How to critically read a screenplay
I receive reviews and feedback from other screenwriters on my work all the time. Some may be friends, others may be people I don’t know from a bar of soap. Either way, I’ve learned to appreciate the honest opinion of others, whether they completely butcher the writing, or whether they like it. For some, accepting feedback is near impossible. A lot of people just can’t take it, which is frustrating for the reviewer and the reader and isn’t productive. You asked for the feedback… Why don’t you accept it.
Part of the problem comes down to the “victim” not having any knowledge of how to review a screenplay, themselves. Often, script analysts will find that the writer is not educated about what it is that the reader is actually looking for. Knowing things like this could be the deal-maker in selling your script. If you can effectively give your own feedback on screenplays, you are likely to be able to incorporate those methods in your own writing. When you read over your work, you can ask yourself deep questions that you would usually ask of another screenplay.
I know what it’s like to have to sit down in front of a screenplay and force myself to find all the things that are bad. It’s hard to be self-critical. It’s hard to be the one who shoots yourself down, rather than making a professional do it. But, in order to be successful we’ve all got to learn how to critically read a screenplay. Once we learn to criticize others, we can develop our skills in critiquing our own work.
When reading a screenplay that you are about to review, it is important to remember to break the process down. It’s no use reading the entire screenplay and THEN taking down notes. By the time you’re finished, you would have forgotten half the things you were going to say. This makes the writer confused and makes you look like a terrible reviewer.
No, no… You’ve got to take notes down as you read through the script. What I like to do is break it down by groups of pages. For example, after the first page, I might write down a quick impression of what I got in the writing. Remember, first impressions are important in a screenplay. The first few paragraphs can often be what pushes the reader to keep reading. If they’re not impressed on that first page, then you’ve got a problem. So, what I like to do is read the first page and ask myself the following:
1) How visual is the opening few paragraphs?
2) Does it open up with a long speeches between two characters?
3) Has the scene been effectively set?
These are all just quick things to jot down, just to get an initial opinion on the script.
Phase two involves reading through the first ten pages, and going a little more in-depth with your questions. As well as the questions mentioned above, you’re going to build on your survey a little more. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist or potential antagonist? If there is no antagonist, then what is the conflict in the screenplay? What do we already know about the characters that are important? So far, what is at stake?
If any of these questions have not been answered by now, then I’m afraid you’re not reading a particularly well-developed screenplay. Most Script Analysts decide whether to put a script down within the first ten pages. Traditionally speaking, the first ten pages has to set up the main plot and conflict. Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not a lot of time to establish a story. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get the main plot down in the first ten pages. I don’t think anyone expects you to raise the stakes that quickly. What is expected of you, as a writer, is to keep an audience interested. This means at least hinting at the main plot by now. Show a secret side to the antagonist or throw a quick curve-ball in the mix.
After the first ten pages, you should decide whether you want to continue or not. If you do, then reviewing is about to get a lot more interesting. I like to read through the first 40 pages after that and form an opinion from there. Now you need to ask yourself some questions about the characters and the way that they’re developing. Have they changed? Are the relationships between characters consistent. Then focus on the plot. Have the stakes risen at all since the first ten pages? Are the stakes even high enough to create tension? Does the story maintain its focus or does it taper off into unnecessary sub-plots? What are the sub-plots like? Do they work? Does the story work well with the genre. Start to formulate an opinion on the dialogue. Is it realistic? Do characters speak with their own voice? Is there a nice balance between dialogue and narrative.
The last pages in a screenplay are usually the easiest to read. You’re basically asking yourself the same questions over and over again and seeing how things change with the story. When you’re finally done, consider the character arcs. Are they complete? Is there a good climax or does it fall flat? Does it still fit well within its genre? What was the pacing and the structure like with the piece as a whole. Too fast too slow?
After the initial reading phase, you are ready to start responding to the writer to give him/her your thoughts. Remember to be polite and professional. Don’t butcher the writing, but don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes. Give it to them straight. If they can’t take honesty, it’s their problem, not yours.
For those who want to review screenplays, but don’t know where to start, there are many peer support screenwriting forums out there to help you out. These are great places to meet great writers and get awesome feedback. Here’s a relatively new forum that I’ve recently joined. It’s not exactly big, but it does have a nice community feel to it: http://shmuckswithunderwood.proboards.com/
Reviewing other screenplays is bound to help you with reviewing your own work. It’s all worth it in the end.