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First Draft: Cover Your (Screenwriting) Ass With These Rules For Writing Valuable Script Coverage

First Draft: Cover Your (Screenwriting) Ass With These Rules For Writing Valuable Script Coverage

First Draft

Know What You’re Talking About

If you haven’t read a lot of scripts, don’t watch a lot of movies and don’t know the current film industry, you can do more harm than good. You’re certainly not ready to be a script reader and you probably shouldn’t be offering feedback to anyone.

Yes, an opinion is an opinion. A perspective is a perspective. However, screenplays are different beasts compared to short stories and novels. They are written for a very specific platform that requires multiple collaborations and also falls into many different genre demographics and business and marketing modules.

It’s not enough to just say, “this is good,” and, “this is bad.” Great screenplay coverage and great screenplay feedback needs to also have context. You need to be able to compare and contrast with the current and past markets. You need to be able to compare and contrast with current and past films, genres, subgenres and their audiences. This in turn offers the writer receiving feedback some context and especially that producer or development executive. There is a reason Hollywood loves to pitch projects with phrases like “It’s Jaws meets Alien.” That creates an immediate visual context that they can apply to their decision.

Know how to read scripts by reading lots of them. Have the ability to be able to provide context by knowing and watching a lot of movies. And also know and understand the past and current trends of the industry.

Don’t Be an Ass

Go into the process of writing coverage and feedback void of any ego and pessimism.

Sadly, when many writers are given a script with the writer, producer or development executive saying, “I need your feedback,” they often feel it’s their time to step up on that pedestal to enjoy a little power and grandeur—and they exploit it.

In short, don’t be an ass. Reread any notes many times over before they are sent out. If they aren’t offered in a positive light—with both the good and the bad—and are full of dictations as far as what direction you think the script should go and if they don’t go that way, it’ll fail? You’re being an ass.

If you start quoting Robert McKee, William Goldman, Syd Field and whoever else, basically trying to talk smart and position yourself on a higher plane of knowledge, well, you’re being an ass.  If your coverage or feedback consists of endless notions of structure and theory, pulled from guru books and “secret” formulas, you’re being an ass.

That’s not what coverage and feedback is about.

Focus on the Broad Strokes

Great notes found within coverage and feedback focus on the broad strokes of concept, character, story, plotting, themes, pacing, atmosphere and tone, rather than grammar, punctuation, sentences, dialogue lines and nitpicking specifics.

Coverage and feedback is not proofreading. You’re not going through the script with a red marker and then transferring those marks into specific page-for-page and line-for-line notes–unless you’re being contracted specifically to do in-the-margin notes or proofing.

Instead, you want to focus on the general elements of the script that either shine or don’t shine for whatever reason. You can pinpoint specific examples to back up your reactions regarding the broad strokes—good and bad—but avoid wasting time focusing on each and every minute issue within the script.

Such details will overwhelm your peers and such details are insignificant to producers and development executives that have to go through dozens upon dozens of scripts each week. They will be able to grasp the broad strokes and generalizations to attain a better understanding of what is wrong and what is right with the script in question.

Think Cinematically 

This is one element that many script readers fail to implement in their readings. Too many readers get caught up in plotting, arcs and structure theory. For every example that they give of what a screenwriter and script did wrong—in their eyes—one could turn to any number of successful examples within successful films to prove otherwise. Why? Because screenplays are written for a visual medium and should not be judged or analyzed on the text and literary merits alone.

Movies like Star WarsIndependence DayKong: Skull Island and The Fast and the Furious are not necessarily heralded for their amazing dialogue and bullet proof plots. They are cinematic treats. Great script readers need to have a keen third cinematic eye that can see what they are reading through their own mind’s eye as if the film was already made and playing on a screen in their head. One could argue that the screenwriter is in charge of creating that experience for them, but there are many readers out there that are more concerned about the literary perspective of the script, rather than the cinematic perspective that the possible eventual film will be told in.

There has to be a balance of that, sure, but sometimes a great script really just needs to be a great, cinematic and thrilling ride where you accept the rules that are given within the script and enjoy the cinematic experience of what unfolds.

So, in short…

  • Point out what doesn’t work and what does
  • Make sure you know what you’re talking about in the first place
  • Keep an objective perspective while still allowing your subjective passion for film to be present
  • Don’t bring in any ego to the process
  • You’re not there to proofread, instead, you’re there to give an overview
  • Think cinematically

Follow those general directives and you’ll be a script reader worth hiring and a great screenwriting peer to turn to in a time of need. You’ll also be a better writer—one who understands the reader mentality, and who is better equipped to process notes and feedback, because you’ll know what goes into creating them. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraftScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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