You have worked on your script daily, diligently practicing your craft. Hurray! You have interest from a producer, so you share your script.
Finally, the producer returns your call after a couple of months of you following up. They tell you they could not read past the first 10 pages of your script, and the edge in their voice indicates you have wasted their time.
What went wrong?
I am a writer-producer with substantial experience in this matter. I have received and read numerous scripts over the years (not presently accepting, but when I do ScreenCraft's audience will be the first to know). It is particularly disheartening to deliver bad news to a writer — not because we have such big hearts (though some of us do), but because many of us receive scripts that do not follow either formatting or submission guidelines and frankly it is a waste of our time to review them.
Remember, you have one chance to make a great impression.
If you fail the first time, especially due to carelessness, that producer will likely never read another script of yours again.
To up your game, here are 10 general guidelines:
- Tight Page Count. Most of us are well aware that a feature screenplay should not exceed 120 pages. There are a couple rare exceptions, such as epics, television miniseries, etc. And of course a TV pilot is anywhere from 27-70 pages depending on the format. Use your judgement, but once you surpass 120 your length must continue to service the story or you will lose the reader, and you risk alienating a producer. Also note: A producer will usually look at page count first, and they are easily swayed not to bother with something that looks overly long.
- White space is good. Personally, if I peruse a script and see that you cheated on your margins to save space, I will not read that script as it shows a lack of discipline. Note: I learned the hard way. I used to do this constantly and was summarily rejected. Similarly, do not make your pages overly-dense. I want to see plenty of white space.
- Keep action specific. Take special note of your action scenes when it comes to page count. One paragraph of action can take minutes of screen time. Define precisely what you are attempting to get across in your action. For example, saying “The Civil War ensues” and then going on with your script is insufficient. Your entire screenplay in that case can be based on that single event. Define your action, and keep page count in mind.
- Keep dialogue lean. Refrain from overly-lengthy dialog passages, unless perhaps you are dramatizing Shakespeare word-for-word. This is an automatic turn-off to most producers from my experience. Sure, Quentin Tarantino and some others can be considered exceptions, but such filmmakers typically built their reputations on independent films and had already proven the worth of their content — which is something you can also do. On a related point: Do not be overly descriptive or expositional in your dialogue. Film is about showing the story, not telling it, unless doing so services that story.
- Spell check and use proper punctuation please!
- Don't direct on the page. Never incorporate camera angles into your script, unless you are directing it yourself. Once again, I learned this the hard way. When I received the same note from four different producers asking me to not do “the director’s job,” I learned my lesson.
- Is your writing authentic to you? “BE SO GOOD AT SOMETHING YOU CAN’T BE IGNORED!” – Steve Martin. It all begins with story; characters and events support its telling. Is your dialog real and/or snappy? Are your story beats exciting or in service of your themes? Is the story itself something that others will want to read, or is your treatment of the story more self-indulgent than it should be? These are all questions you must ask yourself prior to any submission, until you are satisfied that the message in caps, above, is met to the best of your ability.
Some general notes and bonus tips: don't submit a hard copy of your script unless requested. And it's a good idea to register your script with the WGA or US Copyright Office before sharing. As a writer-producer, I spend plenty of time “in the room.” I meet (presently over Zoom) television network decision-makers and film execs on a regular basis. This article is based on my experience of over 30 years as a writer, and 15 as a writer-producer. I have made every mistake I have written about here, and have learned from them.
And one more thing, a nag: Many screenwriting books swear by the “three-act structure.” Now, I’m not advocating to break it. I am wholeheartedly advocating for originality. Don't be too predictable. I mentioned, for example, Tarantino earlier. “Reservoir Dogs” was immensely original in its presentation, and “Pulp Fiction” veritably destroyed any screenwriting “rules” and rewrote them. Keep that in mind, as his early work especially proved Steve Martin’s above dictum.
I wish you the best. Let me know how it goes …
Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.
Related post: 7 First Impressions Screenwriters Need to Make