Writing for Script Readers and Gatekeepers

Do you write what you want to write, or do you write to try and please/get past the gatekeepers? Perhaps if you’re one of the fortunate few, you’ll have it be one in the same.

I recently had a chance to reflect while I was looking through some old scripts from back when some partners and I formed a small production company. This was right before the catastrophic 2008 financial crash, so you can imagine what happened to our funding. Still, it was interesting being on that side of the table, even if only briefly. One key aspect that struck me was the difference in scripts each member wound up liking and how our backgrounds factored in.

Unlike my neophyte partners who were quite new to the film industry, I come from a film background, having worked below the line in the industry since the late 1990’s. When my partners and I got down to reading, I found I tended to read scripts with a shooting budget and schedule in mind. Sure I wanted an enjoyable read, but I was equally interested in the nuts & bolts of what it would take to actually make the project come to fruition. I wanted a sparse script with limited descriptions so we could take the underlying story, which obviously needed to be sound, and shoot it as needed to fulfill the director’s vision. My partners, on the other hand, seemed to want to be entertained by the read. Now I want to enjoy the read as much as the next guy, but sometimes you can cut many pages off a script simply by trimming extraneous descriptions. Ultimately it depends on who the reader is.

In my own writing, for a brief while I actually started trying to write two versions of my scripts, a “fun read” version and a “let’s shoot this” version (basically a stripped down shooting script). Nowadays I just go for a mix of the two as best I can. Entertain, yet keep things tight. No one wants to read a 150 page screenplay.

Spec scripts, I feel, are in some ways held to higher standards than commissioned works. Established writers with a sale lined up, or at least an established track record, can afford to be sparse in their style. People know their stories are good and can fill in the beats/blanks themselves. As an unpaid/unknown spec writer on the other hand, you need to not only have a good story, but must also amuse and entertain a reader if you hope to make it past that particular type of gatekeeper. This means realizing that some readers will want you to include beats that may make for better reading but really should be left for the director and actors to flesh out. In fact I once received notes on a script from two different readers that were at complete odds with one another. One wanted more of the beats and descriptions while the other wanted less of them.

Therein lies the rub, finding that fine line between crafting an engaging read, and having a tight script that is free of extraneous clutter. I recently read excerpts of the screenplay to recent film The Equalizer. While I personally thought the story was rather bland overall, what impressed me was the refreshing clarity of the well crafted yet sparse descriptions. The writer left it to the director and Denzel to flesh out the characters and the story world to their desires. Of course you can afford to write that way when you’re specifically hired by those very people to write a draft. I’ve seen a lot of production scripts that would likely be tossed in the slush pile if they were specs and not production pieces, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this observation.

So what’s my takeaway from all this?

Just write. Write for you. Write the way you feel you shine. Don’t try to write just what you think a reader wants. One person may love your style, another may hate it, but there really isn’t any one formula that will satisfy the tastes of every single person. By all means, keep the needs of gatekeepers and producers in mind, but don’t let that be your one guiding light. If you second guess every sentence you write, you’ll most likely wind up with an end result that pleases neither the reader nor yourself.

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