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How To Evaluate A Screenplay

Adam Scott

The first question to ask is, "How good is the screenplay itself?"

The screenplay should be a collection of raw materials that can be studied and modified, and put together in a coherent way that makes sense. If a screenplay is a mound of junk, then it's not very good at all, but you can't expect any screenplay to look professional.

At best, it will be a draft, a heap of notes that don't resemble a finished product. Even with a completed film, it's unlikely a screenplay will look impressive.

You can write a screenplay that looks like a finished film, but to a viewer it might not mean much. Most people can't tell much difference between a first draft and an unfinished film.

The viewer will see only one image, the image of the film's production.

But what about a screenplay that has an impressive production design? An exciting title?

A top-tier production team and a packed soundtrack? An innovative first scene or an innovative twist in the middle? And more.

In the past, before digital technology, those rare scripts were so detailed and beautifully written that they were hard to believe were ever written by the same person. We're getting to a time where an attention-grabbing opening scene and some exceptional dialogue doesn't make or break a script.

That said, scripts can still look great and still be lousy.

Find something uniqueDesigner sketching Wireframes

My advice for evaluating a screenplay is to look for the things that differentiate a script from a pile of loose-leaf paper. To evaluate the script, just imagine a professional reader would.

You'd want to make sure that a professional reader wouldn't be able to tell it apart from a blank piece of paper. So take a few minutes and write down a few key things that separate it from a piece of paper.

Keep in mind that if you have four or five of the same things, that's a sign that the screenplay is not very good. And if you have more than 20 of the same thing, then you're probably going to have problems.

You can include comments such as:

  • Plots should have a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • Dialogue should be lively
  • Action should be fast-paced
  • Unique characters are important
  • Agents are not important
  • No one knows your story like you do

Include your comments in a list. (Or keep them to yourself and make a judgment from the description alone.)

After you've completed the list, look for any things you liked.

Did you like the voice? Was it clever?

Is it unique? Can you imagine a film with this script?

Do you think the characters are interesting?

Just as an aside, many screenwriters include copious notes in the script that are not useful. This is typical and will likely happen again in the course of writing this book.

If you can, use them as storyboards, rather than as individual sections. The purpose of a storyboard is to break down the script into its parts and show how the story works, instead of simply including all of the pages.

This will help to make your comments easier to read and understand. I often have to walk through a script with a storyboard or show it to someone else to make sure I understand what I've written.

This is good practice.

Extensive stage directions

Pay attention to your stage directions. How do they relate to the story? What information is being conveyed? Is the language simple enough for the actors to understand?

An intriguing moral or ethical statement

While most screenplays won’t have a “big picture” statement, that doesn’t mean they won’t have an interesting one. What is the purpose of a moral or ethical statement?

Is it clear? Is it concise?

Does it provide an alternative? Are you going to use it in dialogue or is it simply implied?

Explosive or sustained action

Action, or more specifically, “telegraphic” action is the most commonly over-analyzed element in screenplays. Just like a teacher might assign a problem to students, storytellers often assign a problem to the audience.

I think a good way to go about solving that problem is to simply ask, “What can we do with this action?”

Characters that look aliveNhững gánh nước trên vai, gieo mầm cho sự sống tươi xanh.

Character liveliness is highly subjective, so it’s difficult to address this question without creating an entirely different list. Your goal is to always start your work by determining what kind of movie you’re making and the kind of stories you want to tell.

What I’ve found to be consistent is that the most engaging characters are relatable. Characters that are bold, energetic, and able to take risks will help draw the audience in.

Relatable characters

Character relatability can be subjective. You can never generalize about “relatable” because there are as many types of people out there as there are people in the world.

Your goal in creating your story is to create a world that allows for relatable characters. An example of a movie that I believe has done this well is “Thor.”

Each of the characters in the movie had a personality and a goal that tied into the larger story arc.

Plausibility, on the other hand, is a universal, objective measure. If you can’t find at least one scene where a plausible plot device is introduced, you need to question your story before writing the first line.

If it’s all about one thing

You want to avoid all the stuff that usually stops a screenplay from being a great one:

  • Referencing yourself too much
  • Inventing your own versions of “real world” situations
  • Exaggeration
  • Using descriptive language that is confusing
  • Using a sense of humor that is juvenile or lame
  • Go easy on the excessive uses of exclamation marks

These are the typical issues that crop up when screenplays lose momentum and become bloated. You’ve probably experienced one or all of these before.

There’s nothing worse than walking away from a screenplay and being dissatisfied with how it ended. If you can avoid most of these issues, your screenplay will be a slam-dunk!

Frequent jumping to another scene/location

A script should not have a ton of exposition, which is why I’m suggesting that you use periods and not commas to break up scenes. Have a brief break in the middle of a scene or chapter so that your readers can fully comprehend what’s going on.

Then continue on with your story.

Dialogue that is extraneousNewport, Oregon - Road to Newport

“Exposition!” “Suspense!” “Plot!” “Evocation!” Whatever your particular method, a dialogue writer’s goal should be to bring the reader back to the story with every sentence.

A basic rule of thumb is to only make two (or three) transitions a page (even in the second or third act) to bring the reader back to the story. If you do this effectively, your script will always flow and the reader won’t get fatigued.

Suspenseful

If you’ve written your story in a way that will keep your readers engaged, suspenseful pacing should be the first thing that comes to mind. Suspenseful writing is based on “earned tension” (the anticipation of something bad happening) instead of “unearned tension” (the lack of it).

There are two main styles of suspenseful pacing: tense-and-twist storytelling and puzzle-and-unlock narrative pacing. This type of storytelling calls for a tense environment (often involving high-stakes situations), as well as obstacles (unexplained or outlandish, like a heavy breathing fog) that complicate the protagonist’s path to success.

In this type of pacing, as the action ramps up, you will introduce less and less explanation to make sure that the reader stays engaged, on edge, and on the edge of their seat.

Unfortunately, there is not enough space to explain the different methods of tense-and-twist storytelling. The two main ways are as follows:

Tense-and-twist storytelling:

  • You create a tense environment and you give your characters multiple objectives.
  • To accomplish their objectives, they must work through a variety of obstacles (like the fog).
  • The obstacles have to do with the characters’ personal lives or stories.

And while the obstacles often have to do with things that we can’t see, like the heavy breathing fog, it does not always mean that the characters are racing against time and/or their personal obstacles.

This type of storytelling should build tension through internal action (events that the characters are thinking about) and through external, external obstacles (events that they are running against).

Puzzle-and-unlock narrative pacing:

  • You create a puzzle for your reader to solve.
  • You have a unique puzzle for each story, which you reveal slowly and in turn allow the reader to piece together the picture.
  • You end each chapter with a last-chance puzzle to which the reader is never fully privy until the very end.
  • You make the first three chapters unveil one unique puzzle piece each.
  • You show the reader how to solve the puzzle.

It’s not enough to just have a puzzle. You have to make the reader think it is just the solution, but when they realize that they have to do more, they can’t wait to work through the pieces.

The important thing is to keep the reader engaged and interested. If you only give them one, monotonous puzzle piece at a time, it won’t be long before they are ready for the next chapter, movie, TV show, etc.

Give a rough grade

The next step is to give a rough grade on the script based on your five items. It's not easy, but you have to evaluate the script in the context of how you would evaluate the reader.

For instance, if I saw a script and was struck by the voice, but the dialogue didn't inspire me and the action was slow, then I would give the script a D. If the voice and dialogue are fantastic, but the pace is rushed and the action is excessive, then I'd give it a B-.

And if the writing made me laugh out loud, but the dialogue is so bad it made me roll my eyes, I'd give it a C. There are plenty of ways to grade a screenplay.

If you're happy with the draft, then it's time to start writing.

Which brings us to the first big problem: the first draft. If you're working on a first draft, there's no way to know if you're writing a good script or not.

So it's usually best to finish a draft by the end of the month. This is because it's only after you've finished the first draft that you can run tests on the script. Here's how it works:

Select five pages (or sections) from your script and enter them into screenwriting software.

Read the script. If it feels good, you're writing a good script.

If it doesn't feel good, you're writing a bad script.

I typically test each of my scripts in screenplay writing software, such as Final Draft. This is a great program for writing. And you can also use similar software that has less functionality.

Next, enter your findings into a spreadsheet.

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