05 Oct A SCRIPT EDITOR’S VIEW – MY PROCESS
I have a steady stream of writers coming through the Script Advice portal via my website I read a lot of scripts.
You have sent your work to a reputable, professional person; you need feedback to feel confident to proceed, but it’s daunting. Like leaving your child at the school gates; his coat unzipped, no hand to hold. But it is ok. Your ‘child’ will be fine because I’ve been doing this a long time and this stuff is second nature to me now.
So here then, is what goes on in the mind of a Script Editor/Development Producer like myself when I get one of your scripts.
Firstly. I check the page count. You don’t need to be over prescriptive at this stage about length, but if a writer has said they are writing a series for tv and the first episode comes in at 100+page count, I know something has gone wrong somewhere with the story telling. A standard tv hour is 60 pages. Rule of thumb; a page a minute.
Then I take an overall view; flicking through the pages, so that I can get a sense of what the text looks like on the page. If it is overly blocky; too dense, over-long passages spoken by one character; static and verbose; warning bells begin to ring. Not loudly. But I do hear a distant peel.
This is because over wordy exchanges, or (heaven forfend) large passages of exposition are not only the narrative form of Strychnine, they are also extremely dull to watch on screen.
When I see passages in a script like these, I know the writer has forgotten the visual aspect of the medium they are writing for. And worse than that, they have forgotten the audience.
Then I read it all the way through, only stopping briefly to make what I call ‘a big note’. I only stop reading for those.
Once read, I allow myself an instinctive reaction to the script.
This, time and again, will prove to be the correct conclusion of the script’s strengths and its current weakness.
Then I go back and make detailed notes page on page.
On the front cover of your script, after I have finished reading it, there will be lots of scrawled notes (I understand my jottings; like a doctor of scripts; the prescription is often only legible to me). They can differ from a note about structure: ‘we have forgotten all about X’ or about dialogue ‘no subtext here’ or even just a ? which can mean many things.
I don’t transcribe my rabid jottings in the report I send to the writer – I translate them. Into legible, acceptable, understandable comments that I know the writer will be able to use and apply to their own work.
The key to being a helpful, as well as professional Script Editor is diplomacy and kindness.
I am not setting myself out to be the Mother Theresa of Script Development, but a sensitive approach to giving notes reaps greater rewards for all concerned. I focus on the strengths first and tackle the weaknesses later.
To be given the opportunity to help improve and hone the creative spark of a writer, is a responsibility and I am always mindful not to knock confidence. This goes for experienced writers, not just those starting out. I read work for all levels of expertise.
The years that I have accumulated in script editing and developing the scripted word; so many hours of script reading, has meant that often I am instinctive, almost knee jerk, about some aspects of the writing I read on the page.
If the flow of the storyline is not controlled sufficiently; if the structure of the script is undermined by poor choices regarding the shape of the script, then as I read it, something will jarr, something will stop me turning the page. I always then refer back to the structure of the work.
Structure really is the beginning, the middle and the end of truly good writing. Without a solid, supportive framework, your story will not shine and your script will not be successful.
Make your structural decisions early on – how you are going to tell you story; who carries the main weight of your narrative – or is this an ensemble piece?
Make sure you know (because you have plotted all the arcs before you start your script) where the various storylines of your characters intercut or impact on each other – this is where you will find most engagement from your script editor and then, by extension – your audience.
Text (the plot; what is happening, what is action) and Subtext (the motivation: what drives a character, what is suggested, not stated) are the dramatic siblings I will look at next.
This is because my analysis of the structural issues will inevitably over-lap in to considering text and subtext.
As I am reading the script, I will be aware of the storyline, noting how it is being pushed through the script, but keeping a tab on the subtext; what is essentially the motivational force through a scene.
Subtext and Text will have a dramatic impact on the next area I need to address;
another often warring coupling; Dialogue and Characterisation.
When addressing the dialogue in a script, my knee is already jerking if I see the subtext poking through the spoken word on the page. When a character literally speaks their subtext eg:
‘Being here like this, with you, makes me feel uncomfortable’, the phrase ‘on the nose’ always comes into play.
Overused no doubt, in script reports, but it does describe well, what is happening in a scene when there is now no subtext, because it is being forced into the role of text; of something being stated.
Overall pacing in the script is also important to handle from scene one through to FADE OUT. There is a natural flow to storylines if handled correctly; and scripts that stand up to the description ‘page turner’ do not need to contain high octane, high impact action scenes from beginning to end. There needs to be something going on, obviously; the storyline needs to be impactful on one or more levels, but action doesn’t have to come in the form of stunt.
The script needs to answer to the internal metronome of the storyline. Some have a gentler beat than others. The key is to mix it up a bit and not allow your work to level out or flat-line.
There’s a lot more to say about the job I love to do; Script Editing and so I designed a course to teach writers the skills necessary to handle the series format from the point of view of their own work, and those of others.
I invited my professional writer friends and Industry Experts along too, and Creative Skillset are funding it so I can bring it all to you over four days at a competitive price.
My Script Editing for Television Course is at Birkbeck College in London and runs November 4/5th and 11/12th contact me via my website or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for details of how to sign up and join me and the other script editors around the table.
Spaces are limited to 10 writers. Hope to see you there!