The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Rebecca Norris of Script Reader Pro.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well- written?
My current obsession is House of Cards. At first, I didn’t care for the show. I found the device of Francis talking directly to camera a bit odd, the plot lines confusing, and I didn’t like any of the characters! However, a friend encouraged me to keep watching, and I’m so glad I pushed through. The genius of the show is in the slow reveals—they don’t hand you anything up front—you earn carefully-placed insights into the characters over time. I ended up binge-watching all of Season Two and am now deprived of new episodes until January! I should have spaced them out more.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
For my first internship, I worked at a state film office that held an annual screenplay competition. They had an entire room stacked with feature-length screenplays, and it was my job to read and recommend scripts to the higher-ups for the contest. When I moved to L.A., I was able to parlay that experience into reading for a production company and then another screenplay competition, and it snowballed from there.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
I think anyone can be taught to do anything; whether or not they have a natural aptitude for it is another matter. The thing is, we are all storytellers. It’s engrained in our psyche. And reading is a personal, subjective experience for each individual. Some stories that bore the pants of me might be endlessly entertaining to someone else, and vice versa. That’s why a film can be rejected from one contest and then go on to win first place at another.
However, the technical aspects of a script can be judged in a fairly uniform way. Is the writing concise yet descriptive, or is it overly wordy? Are there misspellings and grammatical errors? Is the script formatted to industry standards? Is the page count a reasonable length? A writer can’t control whether or not a particular reader will judge their writing as “good”, but they can control the technical aspects of the script to give it the best possible chance of impressing a reader.
4. What are the components of a good script?
A good script has a solid premise, interesting characters, a well-conceived plot, tight narration and dialogue, and is technically up to par as far as typos, sentence structure, formatting, etc. It also must be ENTERTAINING. This is something I believe writers forget about sometimes, especially if they’re writing, say, a historical drama. Audiences don’t care about facts and figures and accuracy nearly to the extent that they want to have an emotional journey—a catharsis. It’s the writer’s job to provide that journey and entertain along the way—that’s why we’re in the Entertainment Industry. I think most readers would agree with me on this—the first question I ask myself after reading a script is, “Am I bored?” If I’m bored, then the script will not get a Consider or Recommend, no matter how true to life or historically accurate it is.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
By far, the most common mistake is spelling errors. Most scripts I read are chock-full of typos and glaring grammatical errors (including sentences with missing punctuation, missing words, or only parts of words.) It’s incredibly frustrating because this is something completely under the writer’s control. What writers may not realize is that every time I come across a typo, I’m taken out of the story. When a script has multiple typos per page, as some of them do, I’m taken out of the story dozens of times by the time I read the last page, which essentially ruins the experience. As writers, the written word is our only instrument. A pianist wouldn’t perform on an out-of-tune piano, and likewise, a writer should fine-tune his or her instrument and become a master of language. Having a typo-free and correctly formatted script says to the world: “I’m a professional, and I care about the quality of my work.” In my opinion, it’s the best way to control your first impression to a reader.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
There has been a trend over the past several years of incredibly brutal, violent, and bloody dramas. (And I’m not talking about horror movies here.) I think it’s a reflection of the dark times we’ve gone through over the past decade and the current political landscape in the world. I’ve also programmed at some film festivals, and some films I screened were sickening to the point where I had to turn them off. I’m not a prude and I enjoy a good action or horror film just as much as the next person, but it’s gone a bit overboard lately. Some of the films had gratuitous violence toward women and children, which I find disheartening and painful to read. Sometimes I long to read a comedy or something lighter that ends on a positive note, and I hope the trends change in the coming years toward lighter (and less barbaric) fare.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
1) Don’ t get disheartened if you aren’t getting recommends or considers on your early scripts. Take the notes, learn from them, and keep writing. Your writing will improve greatly if you just keep at it.
2) It’s okay to struggle with writing. Some writers get disheartened and give up if writing isn’t the glorious, self-expressive, free experience they think it should be. Writing can be difficult and tedious. It’s courageous to be vulnerable and put your heart out on the page, and even more courageous to then send your work to total strangers. The best thing a writer can do is show up every day and write, and when the work is ready, keep sending out those ships. One day, a ship will come back in.
3) You are in total control of your very first impression on the reader. You do so through your mastery of language, spelling, formatting, brief yet descriptive narration, etc. You can’t control whether or not a reader loves your script, but you can control your presentation. Hire a professional coverage service to proofread and get feedback before you send your scripts out—it’s the best way to test the waters and see how your script will be received, since many coverage services employ readers who have worked at contests and production companies.
Even if your script doesn’t get a recommend, the writer themselves can. Scripts and writers are tracked by production companies, and if you as a writer make a bad impression, a company is less likely to be willing to read another one of your scripts. If you made a good impression as a writer but they just passed on that particular script, a company will be much more willing to read future work from you.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
Since most of my work deals with newer writers, I have not yet personally come across a script that was an absolute Recommend with no doubts in my mind. Most scripts I read have a solid concept but need work to get them industry-ready. I have read many scripts that I would recommend if the writer made adjustments and changes, and those scripts might receive a Consider.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
Absolutely worth it. They’re a great way to build up credibility and provide the ‘pitching points’ writers need to become interesting to agents, managers, production companies, etc. You don’t have to win. Even being a quarter-finalist in larger contests or fellowships can make you attractive and garner interest in your work. And if you do win or place in a major contest, it can open doors for you very quickly if you take advantage of the opportunity.
Submitting to contests also provides built-in deadlines. If you know you have regular submission deadlines you have to meet, it puts a fire under you to write every day. It’s not that expensive–you can take $400 and submit to most every major screenwriting competition and a couple of smaller ones. Think about all the things most people waste $400 on in a year (like coffee!). It’s a small investment that can have a big payoff, if even just to get you motivated to write.
10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Pumpkin! I’m thrilled that it’s Fall and we’re just a few weeks away from Halloween, my favorite holiday. I’m going to have to binge on all the pumpkin products over the next couple of months before they’re gone!