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Getting Your Script past the Gatekeepers

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For aspiring writers, getting a script past story analysts (often referred to as "readers") is often the most challenging part of selling a script. Readers are often the gatekeepers for writers looking to break into the industry--despite their often being paid poorly and receiving relatively little respect. Story analysts see scores of scripts, and their impression of your work can sometimes mean the difference between your script being championed or buried.

So, what advice would a story analyst give to writers hoping for that big break?

• We are intelligent, but few of us have psychic abilities. If it's not on the page, we have no way of knowing what's in your head and what you intended. (For example: If your characters are divorced when the story opens and this is an integral part of the plot, then establish this up front. Don't keep us guessing unless you intend to reveal this information as a surprise.)

• If your first 10 pages don't grab our attention, it will be difficult if not impossible to redeem yourself later. Beware! We could stop reading your script right then and there.

• We want to see characters who are unique, have distinctive personalities, and serve a purpose in the story, otherwise you are truly frustrating us.

• Don't throw in the kitchen sink. Don't confuse us with extraneous characters and plots that don't go anywhere. This is a sign that you are not confident about your story and we know it.

• We may not have gone to medical or law school, but generally we are well read or have personal experience with the subject matter. We will immediately recognize if the terminology or research in your script is weak or implausible. (For example: A character has a prominent scar on his back from having had his gall bladder removed. I have a nice, prominent scar on my stomach so I know this is incorrect.)

• Even superheroes' actions need to be plausible! If you have action scenes, be sure they are realistic and well executed; otherwise we will be inclined to reject your script. (For example: If your superhero is piloting a plane without fuel and is in flight for 24 hours, we will catch this mistake!)

• If your script jumps forward in time, make sure the reader jumps with you. Whether it's several months or several years, the time frame must be clearly indicated in your script.

• Film, unlike plays or novels, is a visual medium. Endless dialogue and highly detailed description demonstrates to us that you are an inexperienced screenwriter.

• In your description paragraphs, don't telegraph what is about to be seen and/or heard in the dialogue and/or action. (For example: The descriptive paragraph states: Tara will soon find out that her boyfriend will ask her to marry him. Tara is sitting in her living room watching television. Her boyfriend, Ray, arrives with flowers. Tara accepts the flowers as Ray gets down on one knee and proposes.)

• Don't direct your script with camera angles. Using camera directions is absolutely frowned upon. We know that directors and producers do not want to be told how to shoot their movie!

• A script is not a novel. Dense paragraphs of descriptions are a turnoff. Each separate action should be a new paragraph. Be brief and concise. Make each word count. Since we are often tired and overworked, these paragraphs become a blur of black lines, and consequently, we may overlook important details.

• Avoid heavy-handed exposition at all costs. Don't over-explain information about back-story in dialogue. We know if you're setting up a whole scene just to get exposition across. (For example: Don't create a scene just to explain that a character has a fear of flying because he once was an air traffic controller. This information can be simply learned in a line or two of dialogue and/or visuals.)

• Watch out for rambling scenes! Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time. You must keep this in mind if your scenes run long since we are looking for a well-paced screenplay.

• When we read voice-overs, we often panic! We don't want to be spoon-fed information. We don't want to hear the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue, visuals, or action.

• When we read flashbacks, our alarms start to go off! Generally, we frown upon flashbacks because we know flashbacks rarely work on film. If you really feel you need to use them, know that we will be scrutinizing them to see if they are indeed necessary.

• Incorrect format shows us that you are inexperienced. Don't cheat and use a smaller font or change the margins. We will catch this immediately. Respect the time of the person reading your script.

• Don't submit your script unless it looks perfect! No typos. No coffee stains. No photocopying lines. No missing or extra blank pages within the script. Believe me, you don't want us to become irritated because we are attempting to decipher text between the spots and smudges, and trying to figure out which page belongs where.

Susan Kouguell is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, a motion picture consulting company. Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Tufts University, taught at the Harvard University Extension School and the School of Visual Arts and presents seminars nationwide. Her book, "The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out!," is published by T.L. Hoell Books. For information, visit www.savvyscreenwriter.com