This summer, I had the opportunity to read more than 100 scripts as a first round reader for the Austin Film Festival
. It was an interesting and educational experience that demonstrated the truths behind many of the screenwriting rules that I have heard and that provided me with several useful insights on themes and styles. Here then are few of the tips that I learned from my reading:
• The First Act is Critical. The first 25-30 pages are key. You have got to grab and hold the readers attention. When a reader is sitting there with a stack of 10-25 scripts to read, you have got to give them a reason to keep turning the pages. It is amazing how many scripts have weak first acts. On the good scripts, I would look up around page 35 without having counted the pages. On the really bad scripts, around page 10, I would begin looking for page 30, where I could stop reading. I can imagine that this reaction is even more extreme for professional readers and agents who are reading scripts all the time.
• In Media Res. Start as close to the inciting incident as possible. Long buildups, changes in location and time, and introducing numerous characters are just opportunities to lose the reader. You have got to begin with action that introduces your principal character and that draws the reader into the story.
• Comedy is Hard. If you think that the world needs another Ben Stiller nebbish comedy, think again. Fresh, funny scripts are hard to find, but they are out there. It can be a fine balance between a screwball comedy and silly, sophomoric jokes that we have seen a thousand times before, but it can be done. A good comedy can be based on ancient setups, it just needs to get to the emotional core of the character relationships.
• Wood Guthrie wrote about B-E-E-T-S not B-E-A-T-S. I don’t like the use of beats to mark pauses in dialogue. This is a common practice, but I see a beat as a wasted opportunity. Breakup the dialogue by describing the scene. What is the character doing during the pause? What are the other characters doing?