I worked as a story analyst, aka “reader”, or “gatekeeper” for a studio after attending film school. Fortunately, they offered a course there in how to write coverage at USC. So while trying to break into the business, I was able to earn rent money in my chosen field.
Story analysis is not an easy job. It teaches you to read and evaluate a screenplay quickly. You don’t have time to pore over the material and really soak it up. You have a few hours to read a script or a novel, summarize it and asses its strengths and weaknesses and convey all that in few paragraphs.
The hardest part of the process for me was summarizing a screenplay’s story, while conveying a sense of the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the tone and pace of the script. Try to describe 115 pages of story, jokes, suspense, or what-have you in half a page. It’s not easy.
Additionally, you have to make a convincing argument as to why the story, plot, characters, and pace, either work or fall short. You also have to back up your opinions with evidence – describing examples of weak dialogue, or poor story structure.
After all that work, the reader has to decide whether to “pass’ or “recommend’ the script to the studio executives. This can be intimidating for the reader, who is at the bottom of the power structure in the studio system.
If you recommend a screenplay, then your coverage gets noticed by the people upstairs. As a reader, you want to praise only the very best scripts. You don’t want to go to bat for a so-so, or even a decent script with flaws, for ear of losing your job.
After you’ve worked as a story analyst for a year or so, you will really have a good idea what works and what doesn’t work. You also have a pretty good sense of what goes into a screenplay that gets recommended.
It’s impossible to return to writing your own screenplays, then, without holding high standards for your concept, dialogue, story, pacing and production values. It will definitely make your job more difficult, knowing how high the bar really is.
However, you’ll know hat goes into a script that gets a “recommend.” If you think about it, and this is a sobering thought, you can’t sell a script to a studio without the approval of the “gatekeepers.”
As a former “gatekeeper,” then, what advice would I pass on to young writers? Well, here are just a few thoughts:
Be sure the first ten pages grab the reader’s attention. That means, avoid clichéd, boring, slow, hackneyed openings. Never be boring.
Try to make sure all the major characters have distinctive and three dimensional personalities, and grow through conflict in the story.
Try to have your characters act and talk in a reasonable, believable manner. Try not to write caricatures or cartoons unless you’re writing a cartoon.
Don’t write overly-long (5 or 7 page) scenes with talking heads and little action. It’s a movie – a motion picture. The average scene is about two pages. Average – meaning you’ll have some half page scenes and some three or four page scenes.
Don’t write seven to ten line single space descriptions of action. You want to make sure there is maximum white space. Same thing with speeches. you want your scenes to look more conversational.
Don’t write a scene or a series of scenes that doesn’t forward the story or a subplot. You can tell if it doesn’t. forward the story. Ask yourself if you cut the scene, will the story still progresses without it? If so, cut away.
Know when to get into a scene, and when to get out. Try to write every scene with a beginning, middle and end. Try to build to a funny, scary, or otherwise entertaining payoff, then get out of the scene.
Avoid obvious exposition. Hide it. Make it entertaining. Don’t write scenes that only push information – and not the story. Don’t write scenes where two characters talk about another character without moving the story.
Be careful with voice-overs. If you use them, make sure they don’t just re-iterate the action. Make sure they don’t push information without being entertaining.
Don’t mess with the margins to control your page count. Write a script that’s between 90 to 115 pages. When in doubt, cut.
Your main story and your subplots almost always start early in act one, and progress all the way into act three. They hopefully build to a climax around two-thirds of the way through.
Don’t submit a script if it’s full of typos, misspellings, awkward grammar, run-on sentences, or annoying, gross or obscene dialogue, unless there’s a point.
Make the script as easy to read as possible. Don’t introduce ten characters in the same scene. Keep your logic simple and don’t be confusing. The last thing you want is for the reader to have to go back and reread scenes over and over.
Be careful using too many flashbacks, or flash-forwards. Be clear about the timeline and don’t confuse the reader, don’t make them go back and try to figure it out.
The first time we see the character, write their first and last names in capital letters, with their age, something about their look and a hint about their personality or attitude.
When you write witty or funny dialogue, avoid corny jokes, puns, stupid jokes, jokes that would prompt a rim-shot, and dated references. Funny dialogue should sound conversational, and not have a setup-joke, setup-joke rhythm.
Try to come up with a thoughtful ending or an unexpected ending. You will always stand a better chance if you complete the main character’s arc and finish their story in a satisfying way. Send the audience out on a high note, or send them out arguing about the ending.
Write characters with some complexity and with flaws. Don’t write female characters that are simply sexy or pretty. It’s okay if they’re attractive, but there should be more going on. Note, there are a lot of women in the story departments at the studios. Don’t piss them off.
There’s something called the “Bechtel test.” You should at least be familiar with it. This “test’ suggests there should be scenes where two female characters talk about something other than a male.
Make sure the stakes are high for your protagonist. The stakes supply motivation and the character’s energy. Without that energy in your hero (and in the writing) the story won’t be a quick read – it’ll feel sluggish.
Your hero will need setbacks, and they should get tougher as the story unfolds. Don’t forget to place obstacles in their way. The obstacles grow in intensity, building to the climax. Don’t forget the third act has a structure. It’s own setbacks and obstacles.
These are a few suggestions from a “gatekeeper.” These are not rules to be slavishly followed. Like everything in screenwriting, there are no real rules, just suggestions.
Also, don’t hate me; I am no longer a story analyst. Everybody hates them because 99 per cent of the time, they pass on your scripts. I only offer these suggestions to help you to hit the elusive goal of getting the reader’s recommendation.
If you’re having trouble finishing a draft, or a re-write, feel free to talk with me, a produced screenwriter, at 310-850-4707.