While writing a spec screenplay, it can be useful to consider just what a script reader at a contest, production company, or script consultancy will be looking for when they take it under consideration. Reading a screenplay is, of course, a subjective experience, but there are several key elements you should ensure that yours contains if you want to give it the best possible shot of being kicked up the chain.
With that in mind, here are the top three things professional script readers look for while reading a spec, and what you should bear in mind while writing.
1: A clear understanding of what the core conflict is and what’s at stake
Surprisingly few specs are able to clearly establish just what the core conflict of the story actually is. A script reader wants to have a solid understanding by the end of the first act of who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what the conflict between them is, and what’s at stake.
Broadly speaking, this understanding can be broken down in to the following three questions:
- What do we see your protagonist struggle to achieve throughout the script?
- Who or what stands in the way of them achieving it?
- What’s at stake if they don’t achieve it?
A film can be thought of as a power struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist over something very important (often personified in a ‘stakes character’). In Get Out, for example, Chris is the protagonist, Rose and her family are the antagonists, and his life is at stake (along with the lives of their other victims). In Bridesmaids, Annie is the protagonist, Helen is the antagonist, and Annie’s friendship with Lillian is what’s at stake.
It’s this three-way struggle – locking the protagonist and antagonist in direct conflict over something important – that gives a story its power.
2: A relentless mental and/or physical assault on the protagonist
The way script readers become emotionally engaged with the story (and what’s at stake) is through the protagonist’s pursuit of their goal. However, it’s common in spec scripts for things to be far too easy for the protagonist. They often end up drifting through the story, bouncing from situation to situation with things happening to them (rather than them making things happen through their actions and choices).
This is understandable. Writers feel close to their protagonists and often see them as extensions of themselves, and therefore subconsciously don’t want bad things to happen to them. A script reader, on the other hand, will be looking for the exact opposite during the course of the story: they want a relentless assault of pain and misery to be visited on the protagonist.
Rather than a series of polite conversations, they want to see the protagonist put under an extraordinary amount of pressure in every scene. They want to see them struggle against all odds to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. They want to see whatever the worst thing that could possibly happen to the protagonist in any given moment actually happen – over and over again.
In Whiplash, for example, Andrew doesn’t just have a series of mild arguments with Fletcher. He’s screamed at by him, has a cymbal thrown at his head, gets humiliated in front of his class, loses his girlfriend, and nearly dies in a car crash. In John Wick, John doesn’t just have a few shootouts with some Russian gangsters – his wife succumbs to cancer, the puppy she gave him as a parting gift is shot, his beloved car gets stolen, he’s forced back into the world he wanted so badly to leave, he’s beaten up, shot, and so on.
This intensity is the only way to make the protagonist’s final choice at the climax fully resonant for the reader, because they’ve been to hell and back with them. If the protagonist isn’t put under any kind of serious pressure during a scene – if we don’t get a sense of what’s at stake in the moment and how it relates back to the overall stakes of the core conflict – then it either needs to be reworked or cut.
3: A clean, evocative, and visual writing style
Whenever a script reader opens page one of a screenplay, they’re looking to be immediately hooked by an interesting, original narrative. The way to aid this is to write in such a way that the words on the page create images in the reader’s mind – mimicking the experience of watching a movie.
This means leaving a great deal of white space on the page and using short, sharp, visually evocative sentences while employing an easily understandable formatting technique.
Most aspiring writers don’t write like this. Take this scene, for example, in which a young woman trapped in a van in the desert has just seen a man murder someone outside:
A script reader will be looking for a scene like this to be written in a much more sparse and professional way that puts the events of the scene right in their mind, as if they’re watching it on the big screen. Something more like:
This is saying the exact same thing but in three lines instead of seven. It cuts all the fluff and clunky phrasing. Writing like this will set you apart from the vast majority of aspiring screenwriters out there, signifying that you’re committed to the craft by knowing how to write in a professional manner.
A great way to really tighten up your core concept, protagonist’s struggle, and writing style is to read professional screenplays. Download a bunch and set aside some time every week to read them. See how your style improves over the months as you absorb the influence of great writers. Make sure that your spec contains all three of the factors script readers are looking for and it will be well on its way for you to send out into the industry with confidence.
Alex Bloom founded Script Reader Pro in 2010. It’s a script consultancy made up of working Hollywood screenwriters who, through their script coverage services and actionable screenwriting courses, take screenwriters out of theoryville and toward a place where they can start selling their work.