In my role as Sr. Story Analyst for Coverfly, screenwriters are always asking me how they can make a great impression on readers whose job it is to sift through piles and piles of scripts. So, let’s take an in-depth look on simple ways writers can separate themselves from the pack.
First, what is a story analyst? A story analyst’s primary role is to read screenplays and provide evaluation and insight into the elements of the story. I may conduct this service for a producer, production company, studio, agency, management firm, screenplay competition, or script coverage service.
My expertise is in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses in screenplays.
There are three ways story analysts like myself can approach their analysis.
- Recommend, Consider, or Pass — Comes with short and succinct coverage meant to gauge an industry insider’s interest. Highlights strengths, weaknesses, budget scale, and potential.
- Grading Scale – Utilized by screenplay competitions. Story traits such as characters, format, structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, tone, etc., are graded and tallied.
- Coverage – General coverages are short and touch upon 3-4 major improvements that need to be addressed. More in-depth coverages can span up to seven pages and dive deep into all of the story traits judged by readers.
Now that we have a better understanding of what a story analyst does, here are some tips I’ve accrued from my time reading a wide-range of screenplays and pilots:
1. Be professional
When reading your script, I will immediately take note of the formatting and writing style.
- Formatting – There is an industry standard in formatting that writers shouldn’t deviate from. Make sure to use screenwriting software to get the margins and alignments right. Resist the urge to delve into prose and alway write action in the present tense. I’ve found that reading produced screenplays available online can be a big help when it comes to formatting.
- Writing Style – Story analysts like myself are drawn to a screenplay if the writer’s voice matches the genre. If you’re writing a horror film, your tone and delivery should be scary and foreboding. If you’re writing a comedy, you gotta make ‘em laugh. Use an active voice instead of a passive one. Also, avoid using too many -ing verbs (gerunds).
For example: Don’t write: He is running.
Write: He runs.
Don’t drown the reader with details they don’t need. Details should function either as plot devices or to create a sense of tone or mood. The adage, “Don’t describe a tea cup unless it has poison in it,” applies here.
2. Establish Cause & Effect
It’s important to hit certain milestones in the story, particularly when it comes to introducing the inciting incident within the first fifteen pages. I’ve found that after a while it’s hard to become invested in a screenplay if the plot feels like a series of random events. Early on in the story I need to know who the main character is, what they want, and what the stakes are.
Try to create a sense of, “This happens because this happens,” instead of, “new things just keep happening.”
Further, don’t make life easy on your protagonist! The other common mistake (particularly with pilots) that writers tend to make is to avoid throwing conflict and obstacles the protagonist’s way. The pilot is the writer’s one opportunity to show what makes the series great, so don’t wait for episode two to put your hero in a difficult position. The main character needs to struggle early and often.
Speaking of the protagonist, it’s important that they be proactive throughout their journey. The protagonist must have a sense of agency and make bold decisions from beginning to end. The best way to reveal character is through their actions (both good and bad), so make sure they are the one driving the action, as opposed to just getting pulled along for the ride.
Also, establish the premise early on. Don’t wait until the last few pages. This is something that beginner writers often do in their TV pilots that I always caution against. If the premise of your pilot is centered on a fire house, don’t end the pilot with your protagonist entering the fire house for the first time and meeting a whole bunch of supporting characters that we no longer have enough time to explore. Lead with it so the reader can get a better picture of what the series might look like over multiple episodes.
3. Be Original
Find your voice. It takes time to develop but ultimately it comes down to a writer’s delivery and the unique perspective they bring to the story. How does your own personal life experience permeate through your writing? Your voice is the soul of the screenplay.
A screenplay stands out when the writer has the ability to visualize a unique worldview and bring that world to life. The writer’s passion and perspective should be on full display.
4. Subvert Expectations
“Readers in general are drawn to things that are new and different. So they might read a script where they think, ‘You know what? This is a really tough sell but at the same time it really stands out to me.’ I think managers and agents appreciate that too.”
So make it fresh. Avoid repeating the same boring tropes, clichés, and genre conventions unless you plan on subverting them. Be aware of what came before, but don’t be afraid to step outside the confines of genre to create a memorable experience. For example, I’ve read dozens of pilots that begin with the protagonist getting dumped by their significant other and then fired from their job. Instead, consider showing the protagonist’s life falling apart in a new and compelling way.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
Okay, we’ve all heard this before. It’s the most elementary writing lesson taught to writers. That’s because it cannot be emphasized enough. We all fall into the trap of taking the easy way out from time to time.
Showing a character lose their temper or “making a mountain out of a molehill” will always be stronger than telling me they have a temper in the description. Express their anxieties, strengths, and flaws with mannerisms and actions that speak for themselves. You’re writing for a visual medium, so every scene should be imagined visually.
As a story analyst, I’m always encouraging writers to push their work more towards what’s unique and different, as opposed to what they think will sell. These days, it’s not enough to simply write a screenplay that feels commercially viable; it needs to stand out and be different from all the rest. By heeding the advice of experienced story analysts, your words can linger in their minds long after they read FADE TO BLACK.
Make it memorable!
Micah Goldman got his start as a production assistant for multiple seasons on the NBC show The Office. Later on, he wrote and executive produced a pilot presentation for Fox Television Studios that was released on Hulu.com. Currently, he provides detailed screenplay and pilot notes for both established and up-and-coming writers.