Monday, October 31, 2005

The Reading: Do-It-Yourself Script Consulting

The end of this screenplay is so close I can smell it. I’m actually allowing myself to think I might finish it by the deadline (midnight tonight). As of tomorrow, one way or another, the project will be over.

Only three scenes are left to write from scratch. With any luck, I’ll have some time left over to tweak some of the literary motifs throughout. (Oh yes, even cheap horror / thriller flicks can have high-brow aspirations.)

For instance, doors are an important element of the screenplay. If I have an extra few minutes, I want to make sure that my use of them is consistent. Every time a door opens in the movie, it should usher in a sense of urgency. Every time one closes, it should conveys a sense of loss.

But that’s for a bit later this afternoon. Last night, two friends were kind enough to sit down with the still-rough draft and do a reading with me. I can’t thank them enough.

Any time I think a screenplay is finished, it is an enormous help for me to be able to hear the entire thing from start to finish. (While in the normal course of events, I would hardly consider this project polished enough to inflict on someone else, the calendar compels me to skip the usual editing process for the sake of simply finishing…) Some things a read-through helps me learn:

Does Each Character Have a Voice?
I usually assign the speaking parts to the people reading with me. It’s very helpful to listen to someone else speak the words. I try to pay special attention to whether or not each character speaks in a distinctive voice. It’s much easier to determine whether or not a speech characteristic “works” when I can hear someone else articulate it.

Is That How You’d Say It?
Hearing the words out loud as dialogue lets me know if the sentence structure is correct. Often, the readers will inadvertently “fix” dialogue to make it flow better. As long as their changes don’t alter the meaning of what’s being said, I’ll change the script to make the words seem more natural.

Can You See It?
I try to read as little of the dialogue as possible. Instead, I usually read all the slug lines (INT. JOHN’S APARTMENT – DAY) and action instructions out loud. That way, I know that everyone involved in the read-through has been exposed to every word. Not because I need to saturate them with my brilliance, but because I want to know if the actions are clear. I want to know if they can see what’s going to be on-screen. I also want to find out if it’s interesting enough to hold their attention, or do I need to find ways to ratchet the action up a bit.

Does It Make Sense?
This is The Big One. A read-through helps me find out whether or not I’m the only one who “gets it.” If a character’s motivation is contrived or muddy, it shows up here.

The trick is getting readers who will be honest enough to say when something isn’t clear to them. But if you can find them, they are invaluable. They don’t need to tell you how to fix something. All they need to do is point out what is getting lost in the translation from your brain to the printed page. If they’re exceptionally good friends, they might even let you bounce off “what if I did this?” scenarios, and tell you what would make the story stronger.

If you have a screen- or stage-play that you’d love to see performed, an informal reading might be just the thing you need. It will let you hear your words and analyze them. It can help you explore story strengths and weaknesses. And it might give you the key you need to make your script extraordinary. All you need to do is make a few copies and spring for the pizza. Not a bad price to pay for an in-depth story consultation!

For days, I've told myself that I will not watch “Batman Begins” until I finish this script. I've got the DVD ready and waiting. But first, three scenes demand my attention...