Experts Weigh In: You Know You’re Reading a Great Screenplay When…

You hear it every day: Everyone in the industry is looking for a great screenplay. Good is just not good enough. They – agents, managers, showrunners, executives and producers – want to be transformed, surprised, excited and taken on an unexpected journey.

Over the years, with the abundance of screenwriting classes, screenplays to read, consultants and coverage services available online, many writers have been successful in pushing their craft from middle-of-the-road to pretty-good. Some may argue that it’s easier going from mediocre to good, than it is to go from good to great. What this has created is an abundance of good scripts, but not enough that really stand out from the pack.

The rub? No one can tell you how to write a great screenplay. Therein lies the frustration. Now matter how many screenplays you read, how many consultants you employ, and how many notes you get, at the end of the day it’s not just mechanics, stellar architecture, interesting characters, powerful theme or unique worlds that make the difference. It’s all of that, combined with the writer’s honed and perfected craft.

In order to help articulate what makes an exceptional screenplay, I turned to my friends in the expert space, who read spec feature screenplays and original pilots (and sometimes more than one) every day. How do they, who read so much, know when they are reading a stand-out screenplay or pilot? Here is what they had to say:

Screenplay reader and talented screenwriter in his own right, Rob Ripley, said:“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.”

Sought after-consultant Pilar Alessandra, who also moderates the popular OnThePage podcast said that she knows she is reading a strong screenplay when “A familiar trope takes an unexpected turn.” 

Popular consultant Jen Grisanti, who also instructs for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, said: “You know you’re 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.”

Retired development executive and talented screenwriting consultant Danny Manus told me he knows he is reading a strong screenplay when: “I can put down my pen for more than 5 pages and just enjoy the read.”

Working television writer Tawnya Bhattacharya, who also owns and operates the super popular Script Anatomy TV writing program here in Los Angeles (as well as online) told me that she knows she is reading a strong script 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.“

Consultant and head of the Humantias and CBS writing programs Carole Kirschner said: “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!”

Reader/screenwriter Andrew Hilton, who provides coverage to his loyalists through his website Screenplay Mechanic told me: “If I’m not looking at the page numbers, that’s a great sign.” 

Consultant Ruth Atkinson who works with both the Sundance Labs and Film Independent said: “The writing is confident, succinct and visual. It has a great, original idea and/or is set in a unique story world.”

And finally, consultant and retired development executive Hayley McKenzie from across the pond told me that she told me she is reading a strong screenplay when “I don’t look at my watch and my coffee goes cold.”

For me, a great screenplay is one that offers up something I’ve not seen before, be it new characters or new worlds, or one that explores theme or age-old story or conflict in a new and exciting way. A strong screenplay is one that sucks me in on the first page, that makes the read effortless, a screenplay or pilot tells its story with authority, and keeps a tight focus on its various threads from beginning to end. From experience, I’ve learned that talented writers can take what one would expect to be boring or trite content and turn it into something exciting and unexpected. It takes years and experience to get there, to master the writer’s voice, but all that time writing is sure to pay off when others are able to quickly deduce the strength and promise of your craft by reading the first few pages of your work.