I'm gonna tell y'all a story that happened to me about a year ago. Though you probably expected that from me ... I've gotten famous for starting my articles this way.
[Editor's Note: Spike has not, in fact, gotten famous ...]
[Authors comment on editor's note: Yes, I have.]
Anyway, I was working with a client on a spec TV pilot. I thought the script was fine, but nowhere near amazing. The structure was sound, but the concept was overall unexciting. Filled with tropes, clichés, and "seen-that-before" beats. I gave him some notes about what'd I'd do to make it better, and he came back to me with this sort of response:
"Hey, thanks, fam! Really appreciate the work you've put in thus far. I hear what you're saying, but I'm just gonna be straight up and let you know I ain't doing any of that. I'm happy with the script the way it is, and don't think altering the core is worth the effort right now. I just need to find the right reader who resonantes with what I have. Thanks again!"
I stared at this email blankly for, like, six straight minutes. It took me that long to process what I'd just seen.
I'm not even going to lie: I was red-hot, flaming-Cheetos mad in the aftermath. I immediately saw red.
I've seen a lot of this sentiment going around online lately (mostly on Twitter/X and Reddit). The thought that "I just need to find the right reader for my screenplay." Which in my mind equates to an "it's not me, it's you," mentality. I don't need to get better! YOU need to see what I'm trying to do! YOU need to like what I write, regardless of if my story has no conflict, boring characters, bad writing, and typos galore!
For the longest time, I saw those words as a cop out. They were an excuse. An easy deflection. An ostrich burying its head in the sand. A way to hide from the fact that your narrative craftsmanship wasn't good enough to pass through the gatekeepers of Hollywood. I would see people posting stuff like this on the internet and laugh at them. "What idiots," I thought.
And then ... my mindset changed. Because I wrote a screenplay of my own.
Now let me be really, really clear: I don't think I'm the second coming of Aaron Sorkin or anything. I am acutely aware of my own limitations as a writer (my mother says that I ... ahem ... "lean too hard on 'nasty cuss words to invoke a reaction out of my readers," or something like that).
I say that's complete and total bullshit, but we're getting off track ...
However, I am extremely confident in my knowledge of pacing, story structure, and emotional resonance. I've read tens of thousands of scripts in my life. I give notes on a dozen scripts a month for the Script Pipeline Workshop. I had a strong hunch I would be better at this than the next guy. So I decided to write a script to prove it.
The whole process took about four or five months, and I got positive feedback from many of my most trusted friends. And after a year of tweaking, snipping, and cutting it, I finally decided to submit it to a handful of contests.
Did I think I was going to win any of them? Hell to the no. Having judged for screenwriting contests myself, I knew the chances of that were infinitely slim. Placing in them was the real prize to me. I wanted to prove that I could do this, having not written anything (with a narrative) since college, just by familirazing myself with the field of competition.
And let me tell you, I was absolutely shocked by the results. Are you ready for this?
Here's what happened:
COMPETITION A: 1st Round Pass
COMPETITION B: 1st Round Pass
COMPETITION C: 1st Round Pass
COMPETITION D: Made 2nd Round!!! ... then passed
COMPETITION E: Given the coveted RECOMMEND grade. Material sent to several reputable managers and producers.
... what the ever-flipping fuck??? What could ever lead to such a wide-spectrum of outcomes with the material?!
The answer, of course, was in the details, as it always is. For several of these comps, I ordered reader feedback (mainly out of curiosity) and the coverages were staggering ...
As an example, Competition A sent me two people's opinions. The first person seemed to love my script. They praised the social commentary several times. Adored the father/son character dynamic. And they were drawn in by the story. They had a few notes on the characters (as I've said before, there are always going to be notes), but 99% of what they had to say was positive.
And then, I got to the second person's thoughts ... They were the exact opposite of the first.
The second reader called my script "sophomoric." Riddled with tropes, clichés, and "seen-it-again" beats. The theme seemingly went over their head, and they clearly didn't jive with my material at all.
And that's when it hit me straight in the fucking face ...
One reader understood my overall motif and message. The other one didn't.
One reader thought what I was doing was cool and original. The other one didn't.
One reader resonated with the characters and emotions. The other one didn't.
Reader A was the "right" reader. Reader B was the "wrong" one.
Competition E was the "right" competition for my story. Competitions A, B, C, and D were the "wrong" ones (at least that year they were).
Look, I've said many times before that there is no perfect screenplay. I love La La Land and hate Moonlight. And I know plenty of people who feel the opposite. I love The Godfather with a fiery passion ... and I know someone else who thinks that movie sucks (you know who you are!).
The point is—you will NEVER find anything where EVERYONE agrees. It's literally impossible. And Hollywood is no different. Everyone is going to bring their own unique experiences and perspectives to the table when reading your work.
This is one of the (many) reasons why getting things made in the industry is so freaking hard! You have to get approved by multiple sets of eyeballs. Producers, executives, actors, and directors all need to like it. It can truly feel like surviving a death match in the Coliseum sometimes.
But anyway, now that we've established that, yes, there is such a thing as the "right" reader, I want to take a moment to clarify specifically what this does and doesn't mean:
#1 - IT DOESN'T MEAN YOU SHOULD DISREGARD ALL NOTES AND REFUSE TO IMPROVE YOUR CRAFT.
Because that's just dumb.
Everyone can get better. Everyone. Unless you're a multi-award winning creator who has made millions of dollars in this business, you have something to improve on (and honestly, some really successful people in Hollywood drink their own Kool-Aid and still need to improve). You should not tell yourself "that's the wrong reader, that's the wrong reader!" over and over again like a shield just because someone didn't like your story.
But you should...
#2 - RECOGNIZE THAT NOT EVERY SCRIPT IS FOR EVERYBODY.
And just move on from that. Charge it to the game. Them's the brakes, kid.
Yeah, you may have dropped a hundred dollars to a screenwriting comp only for them to give you a first round pass. To me, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try again with that comp (or another one) later down the line. I still resolutely believe there's value to submitting to and getting feedback from contests.
However, there's a massive caveat here ...
#3 - THE RIGHT READER IS ALMOST ALWAYS EXPERIENCED IN WHAT THEY DO.
This is the part of the article where I call out the bullshit artists around town. AKA—the contests who utilize a force of "volunteer readers" who couldn't describe good story structure if they tripped and fell into it. I'm not going to name names (...) but there are scams out there. And they are taking your damn money.
So do your research. Twitter/X is a great resource to see who has had good and bad experiences with contests and coverage services before. Definitely tread carefully before you part with your hard-earned dollars. Don't be a sucker. Make sure whatever service you use pays experienced readers fair and honest wages. You need people who know what they're doing.
Because as someone who has seen all facets of the industry, I can confidently tell you that when you first start out, you have no clue what a good screenplay is. It takes years of reading to build up a knowledge base in order to compare stuff to. You have to see lots of bad scripts and lots of good ones to be able to identify them.
#4 - FINDING THE RIGHT READER REQUIRES A CERTAIN SPECIFIC SET OF ELEMENTS.
I sorta said this above with #1, but I'm going to say it again because I just know that SOMEONE out there will walk away from this article with the wrong lesson if I don't.
In order for any of this to matter, your story MUST have a narrative engine. You MUST generate easily-defined, palpable conflict. There must be tension. And there must be a conclusion to that drama!
You must have characters who WANT something very badly. And who face obstacles along the way towards getting it. Your characters must change over the course of the script and feel real, tangible emotions while doing so. Emotions that resonate with the audience and make them FEEL something. And most importantly, your script must have a theme. Something it's about. A message it wants to say.
The above are all critical elements to telling a great story. Don't just think you can keep passing around the same trash over and over ... resubmit the same script that doesn't have these elements to the same contest year after year ... and get a different result. You might as well just light your money on fire.
And I have seen so ... many ... people ... do this. I can't count the number of times I've read something in X year of a contest, and then received pretty much the same screenplay again next year.
Don't be the person who does this.
Because the right reader is out there, waiting to find your script. As long as you are hitting on the fundamentals. I promise.
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)