Expert Weigh In: How Do You Know You’re Reading a Great Screenplay?

Full confession: I am a sucker for information, autodidactic by nature, curious, and sometimes annoyingly so. You know that kid who never stops asking “But why? But why? But why?” Sometimes I imagine myself – in my worse days – to be just that kid. But – thank God – I am not that kid. I am enough of a grown woman to have learned a couple of true things: The first one is that I am nowhere close to knowing everything I need or want to know, which can be equally relieving and frustrating. The second one is that I have been lucky enough to make some great friends, many of whom are much smarter that I am. These friends are not only brilliant, kind and established in their own spaces, they are also remarkably generous with their time and knowledge. So when I decided to dig into the various expert opinions – from people who deal in scripts and story every day – about what makes a script – be it feature screenplay or pilot – great, I knew just where to turn.

All of us read scripts every day, and often more than just one. For me, a good script is one that is written in a voice I’ve not read before, digging into story, character and/or world in a new and interesting fashion, taking me on a meaningful ride without ever showing the effort. But that’s me.

TV writing guru and instructor at NBC’s Writers on the Verge Jen Grisanti told me that you know you are reading a strong screenplay when “You can feel the story and are inspired by the artistry of the writing. I know I am reading a strong script when I can feel the story in the first 5 pages.”

Pilar Alessandra, author of The Coffee Break Screenwriter and writer instructor at On The Page added that she knows she is reading a strong screenplay when “A familiar trope takes an unexpected turn.”

Reader Andrew Hilton, who has read over 9,000 screenplay and currently operates under the shingle Screenplay Mechanic tole me that “If I’m not looking at the page numbers, that’s a great sign.”

Hayley McKenzie who, like Hilton, hails from across the pond seemed to agree that she knows she is reading a good screenplay: “I don’t look at my watch and my coffee goes cold.”

Working television writer Tawnya Bhattacharya, who also owns and operates Script Anatomy and teaches for the ABC/Disney program said she knows she is reading a strong pilot or screenplay when “It’s a page turner, I can’t put it down and I’m not tempted to start Googling my way through the Internet. That’s usually because the writer nailed all the necessary elements it takes to create an exceptional screenplay or pilot: a strong concept, an interesting world we haven’t seen before, compelling, complex characters, great relationship dynamics and conflict, seamless structure, impactful emotion, universal themes, great scene work and dialogue… AND on top of that the writer has a unique voice. Basically what I’m saying is it’s not enough to have a great story to tell, you have to know the craft and master it. Amazing scripts don’t happen by accident.”

Career Coach Carole Kirschner, who is involved with both the CBS Mentoring program and the prestigious Humanitas New Voices Initiative, provided this insight and advice about what it takes to generate a strong screenplay or pilot: “There’s some kind of surprise – some unexpected turn (while keeping within the world of the story), in the first 2-3 pages. Put the good stuff first!”

Screenwriter and seasoned script reader Rob Ripley told me: “I know that I’m reading a strong script when, by the end of the first act, there’s unity in the main character, theme and plot within a specific worldview.”

Ruth Atkinson, a busy consultant who also mentors for Film Independent’s Project Involve and works with Sundance Labs, shared that she knows she is reading a strong script when “The writing is confident, succinct and visual. It has a great, original idea and/or is set in a unique story world.”

Finally, script consultant Danny Manus who has spoken at countless screenwriting events and film-centric festivals all over the country chimed in: “I know I am reading a strong script when I can put down my pen for more than 5 pages and just enjoy the read.”

Next, I wanted to know: What gets my friends most excited about a screenplay – be it a pilot or a feature – that they are reading?

Tawnya Bhattacharya told me: “Emotion. Because sometimes you can read a great script from a great writer who has mastered the craft and even has a strong voice, but there’s no heart. I want to feel something, whatever that emotion is, and I want it to haunt me for days afterward. Then I know a script is special.” 

What makes Ruth Atkinson most excited about a script she is reading is this: “A great idea that feels unique and hooks me emotionally. While I’ve read well over two thousand screenplays I still feel a little thrill every time I start reading a script. There’s always the hope that this one, this particular script will transport me and tell a story that keeps me turning pages. And sometimes they do.”

Danny Manus had this to add: “For me, I love strong dialogue delivered by characters that feel like they should be delivering it. A great original idea excites me before I start reading because I can see the potential for the concept. But once I start page one, great characters and great dialogue is what gets me excited. Also, a feeling like I’m reading a voice that needs to be heard. And when a writer respects the craft and executes something I know is difficult or complex to write.”

What gets Pilar Alessandra most excited is “When I’m genuinely surprised by a plot turn or moved by a character moment.”

Hayley McKenzie gets excited when she reads “Such a distinctive writing style that I’d be able to recognize their script without seeing their name on the front.”

Carole Kirchner gets excited when she reads “A character that I haven’t seen developed in that particular way before.”

Andrew Hilton told me: “If I can “see” the movie while I’m reading a script, and it’s a project I know I would pay to see, then I get excited. I also get excited if I come across a talented new voice because the optimist in me will envision that writer getting discovered and going on to enjoy a sensational career. If I can help that writer get discovered, even better.”

Jen Grisanti told me this: “I love when I read a story where I am dying to know what the ending is because I am so enthralled by the characters and the plot.”

And finally, Rob Ripley shared that he gets excited about a script when he finds in it “Craft, honesty, and subtlety… and a very specific worldview.”

For me, that answer is a bit harder to nail down, but here is what I have come up with: A script written by what feels like a seasoned, experienced hand, that moves at a steady clip, revealing both plot and character seamlessly on the page, drawing my interest and emotion while advancing our story elegantly and effectively with clarity and confidence.