Confessions of a Contest Script Reader

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by Kathryn Graham

For a brief time, I was one of those ‘gatekeepers’ who read movie scripts that were submitted to an online contest (no, not for TVwriter’s contest. You’ll have to ask LB about that one).

I was a woefully underpaid ‘script analyst’ who, in order to make a buck, slogged through 120 – 215 page scripts and provided notes for contest hopefuls. If you’re thinking about entering one of these, here’s a few things I gleaned on the ‘other side’.

The most important thing I learned was that good writing is hard to find but easy to recognize. Most scripts I read earned a C or D on their report cards. There was only one script that was better, and it earned a solid B. That B script was a godsend in a miasma of mediocrity.

Perhaps other contests attract a higher quality of writing overall, but the one I read for received mainly average submissions. It may be encouraging to you (as it is to me) to know that while this is a highly competitive industry and there are many excellent writers out there, they’re actually quite a small part of the population at large. Good writing is tough to find and great writing even tougher.

I’d further like to encourage you by letting you know that I really wanted these scripts to be good. I wasn’t trying to rip them to shreds. I didn’t look for every little nitpick as an excuse to toss them out. This may not be the case with everyone. Maybe there are some bitter failed writers out there who are hoping to tear you a new one, but I’d wager that the majority of the people who are reading your story want it to be good.

For me, it was because good scripts made my job fun. I had to be there reading your script. If you could make that experience good for me, I was profoundly grateful. For others, like agents or development executives, they want your script to be good because they want the next big thing. If you have that, that means they can get their hands on it and maybe a lot of money too.

The C level stories that I read had this in common: They were boring. Dull. Shoot the wall or claw your eyes out boring. I’m sure the people who wrote them are perfectly nice people. I don’t know them, and so I don’t care. It isn’t personal. All I wanted from them was entertainment. If I had been a reader who wasn’t paid or if somehow these movies were produced and I was a viewer, I would have been gone within a few pages/minutes.

You may think that’s unfair. How can I tell if a script is any good just by the first few pages? I may have thought the same thing once upon a time, but now I know that you actually can tell, in a broad way, if a script is worth reading by its first few pages. You can tell by how engaging the characters and dialogue are. This doesn’t change as you get to page 20, 45, or 109. It exists from the start or it doesn’t exist at all.

Because right at the start I can tell if you have two of the three elements that I need to be able to enjoy your script: character and dialogue. That’s it. Nail that early, and I know you’re two thirds of the way there.

I want great characters with fully fleshed out and unique personalities, fantastic dialogue that really draws out your characters and is amusing in its own right, and structure that allows me to follow your main character(s) to the ultimate point of your story. These are basic elements that can be combined for an endless number of memorable stories.

I fully believe you can improve on all of these things by studying your craft. I think most of the average writers I read just sat down and pounded on the keyboard with only a superficial knowledge of why they were putting anything on the page. I think that if I had asked them why their character did this, why they included that scene, or what they were saying with a particular piece of dialogue they wouldn’t have been able to tell me.

Make sure when you’re writing that you know why you’re doing everything you do, and if you can’t figure it out, find someone who can help you discover it.

No one aims to be average. Mediocrity is something that just happens. Greatness is carefully crafted.

On a side note? If you’re going to have a scene set in a diner, a bar, or someplace where your characters are all eating do not tell me what they are ordering. Of every television show I’ve ever watched I remember exactly three food or drink orders from characters:

JD on Scrubs orders appletinis at bars (because it’s a ‘girly’ drink and we can laugh at how unmanly JD is, hyuk hyuk). Everything Ron Swanson ate on Parks and Recreation from the entire breakfast menu to shrimp wrapped bacon (to prove how ‘manly’ he is and again for laughs). And lastly, Leslie Knope also from Parks and Recreation often ordered waffles with insane amounts of whipped cream (her entire town is addicted to sugar and is therefore obese).

See why I remember these? They had a point. They told me something about the characters. So unless your character’s bacon cheeseburger with a side of sweet potato fries immediately says something about them or ends up playing a pivotal role in the scene, I don’t care. You can skip it. No one will miss it. I promise.


Kathryn Graham is a Contributing Writer to TVWriter™. Learn more about Kate HERE

About Kathryn Graham

Los Angeles-based television writer, TVWriter Contributing Editor, and lover of women. e-mail: kathrynagraham@gmail.com