Reader Question: How do you know when your script is ready to send out?
Tough question, especially for writers who may NEVER think a story is ‘done’.
Question from Billie:
How do you know when you script is ready to send out?
Simple question. Not such a simple answer. I’m pressed for time so I’ll do my best with my limited time, but I’m sure the GITS community will have plenty to say about this.
Frankly this is a bear of an issue, one that has bitten me in the arse. I described one situation in a The Business of Screenwriting post here — appropriately titled “Never send out a script before it’s ready.” An excerpt:
All of that could be forgiven, I suppose, if we had nailed the script. We didn’t. In our excitement, we jammed through a draft, then a quick rewrite. That script went out. And died in the wind. Our so-called careers almost died with it.
Suddenly, the meetings we had been taking vanished. The silence of no phone calls? Directly attributable to the piss poor reception around town to our spec script.
Afterward we meet with a producer who is kind enough to offer us some sage advice:
“What the fuck were you guys thinking?”
He lists a plethora of reasons why it was such a dumb idea to follow up K-9 with a script about the 10th Mountain Division. But it is this that really strikes home:
“Never send out a script before it’s ready. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever! You get one chance to create a perception in Hollywood. Sorta there, almost there, really close… that’s not good enough. If your script isn’t totally, completely, holy-shit-son-of-a-bitch ready, don’t let anybody who is anybody in Hollywood come within a mile of it. Only go out with a script when you know it’s good.”
And I sit there thinking, “Now he tells us.”
So how do you know when your script is ready? I like to think of it this way: There are certain lines of defense between your script and a Hollywood player:
- The first obstacle is you. Do you think it’s good? Do you think it’s ready? If you don’t think it’s ready, it’s not. However in my experience, based upon the number of scripts I’ve read in my life, most of them not good, I can only deduce that this is a very tiny, unobtrusive line of defense, one most writers step over with ease. In other words, most writers think they have written a great script. So onto the next level…
- The second line of defense: Other readers. Not your spouse. Not your children. Not your buddies. Not your dentist. You should have a group of people who are writers read your script. This may not only provide with a more honest assessment of your story, but if there are problems with it, other writers may be able to surface them for you when your eyes can’t see the issues.
- The third line of defense: Pay a professional reader to cover your script. Better yet, 2–3 of them to get a variety of opinions. I know plenty of writers, some of them working screenwriters, who do this in a quest to get some unvarnished opinions about material.
- But it always comes back to you, so after the script has been out to some readers, take one last crack at making an honest reading of the story. From another TBOS post Imagine the movie, here is a quote from screenwriter John Swetnam:
I come up with a lot of ideas, but then I put them through a really rigorous process. If you’re trying to write studio movies, it’s one of the best things you can do. You hold that idea up to the marketplace and see how it will fit. You have to be completely honest with yourself and ask, how do you see your script opening up as a movie this Friday on 3,000 screens? What does that look like? How is the studio going to sell that? Is it actually the kind of movie that could be up there on opening weekend taking on Twilight? You have to really think about that. And 90% of the time, that’s the problem. People write scripts based on ideas that are never going to get made. It all starts with the concept. It doesn’t have to be a high-concept, but it has to be something that you can imagine playing at your local theater. The poster, the trailer, the actors, I think about all those things first. I literally have the poster in my mind, I know exactly what the trailer is going to look like, I know how to pitch it in a couple of words. If I have one of those ideas, if I can imagine that movie, then it becomes pretty easy.
John is talking about determining if he’s come up with a story idea that is worth pursuing, but you can use the same approach when thinking about a finished script: Is this a movie? If you can honestly say your script is a movie, then it’s probably ready to be sent out.
In a similar vein, here is some advice I offered from the first post:
Are your characters really compelling? Does your plot really push the reader through the pages? Does your dialogue really sparkle? If you need a comparison, read a script of one of your favorite movies. I know it’s tough to think about your script side by side with a script by Scott Frank, Steve Zaillian, Callie Khourie, or whoever you idolize as a screenwriter. But the reality is that’s what the studios do. They don’t compare your script to hacks. They think about it in terms of what movies have come before, what they’re producing, what they have in development, and who’s hot around town.
If you wrote a contained thriller and you need to do one last test to see if it’s ready to go out, read a script like Buried by Chris Sparling. If you’ve written an R-rated comedy, read a script like Bridesmaids by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo. If you’ve got a drama, read a script like Good Will Hunting by Matt Damon & Ben Affleck. Where can you find those scripts? If only some blogger would do a script reading series with analysis and access to those screenplays.
Read your script. Read their script. How does your script compare? Again you aren’t competing against your friends or online buddies, you are competing against the best writers in the business, so have the balls enough to do a direct comparison.
Okay, now that I’ve put the fear of God in you, let me provide a counterbalancing point and that is this: Some writers can be too critical of their material. I know, I’ve read some of them. In a few cases, I had to virtually pull their virtual script out of their virtual hands to forward it to some actual reps I know. Here’s the thing: You can never achieve perfection with a script. Well, aside from The Apartment perhaps. Scripts are one part of a huge collaborative effort, a blueprint to make a movie. They don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be great. So don’t let your perfectionism stunt your process.
What about your fears? It’s one thing to be inside the business and send out a script that is a stinker. That’s really not good [see above]. But if you’re outside trying to break in, there are hundreds and hundreds of agents and managers, so if you screw the pooch with Script A and the reaction is poor, move onto Script B — using what lessons you learned from Script A — writer a good script, then send it out to different agents and managers. In other words, if after putting your script through multiple lines of defense and you’re on the de-fence [get it] about whether to send it out or not, go ahead. If it’s a strong story concept, professionally written, and with great characters, you may be able to land representation even if the overall quality of the script turns out to be an 8 or 7 [on a scale of 10].
Gotta run. But hey, GITS readers: What advice do you have for Billie about how to know when your script is ready to send out?
For more articles in the Go Into The Story Reader Question series, go here.