How to Write Script Coverage Comments
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I may have overwhelmed you with all the different criteria I listed in the Analysis Grid in the previous chapter, so let’s pare it down a bit and talk about a few of the more essential, broad-strokes criteria you need to keep focused on when starting out.
First up, it must be noted: the more you learn about what makes a good screenplay, the more insight you’ll be able to put into your comments section.
And that learning, of course, only comes by writing and reading lots of scripts, and also by reading lots of books on screenwriting.
For now, I’m going to give you two things. Because there’s not enough time to pack an entire screenwriting course into a small package such as this.
1) I’m going to give you 4 big, important criteria to keep in mind when writing script coverage.
2) I’m going to give you the names of three awesome, easy to read starter books that you should get your hands on which will set you down the road towards learning everything else.
First, the 4 big, important criteria:
When you write about character in a script coverage, you’ll want to ask at least two questions about the characters you read in the script:
1) Are they believable?
2) Do I care about them?
As an extremely rudimentary example:
When Luke Skywalker returns home to find his uncle and aunt killed by the Empire, we believe that he’s sad, because his reaction is very similar, if not exactly like how we would probably react in the same situation.
Believability, therefore, has a everything to do with that second major factor of character, which is, empathy (i.e. Do I care about the character?)
So do you care about the characters? Did the screenwriter write the characters such that you even give a toss about what they do?
You’ve seen movies like this, where you sit through two hours and never once feel empathy for any of the characters.
Empathy stems from how well we, the audience, connect with the characters, and/or find them believable.
No matter how fantastic the setting or situation, if we find a piece of ourselves, the audience, in that character, then we empathize with that character, and then we believe in that character.
In a nutshell, the primary thing you want to look for when writing about character is: do we the audience care?
The next major criterion you want to comment on in a coverage is…
Is the concept strong? Is it original?
Two guys crashing weddings to hit on women…
…is a strong concept.
Secret agent from the 1960’s is frozen and thawed out in the 90’s to save the world…
…is a strong concept.
Mom and daughter travel across Spain picking grapes and learning about each other in the process…
Strong? Not so much.
Sure, it might be an amazing script, but it’s not a strong concept.
A strong concept is hard to defined, but it typically has one or more of several different qualities:
– It’s memorable.
– And/or it packs a bit of a surprise or a turnaround.
– And/or it’s extremely easy to visualize.
– And/or it makes you laugh when reading it.
– And/or it makes you say “I wish I thought of that!”
You get the idea.
A script may have everything going for it, except a strong concept. And in most cases, and in my opinion, then it’s probably, sadly, not going to be a very marketable script.
Next of the major criteria is…
Do the main characters in the script go up against obstacles that seem impossible to overcome?
The best kind of drama and the best way to keep an audience interested is to put your characters into a situation where the odds are against them.
If the script you read doesn’t put its characters against some long odds – for example, they just seem to waltz from one minor challenge to the next, never facing anything that seems larger than them, or overpowering, or impossible to get through –
– then that script is quite simply weak when it comes to conflict.
And by the way, when a writer can put characters you empathize with, into a situation where there’s a lot of conflict then that’s usually when a script becomes interesting, and entertaining.
Dialogue is simply the back and forth speech of the characters. People talking to people. (Or whoever your characters are.)
Does the dialogue seem realistic and believable? Or is it stilted, and phony?
Does it have a rhythm to it? Or is it all over the place?
Does everybody talk way too much, over-explaining everything?
Good dialogue is hard to write. The best writers are those who get out into the real world and listen to how actual people speak, and then incorporate that into their dialogue writing.
Those four big criteria: Character, Concept, Conflict, and Dialogue, are the most important things to keep focused on when writing script coverage, or when learning more about screenwriting in general.
You may notice that all 4 of these tie in somehow with pretty much every criteria listed in the 25-category Analysis Grid I detailed above.
But not all script coverage criteria are tied to the core metrics of what makes a screenplay good or bad. Some criteria can appear at first blush to be quite detached from what’s important about screenwriting and what makes a script entertaining or marketable.
Such criteria generally fall into the somewhat ambient realm of what I’ll call “Readability.”
Readability is quite simply how easy the script is for a human to read.
Good readability stems from many, many factors:
How the script looks (format, spelling, usage, etc.), word density, word choice and vocabulary, whether a writer shows us, rather than tells us, what’s going on, and even such seemingly trivial things as how much white space is on the page.
All of those criteria might seem superficial, and indeed they are, but they make up a key component of the reader’s experience when reading the script because if done right, they make it easy for that reader to turn each page of the script. But if done poorly, they can frustrate the reader, or give the reader the impression that the writer is a hack, or can’t spell.
If a script reader loses interest in the script because she no longer trusts the writer, due to a myriad of typos, or bad format, or 50 words on the page describing what could be described in 5, it’s likely that that script reader will not likely have good things to say about the script when she finishes.
That is, if she finishes.
So let’s just briefly zoom into two of these types of Readability criteria. Show, Don’t Tell, and General Format.
SHOWING and NOT TELLING means…
Instead of writing it like this:
Hey Milly, I just went to Grandma’s and stole her pie off the window sill, then ran across the train tracks to meet you here.
…The writer should’ve written like this:
EXT. GRANDMA’S HOUSE – DAY
Bob grabs a pie off the window sill. He darts across the train tracks.
If a screenplay tells more than it shows, an experienced script reader knows that it’s highly likely that the script has gotten the core criteria wrong as well (Character, Concept, Conflict, and Dialogue.)
Format can mean a lot of things.
First, it can mean how well the script fits into the standard industry screenplay format.
Now, what is the standard industry screenplay format?
There are a myriad of script formatting guides available online or in books, and they’ll all do a much better job of what I’m capable of doing in these few pages.
But briefly, the standard industry screenplay format generally looks something like this.
EXT. TRAIN STATION – DAY
BOB (45) – chubby and bearded in an orange jumpsuit – juggles three apple pies.
Nancy, I’ll tell you something. I don’t like the looks of this.
In general, 1” margins on all sides, using a font from the Courier family, such as Courier New, or Courier Final Draft.
Tabs / indents / margins are all specified exhaustively in previously mentioned other resources.
In brief: each scene with what’s called, a SCENE HEADING, where we denote interior or exterior, then the place we’re at, then the time of day…
Then we have THE ACTION/DESCRIPTION text, describing what’s happening in the scene, if necessary…
Then we have the CHARACTER NAME in middle.
Followed by the PARENTHETICALS, which help clarify to the reader how the dialogue that’s to follow is to be read or emphasized,
And that’s followed by the DIALOGUE itself, with it’s own uniquely-set center margins.
And then FADE IN’s and FADE OUT’s and CUT TO’s and other transitions…
If a script doesn’t fit, even vaguely, into the standard industry format, it runs a good chance of getting tossed into the pile and never read (or dragged into the computer’s Recycle Bin.) Why? The general impression the writer gives when turning in a poorly-formatted screenplay is: amateur.
But aside from format, there are those other seemingly minor things that affect Readability:
Is the script punctuated correctly?
Are there spelling errors all on every page?
Does the writer use words correctly? For example, does he confuse their with there? Or then with than?
Another good way to tell an amateur from a professional, with regards to format, is….
Look at the amount of white space in the script.
That is, if the script is jam-packed with words, then, again, the writer probably didn’t get those core criteria right either (Concept, Conflict, Character, Dialogue).
Professional screenwriters and screenwriters who know their craft tend to use fewer words in general. (Not always, but most of the time.) And fewer words often means a more white space, a tighter read, and a more enjoyable experience for the reader or audience.
Generally, all of these criteria you’re looking for don’t require you to list every single page where every single thing that goes wrong, happens.
If you want to give examples of where, say, the characters are not believable, then go ahead and just give one or two specific examples with page numbers but don’t list all of them.
Script coverage is not the format for listing every single thing that goes wrong. That’s more in the realm of script notes and script consulting.
In coverage, list the big problems, giving one or two page numbers as an example of where the problem occurs, and specific suggestions on how to fix them.
Essentially, coverage is not supposed to get bogged down in a ton of specifics. But at the same time, don’t be too vague either.
Now, some coverage companies, as I mentioned, will have you consider other criteria in your comments as well.
Criteria such as, how much you think the script would cost to make….whether it’s $5 million or $150 million. Etc.
Also, maybe, what audience you think this script would do well with. Or even, which name actors would be a fit for each of the lead characters in the script?
With each company you do coverage for, if they ask for this, they’ll give you their guidelines and help you get oriented on what to write.
You don’t need to worry about being a box office accountant, or an expert on which celebrities are which, or anything like that, although it doesn’t hurt.
Just be fluent in writing about scripts using the main criteria / major metrics I listed above, and you’ll be okay.
Now, in order to really know your stuff, if you don’t already, I recommend three book which you should read:
500 Ways to Beat The Hollywood Script Reader, by Jennifer Lerch
Screenplay by Syd Field
And Story by Robert McKee
All should be available at Amazon.com, and for cheap. Or, just get to a film library and borrow them.
After you’ve read all three, you’ll know all the necessary scriptwriting criteria to write about, and then some. More importantly, those three books are an easy way to spark your interest in learning more about screenwriting, and absorbing as much as possible about the craft.
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