Script consultant, Ray Morton discusses his script evaluation process. Many consultants read scripts two or more times. The first pass is to get an overall feel for the script, while subsequent passes are used for the evaluation.
Ray only reads scripts once to mirror the increasing workloads of creative executives. He advises writers against being too subtextual or burying their story gems in a mountain of action.
Here are the elements he considers:
Does the script have one? You’d be surprised by how many don’t. Does it have more than one? This is a common problem in many specs I read – way too many ideas thrown into the mix, which leads to a lack of conceptual focus and cohesion. Is the premise interesting? Is it believable?
Is there one? Note to writers: a bunch of scenes stuck together in the same set of pages is not the same thing as a story. Is it based on the premise? A lot of specs spend a lot of time setting up a specific concept and then go off and tell a completely unrelated tale. Is it interesting? Interesting enough to hold my attention for 90 – 120 pages? Is it properly dramatized? (Is the story told through dramatic incident and action rather than just through dialogue?
Is it cinematic? Is it told through images, action, and dialogue and not just dialogue alone?) Is it well constructed? Are there three acts? An impressive inciting incident? Rising action that leads to an inevitable climax and resolution? All that good stuff? Is it well paced? Are the plot twists both surprising and logical? Are the plot twists surprising or just confusing? Are the storytelling devices (flashbacks, narration, non-linear storytelling, etc.) thematically and narratively relevant, or are they just gimmicks? Does the ending properly resolve the script’s central problem and its conflicts? Is the ending satisfying?
Do I like them, or at the very least sympathize with them? Enough to want to spend two hours with them? Do they serve strong, clear roles in the plot or are they superfluous to the narrative? Do they seem like real people or are they just stock clichés? Are they well developed or one note? Are the characters consistent throughout the piece or do they change constantly to fit the needs of the plot? Are their arcs interesting, appropriate for the story, properly developed, and satisfyingly resolved? Are the relationships between the characters interesting and believable.
Do the characters talk the way people actually talk? If the speeches are stylized, is the stylization effective or just pretentious? Do the lines express character, wit, poetry, humor, insight, or philosophy or are they just vehicles for clumsy exposition? Are they crisp and sharp, or do they go for pages and pages and pages?
Are the descriptions clear, evocative, and effective, or are they opaque, flowery, and clumsy? Is the writer working doing all he/she can do to relate the story to the reader as efficiently and enthusiastically as possible or does he/she put all his/her effort into a smart-alecky writing style that is momentarily amusing but adds nothing to the actual story being told. Are the stage directions crisp or overly wordy? Are there big, giant blocks of text? (Warning: if there are – especially on page 1 – then I’m already looking for a reason to stop reading). Is the screenplay formatting and terminology correct? Are the technical aspects of the writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) solid?
I then do an overall evaluation of the entire piece, summarizing its strong and weak points and offering an assessment of the script’s potential commercial appeal based on current market conditions and trends. To complete the coverage, I fill out the cover sheet, which includes a checklist in which I rate the various aspects of the script on a scale from Poor to Excellent.
The last box I check is the one that indicates my opinion as to what should be done with the script. There are three possible options:
PASS: this means that I don’t think the producer/production company I am reading for should proceed with the script – that the subject matter is not suitable for the producer/prodco’s needs and/or that the execution of the script is flawed enough that it wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and money it would take to get the piece in shape. I check this box for approximately 95% of the scripts I evaluate.
CONSIDER: this means that the script is promising enough – either in concept, execution, or both – that it is worth giving some thought to proceed with– but problematic enough that it’s going to take time, effort, and money to get it to work. I’d say I’ve checked this box for approximately 4% of the scripts I have read in the fifteen-plus years I have been doing this, although I’ve checked it less in recent years because most of my clients (and the industry as a whole) are less willing to put the time and effort and (especially) money into honing promising-but-flawed material these days. With development budgets being cut drastically all over town, they’re looking for projects that are as camera ready as possible.
RECOMMEND: this means that I think both the subject matter and the execution of the script are slam dunks and that the producer/prodco should go forward with the piece immediately and without reservation. Since checking this box means that I feel that the producer/company should commit a significant amount of its resources to this particular script, this is a suggestion I make only sparingly — I have probably wholeheartedly recommended only five or six screenplays in the past decade and a half (the good news is, the majority of those eventually got made, which means my track record is pretty good).