victoria Falls may look cool, but may not add anything to the story. Neither would blowing up a Ferrari Enzo.
- Script does not follow genre rules. I am more flexible on this than others I know, but the audiences expect certain rules when it comes to genres. For example, you expect a thriller to be fast-paced, action-driven, and full of twists and obstacles. But there is a thin line between being original and poking fun at your audience for following the formula.
I want your script to do well; you will up the odds for the rest of us. Please only use my advice as a guide. Some script readers will have different standards. It may sound like a crapshoot, but I know that—at least in my case—I try to be as objective as possible.