Whether it’s to try and get an agent, impress a production company, or try and win a screenwriting competition, most screenwriters will go through the process of submitting their unsolicited script to the powers that be. That script has to rise above hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions in order for you and your work to be deemed worthy of paying attention to.
In my career I have read thousands of scripts, and most of the time I can tell if a screenplay is going to be good after just a few pages. Agents, producers, executives, and professional readers can too. Of course there’s always exceptions to the rule (in Hollywood there are exceptions to every rule). Some stories, especially features, may need a slow burn but in general you can tell if you’re going to be excited about the script in the first 2-3 pages if it’s a pilot, and 5-10 pages if it’s a feature. Be warned: Some cold-hearted (or just very busy) people don’t read past that. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Here are five early indicators of a great screenplay that all script readers are looking for:
1. Quality over quantity.
When I get a script, I often check out the page count. If it’s a feature, I’m looking for 90-120 pages. (that’s the industry standard). If it’s longer than that, I get the sinking feeling the writer is an amateur and doesn’t know what they’re doing. If it’s a TV hour-long drama, I’m looking for about 60-65 pages. A half-hour sitcom, about 30-35 pages (maybe a little longer), and a half-hour dramedy, about 40-45 pages. These are just generalizations… but they’re good ones to follow.
2. Make the first impression count.
For a script to stand out and be blazing hot, it needs to grab the reader from the very first moment. The first three to five pages should feel fresh, be compelling and get me curious to find out more. Something original or unexpected about a character, a plot turn that I didn’t see coming, but is still organic and appropriate for the story. If it’s a drama, I’m emotionally involved, if it’s a comedy, it’s funny. Since this is a visual medium, make sure you spend time creating a powerful (fresh or unexpected) visual at the beginning. It can be as important as setting up the story correctly.
3. Set it up so we can enjoy the ride.
In a feature, by page eight or ten you should have established a clear premise. In a TV script it’s much sooner. How can I go on the journey of your story until I clearly understand the kind of journey it wants me to go on? This means establish the setting, the protagonist and antagonist, the central conflict and the goal (but not necessarily in that order) early. If I can identify a strong premise in the first few pages, it’s a safe bet your story will jump right into dramatic action and I’ll get emotionally invested from the start.
4. Be economical.
One of the things that really turns me off when I start reading a script is a wall of text. A first page (or pages) of dense description makes me want to run for the hills. I want to see “white space”. That means there’s dialogue and action, something is happening…not just description. The writer is “showing not telling”. When there is too much uninterrupted text on a page it usually means the writer has overwhelmed the script with long scene description, unnecessary detail, or telling me what the character is thinking and feeling rather than showing me. This not only makes the script a slog to read, I have to pay so much attention to the elaborate details that I won’t be able to focus on the story itself. When the description is concise and the dialogue feels authentic and essential to the story, the script flows easily. Which is want you want. You want the reader to be eager to turn the page to see what happens next.
5. Formatting and grammar DO matter.
Full disclosure, at one point in my life I was an English teacher so this stuff matters to me. However, it’s not just to me but to almost every reader. If I’m only on page one of your script and can’t get a handle on what’s happening because the first few sentences are poorly constructed, I don’t have high hopes that the rest will be an easy read. Before sending in your script check your formatting, screenwriting terminology, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and yes, even with “spell check” double-check your spelling and search for typos. Don’t be the writer who puts “their” instead of “there” in your script. It makes you look unprofessional. So, make the extra effort, it’s worth it. Trust me.
Looking for some inspiration? Check out my post on ‘4 Classic Scripts that Deliver on Their Promise’.
What do you think are signs of a great aka “blazing hot” screenplay? Let me know @CaroleKirsch!