By Lucy V
One of the questions I get asked most frequently is how to write a script report: I probably get it at least two or three times a week. Many screenwriting degree courses now insist their students need to know how script reports work and it’s good advice. Script reading is an “entry level” job and screenwriting graduates are likely to be reading screenplays and writing coverage at least for a while in their climb up the industry ladder. It’s also a very popular job amongst freelancers, who may or may not be writers themselves – like me!
But even if you are neither a screenwriting graduate searching for entry level jobs, or a freelance writer bidding for regular gigs, I’d still venture reading scripts AND writing script reports is a GREAT way of honing your craft. It helps you understand what goes into writing and making films or TV, even if it is “second hand” – ie. reading a screenplay you’ve downloaded off the internet, then watching the produced version. Even if the only version you’re able to find online is a transcript, you will still see, first hand, the various choices the filmmakers and actors have made to “bring it to life” – what’s not to like?
So here’s my steps to writing a script report, to help your writing
1) Read the screenplay FIRST.
That’s right. Don’t watch the movie or show first, if you can help it. This is an exercise: in the industry, the screenplay and its coverage comes first, not the produced version; don’t let yourself off the hook by having the ability to “see” the story and pictures even in your mind’s eye AS you’re reading. The real industry script reader has no such luxury.
2) Read the script in its entirety, then read it again.
First off, simply read the screenplay, with just two questions in mind:
i) What’s working?
ii) What’s not working?
If you want, you can write these things down but don’t go mad. Just scribble a couple of “notes to self”.
3) Write a logline for the screenplay.
Limit yourself to 25-60 words if you can. This will help you “zero in” on what the story is about, which is very important in a script report and also helps you (AND the writer, if applicable) understand what needs work in a piece. BTW, if you can’t and you find yourself writing a long blurb like the one on the back of a DVD box? There’s a big red flag: this script has story problems.)
3) Notes To Self, Part 2.
On your second read, have a piece of paper next to you with the following sub headings:
Leave a space underneath each subheading so you can scribble more detailed “notes to self”. Here’s what each one means:
Story covers stuff like structure and plot, but also the less obvious like the central concept or premise; the genre, theme and/or message; or the mission, goal or obstacles of the protagonist or antagonist (ie. whether it’s clear or not) and so on. Biggest tip of all: if you can’t sum up what’s going on? Then the screenplay has ISSUES. It really is as simple as that.
Characters covers not only who is IN the screenplay and whether they are interesting (or not), it also covers the notion of ROLE FUNCTION – ie. who is who; who is doing what – AND WHY. So, do you know who the protagonist is? Do you know who the antagonist is? Who are the secondaries and how do they HELP OR HINDER the main characters? Why do they do what they do?
Dialogue is one of the easiest things on a screenplay to comment on, probably because it’s the easiest thing to write. You heard me: easiest! It’s not difficult to let scenes “run away” with dialogue, so is it justified? Or has it just become long chains of exchanges? Does each character have their own unique way of speaking, or if you covered up the names, would you be unable to tell who was who? Is it pithy and authentic, or on the nose and melodramatic? Are there any standout lines for good – or bad – reasons? Remember, emphasis on SCREEN, not play! We don’t want theatre.
Arena refers to the “feel of the piece”, not just location. Does the writer give us a sense of place AND time with carefully chosen visuals, motifs, tone, allusions and all the other storytelling devices?
Miscellaneous is everything else … What’s the format like? Spelling, punctuation, grammar? What about the scene description, or the writer’s “voice”? Is the title any good, or is it “misfiring”? And so on.
4) Now watch the produced version aka Notes to Self, Part 3.
So, you should hopefully have a bunch of pointers, once you’ve finished reading the screenplay a second time.
So, go over to your telly and DVD player/console and turn the produced version on. But before you do, make sure you have a clean piece of paper with those subheadings like those I’ve just outlined on. And do it all over again. Only this time, add one extra subheading:
Make a note of where the produced version deviates from the screenplay version. There WILL be differences … They may be subtle, or major. Don’t comment on them just yet, just remind yourself how they differ.
5) NOW pull it all together.
Aim for between 500-1000 words. You can write it as one long chunk of prose with the logline at the top; or you can write it “profile style”, using those subheadings to compare and contrast the screenplay and produced versions. It’s an exercise, so up to you. Whatever works best for you.
WITHOUT turning the report into a magazine-style film review, note what you think works in the piece and what you feel needed more development and why. DO remember to write a conclusion – which is “better”: the script version, or the produced version? Why do you think that is?
At the bottom, give the piece a verdict:
PASS – unsuccessful; has more problems than it can deal with, whether on the page OR screen.
CONSIDER – some good stuff here, but a few integral things let it down, especially when going from the page to the screen.
RECOMMEND – An excellent screenplay that has lead to an excellent production. Gold star.
(Click the hyperlinks for examples of the above verdicts; here’s another sample script report, this time for THE KING’S SPEECH.)
FYI: The first time you write a script report like this, I warn you: it will be a slog. But then those things worth doing often are; it’s worth it – and you will get faster, the more you do it.
But the more you do this exercise? The more you will gain about storytelling and how to render characters, plots and motivations as image. After all: there’s a VERY good reason most industry insiders say the best education in screenwriting is READING SCREENPLAYS.
BIO: Lucy V Hay is a script editor, novelist and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. Lucy is author of the book, WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS (Creative Essentials).