Getting ready to submit your script or pilot to Get Repped Now and the contests? Not so fast! Check out these crucial pointers first.
By Jim Cirile
1) Spell-check and Proofread
Yeah, I know, obvious, right? But it must be said: before submitting anything to anyone:
Please run a spell-check.
I mean, seriously, guys.
Similarly, a good proofread can catch an ocean of screw-ups. Hey, I am totally guilty of this too. I will frequently repeat myself or omit words or repeat myself and so on. Spell-check doesn’t catch this stuff.
Bonus points if you actually print the script, plop down in your comfy chair and spend quality time with your red pen. You’ll be amazed at the stuff you notice that you’d never see on your monitor.
2) Sharpen the Axe
Is your scene description as lean and mean as an anorexic chihuahua? (Sorry, it’s 4AM and analogies are failing me.) If not, you must master the ancient martial art of brutal self-editing, gashopper.
Reread every single line of dialogue and scene description and challenge yourself to say the same thing in half the words. The first thing that should go are adjectives and adverbs. Do you need this line at all? Can you do it with a look or body language instead? So many screenplays can excise 5-10 pages without losing anything of importance.
Look for bloat like “starts to” and “begins to.” Search and replace that garbage right out of your screenplay and just go with the punchy action verbs.
She doesn’t begin to water her begonias. She WATERS her begonias.
Avoid reiterating the location slugline in the description. We already know Dan is in church. You don’t need to tell us again.
Cut, cut, cut. Every single word must fight for its inclusion.
Once you get started doing this, you will never look at your writing in the same way again. It’s a beautiful thing.
3) He’s a Real Character
There’s a screenwriting maxim that goes, “You should be able to cover up all the character names and still be able to tell who is speaking.”
A.K.A. character specificity. This means, in your screenplay or pilot, work on whipping up distinctive and individual voices for your characters. The easiest way to do this is by writing up 1-pager bios for your cast.
What are her hopes and dreams, weaknesses, baggage, heartbreaks, special skills, neuroses? Detail his friends, family, upbringing, social strata, education, politics, personality type — loquacious? Taciturn? Irritating? Braggart? Formative influences? Health conditions? Where did he grow up? Who are her heroes? And of course the big one: character flaw. You may not wind up using 90% of this, but by doing this, the character will come to life and speak through you.
Once you know that your female lead grew up in Brooklyn and is a serial manipulator and fast-talking know-it-all, and your male lead is an OCD two-time Jeopardy! champ from the Bahamas with a hearing problem, it’s a pretty sure bet their speech patterns are going to be nothing alike.
4) Hey, Nosey
This is one of the most deceptively difficult things for us writers to get through our fat frickin’ heads. Most of us know what “on-the-nose” (OTN) dialogue is: when characters say exactly what they mean. This can lead to forced or stilted or expository dialogue. Just doesn’t feel natural. And yet we ALL do it. Why? Generally in the first draft we’re trying to simply accomplish whatever plot beat(s) are needed for the scene, and so we sketch in some on-the-nose dialogue to get us from A to B.
Of course, we should go back later to finesse and sharpen that dialogue, but oftentimes we just get used to it the way it is and thus never think about it critically — until the coverage points it out.
In real life, we aren’t generally so direct. We lie, beat around the bush, use sarcasm, say the opposite of what we mean, or say nothing — and yet body language somehow manages to convey what we’re thinking or feeling.
So: time to do an OTN pass. Scan your dialogue and look for those clunkier moments. How can you replace them? Here’s one way: tell a story analogous to the situation and let one character infer what the other is trying to say. Great example: Mike Ehrmantraut’s “Half-Measures” speech to Walt in BREAKING BAD about not taking care of the wife-beater when he was on the force.
Another way is to talk about something else entirely: two characters flirting heavily via describing the characteristics of the bottle of wine they’re sharing, for example.
Or just say nothing, for (not) crying out loud. Body language is your friend.
5) Raise Your Voice
Ask a rep what they’re looking for, and you’ll hear the term “voice” over and over again.
I guarantee you, this is one thing no one is working on. So get crackin’.
Voice is a catch-all phrase that refers to the writer’s command of the language, their specific storytelling style, that ineluctable, shiny quality that beams out from the page.
It’s your panache, your verve, your je ne sais quoi (no idea if I spelled that right).
A strong voice gives reader a sense of security — they are in the hands of a competent, confident storyteller.
So how does one improve one’s voice?
Read. Check out some scripts by some of your favorite writers. Vince Gilligan. Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Tony Gilroy. Nora Ephron. William Goldman. To name but a few. All writers with a distinctive and captivating storytelling style. They pull you in and make you feel part of the yarn. Observe their techniques. Now don’t steal; but breathe deep of their essence and let it envelop you.
Eh, maybe steal a little.
Be a storyteller. Imagine reading your script to friends. In fact: do that. Are they engaged or checking their phones? How can you make sure they stay riveted? Clever turns of a phrase, twists, and just describing things in unexpected ways can go a long way towards winning folks over. So light the virtual campfire and break out the marshmallows, ’cause it’s story time.
Scrutinize your word choices carefully. We’re writers. Take some time and pride in choosing the perfect word for each sentence. Lazy or uncreative word choices can lead to flaccid read. An example I always like to use is:
Your character should not walk down the street.
“Walk” is a boring verb that tells us little. No personality to it. No, she should saunter, sashay, shimmy, stalk, slink, slide, swoop, stagger, stomp, snake, skitter, skulk, slip, slump, slalom, stumble, stride, steam, shamble, sleaze, scoot, scuttle, slog, or step lively.
And those are just the “S”es.
6) Be Reppable
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this dealio a few times: one of our manager panel meets with a Get Repped Now consider writer and… that’s as far as it goes.
Sadly, that person may not have been ready for representation yet.
Managers are looking for positive, easy-to-work-with people who are idea factories and can deliver consistently. This is about forging a multi-year relationship that will yield many writing assignments (and commissions.) One of the first things you will be asked is, “What else have you got?” If you do not have at least one other script as good as the one they responded to, that may be as far as it goes. Or if your ideas are too dissimilar or esoteric, yer outta there. Writer, pigeonhole thyself. Create your brand.
The main way in which writers kill relationships with their reps is by not writing. We expect these people to burn the midnight oil selling our material while we sip mimosas and enjoy having “made it.” I’m afraid to say that some reps expect two new specs per year (which they will weigh in on; they need skin in the game) on top of any assignments you may be doing. They expect you to have cool and sellable ideas and not to freak out when you get notes. And they expect you to not bug the shit out of them. If you’re needy, insecure, neurotic, etc. (and let’s face it — we all are,) then find some way to become the best, coolest, most non-damaged version of yourself.
You want your rep to want to grab a beer with you, not duck your calls.
7) Don’t Stress the Passes
As we like to say here at Coverage, Ink: Every script is a pass… until it isn’t.
Harsh truth: the majority of submissions will be a “pass.” Around 80%, in fact. (Around 15% or so score “consider with reservations.” Less than 5% are considers or above.)
Does this mean you suck, we hate your script, and you can’t write? Of course not. The vast majority of scripts we see are varying levels of mediocre. They’re just not there yet. And I count my own scripts in there as well.
Many of you know our recent movie “To Your Last Death,” the #2 most award-winning horror movie of 2020, took 27 drafts. We have several other scripts in development, and sometimes I think if we get one more “pass,” my poor wall will need to be re-sheetrocked from all the times I’ve smashed my head into it. So I feel your pain, believe me.
Look, some of us can nail it in a couple of drafts. Others? 27.
Don’t get frustrated. Just knuckle down and attack the notes. Even if you don’t make the cut for Get Repped Now, don’t worry about that. There are plenty of other ways to get your material out there once it rocks. And if it takes a year, that’s okay. The important thing is to just keep moving the ball downfield.
You know you have another draft in you. Go get ’em.
P.S. Never, ever, send out a draft that is not ready to go.