I was in a situation that was about to go very, very badly. It’s a predicament I’d been in before, and I could tell this was heading south. All the classic signs were there.
His arms were crossed … shoulders raised up to the ears. Eyebrows were furrowed. Cheeks flaming red and stained with tears. But most obviously, this guy was snarling at me. Like a dog who was incredibly unhappy to be given a flea bath.
Yep, this had all the classic signs of a bad notes session. I had a defensive client on my hands.
If you’re new to my articles, I run a side hustle where I give notes on amateur screenplays and pilots. And in this particular scenario, I was sitting in a local library with someone who was brand new to my business. This was our first time working together. And I had just finished giving a round of extremely critical (but constructive) feedback on this script.
Basically, I had told him he needed to start over from scratch. The dreaded “page one rewrite” diagnosis. Every scribe’s nightmare.
Now to be clear, most of my clients are great. They’re collaborative, fun, receptive, and awesome people who I would totally grab a beer with any time of the day. But, as anyone who has ever read scripts can attest, sometimes you get someone who is … well …
“Spike, this is absolutely bullshit.” My client spouted, at a barely library-acceptable level. “I paid you for help with my story, not this crap!”
“I’m sorry you’re upset, man,” I said as calmly as I could. “I do think there’s a way forward here, but it’s going to require lots of wor—”
“No, it’s my turn to talk!” shouted my client, “You’ve spent the last twenty minutes tearing apart my script, and now I’m going to give you a piece of my mind!”
So, I sat there while this guy got all his feelings off his chest. He lamented that I didn’t connect with his protagonist (she had no emotion), that I found his second act directionless and meandering, that I said his first act didn’t build proper tension … but his primary complaint is what this article is all about.
“And, and, and!” he said, after berating me for ten minutes, “You didn’t mention a single word about my ending! I did all this work building to this awesome finale, and you don’t have a thing to say about it?? For real?! Like, did you even read the whole thing!!”
He finally stopped his rant and took a breath (Which was a very good thing, by the way. He was starting to turn purple from a lack of oxygen, and I was getting worried).
Anyway, I let the dust settle for a second. I’ve gone through this dog-and-pony show enough times to know that this was the critical moment. This is the time that my client was actually ready to really learn something.
So, I finally said, “You’re asking the wrong question here, bud. You shouldn’t be wondering if I read the whole script. What you should be wondering is: at what point in my story did I lose your attention?”
Truth be told, this isn’t even close to the first time someone has accused me of cutting corners with their work. It’s a common refrain that script analysts get asked frequently. And for the record, I had read all 125 pages of this guy’s screenplay … but again, that’s not the point.
The point is that if you lose your reader’s interest on page 40, they aren’t going to give a shit about what happens on page 90. If they aren’t engaged on page 60, they won’t be on page 100. Readers are like fish on a line, you need to reel us in the entire damn time. If we get bored and escape mid-way through, you aren’t cooking salmon dinner that night.
Because you know who absolutely isn't under any obligation to finish your ultra-long feature spec about British basket-weaving in the 1940s? Any producer or executive in Hollywood. And if you’re writing a script for film or television, I think it’s a fair assumption to say that you dream of these people reading your work (if you don’t, then why the hell are you writing scripts? Or at the very least, why the hell are you hiring me??)
Let me be very clear—when I worked in development (a career that spanned over ten years), I rarely, if ever, read every page of a submission. Want to know why? Because I was unbelievably fucking busy. No joke, I would go home on Friday nights sometimes with a dozen scripts I had to read over the weekend, and I was dead set on actually getting outside to touch grass at some point.
No, I read until I made a decision. A decision on if the script was worthy of moving up the food chain. And in 99.999999% of cases, you don’t need to get to the final page to reach this point. A lot of times it’s clear by the midpoint … or the inciting incident … or even in the first ten pages …
For those of you asking why this is, let me tell you—it’s because my job was to recommend scripts to my bosses. Studio and network executives who were even busier than I was. Every single script I recommended they read officially had my stamp of approval on it. And how bad do you think it would make me look if I wasted some of their precious time with a mediocre piece of material?
Really, really bad. That’s how.
So if I decided on page 40 of a screenplay: “Hey, this is boring,” or “Hey, this writing isn’t good,” or “Hey, these characters are weak and there’s no emotional involvement in the core mission,” you bet your ass I was gonna stop reading.
BECAUSE THERE WAS NO WAY I WOULD EVER RECOMMEND THAT SCRIPT TO MY BOSSES!
And similarly, if I’m doctoring your script, and I reach the midpoint of your narrative and see that the entire first half is jacked up and not doing what it’s supposed to, I’m going to spend all my time helping you correct that before we do anything else.
Because at that point, there isn’t a 3rd Act twist in the world that would save you.
Now to be clear, if a script was good … actually, better than good … if a script was freaking great, of course I’d read on. Why wouldn’t I?? If there were characters who I cared about at the center of this tale … people I empathized with and connected to emotionally … then I’d be a fool not to keep reading that feature! But so few times in this line of work do you encounter that. It’s an incredibly rare feat in this medium.
Which brings me back to the whole point of this little rant—the next time you get feedback on your script, and you think to yourself, "Did this person read the whole thing?" You need to stop and check your emotions. Instead, I want you to ask, “At what point did the narrative lose your interest?” Literally, get as specific as you can, to the point of trying to figure out precisely which page range this happened.
Because if you know that, you can actually make progress in fixing the ultimate problem.
Example: Let’s say your reader tells you that they lost interest in your script around page 60. This means (usually) that you did a pretty decent job from page 1-45 or 50. I mean, it had to have, right? If the audience was engaged from pages 1-45, then you clearly were building tension. You must have had conflict. And your characters were obviously interesting enough to keep them reading to that point.
But if you lost them on 60 … this really means that somewhere between 45-60, you did something wrong. Perhaps the story lost tension… or there wasn't enough conflict. Whatever the issue is, it’s your job to diagnose and solve it.
You are the author of this story. It’s your job to make it compelling.
I teach all of my clients to “check in” with their readers every ten pages. Meaning you need to segment your script off into parts, and each part needs to be building drama. It has to have conflict and tension and move the story forward. Ideally, it would be developing the characters, too, but that’s a lot to ask for a small number of pages. The point is: you (the writer) have to ensure that you’re giving us (the reader) something to hold onto. You need to actively do the work to keep our attention.
It’s your responsibility to craft this narrative … not ours to read a boring screenplay.
“But Spiiiiiiiiiike,” I can hear you saying, “what if that area was just a lull in the action! What if the reader would get re-engaged on page 80, or 90.”
Another fair question, but in my experience, this just doesn’t happen. If a reader becomes bored with your script, it becomes almost impossible to bring them back in. Even during “lulls” they have to remain engaged in what’s going on. (And by the way, I feel that term [lull] is actually a cop out for a boring script. It’s an excuse, and you’re better than excuses.)
Now, let me be really clear about something else too before I wrap up—I am not saying that there have never been script analysts who don’t read the whole thing. Of course there are, and of course there will be people who do this in the future. But I want you all to be very careful about defaulting to this thought. Because nine times out of ten, it’s not productive for your career.
However, if you’ve paid someone to read your script, and they can’t answer basic questions about the story. If they can’t name characters or recite basic plotlines of what happened … then yeah, you probably paid for a lazy reader. Sorry, but thatl does happen.
Charge it to the game and move on. You can try to get a refund, but oftentimes it’s not going to work. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. This is part of the gamble we take as creatives.
The point is this—a good reader doesn’t need to read the third act of your story to know if it’s viable in the marketplace. All of the work you’ve done in your first act, and then your second, will tell them everything they need to know already.
So, don’t worry so much about creating a great ending until you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’ve got a killer opening. It’s your most critical act, anyway.
Godspeed y’all, and happy writing.
*Feature Photo by Ann H