As an up-and-coming director, you jump at the opportunity to direct your first feature film. When you get your hands on a script being considered for production, you want to make sure you choose well — in this business there are no second chances. How will you know if it’s any good?
In this context, your job isn’t too different from the job of a reader at a film studio, the first line of defense against a bad script making it to production. You must be able to determine, basically, whether it’s worth investing in. But there is a difference between a studio reader and you: they have only a few hours to go through a screenplay. You have this one story in front of you, and you can review it with a fine-tooth comb, as it were.
The First Read
Read the script cover to cover. You’ll get a feel for the plot, the characters, and the tone of the story. The first thing you’ll notice will probably be the writing itself: the text formatting, the amount of dialogue vs stage directions, the grammar and punctuation. The script should be typeset properly, without any mistakes, which would distract from the content itself. Pay attention to the stage directions: the descriptions should be clear and effective. The writing should serve the story, not an opportunity for the writer to show off. A script with misspelled words or inconsistent formatting is usually a red flag.
Take a break from that first read, jot down a few notes with your initial impressions, and then… go for a walk.
Your next pass will be a bit more detailed. Pause after each scene and write down what it makes you feel. Now that you’re familiar with the story as a whole: try to summarize it in one sentence. In other words, create a “logline” for the script.
Once you have a clear idea of what your story is about, you can describe its emotional arc. Identify the basic plot. Find the subplots to the main story; there may more than one. Go through each scene. Do they all have a purpose and/or a meaning? Do they help drive the story toward its conclusion? What happens if you take a scene out? Will this eliminate a key plot point, or an important piece of exposition?
Once you have a clear idea of what your story is about, you can describe its emotional arc.
Name each scene. You’ll find that this habit is especially useful in pre-production, when communicating with the rest of your creative team. It’s one thing to refer to “Scene 8,” where the female lead fights off her abusive husband one last time, shoots him dead and flees across the border, and quite another to call that scene “Carmen breaks free.” It helps the Cinematographer, the Art Director and other key crew members clearly understand the purpose and the tone of the scene.
Now, turn your attention to the structure of the story: does it have three acts, with an inciting incident, and rising action that leads to a climax? Do the plot twists make sense? What about storytelling devices, such as flashbacks, offscreen narration or non-linear plots? Do they exist in service to the story, or are they just gimmicks? The answers to these questions will help you determine how strong the screenplay is, and give you a chance to propose changes to improve it.
Study the characters: describe who they are, and what makes them unique. Do you like them? Are they clichés? Is their behavior consistent throughout the story? What are their backstories? What would happen if you eliminate any of the characters? If the plot can advance without them, it’s a poorly written character, whom the script can do without.
What does a character say about himself? What do other characters say about him? Read the stage directions for each character. How does the writer describe them? Do they have agency? A character who doesn’t have her own goals, whose actions are based on someone else’s needs, will keep the audience from identifying with her. Plot what the characters need from each other, and what’s keeping them from achieving those goals. The more the characters are in opposition with each other, the better. The more conflict there is in a scene, the better the scene.
Do one final pass, focusing on the dialogue: each character should have their own voice. Maybe this character is from a certain part of town, or has a trade that affects how they speak. Finally, make sure the dialogue doesn’t contain too much exposition. It’s always better to show things, than to say them.
By now you should know whether you have in your hands a compelling script. What separates you from a studio reader is the ability to affect the script’s outcome. Rather than simply filling out a one-page report, you can actually make meaningful suggestions that will make it stronger and, hopefully, ready for production.