Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reader question - What's my process for coverage? Is there a checklist?

MalcDelNorte said:

I'm similarly intrigued as to what is your streamlined process for script triage. Do you have some kind of check list so you can justify your decision on the script in an objective way. Or do you just read until your gut feeling tells you the script hasn't made the cut? Cheers! Malc.

When I'm reading something that has been submitted to one of my bosses from an agent, manager, actor, director, etc, I HAVE to read the whole thing. Ditto for agency coverage. An official submission of that nature needs to be written up and documented. Ergo, a synopsis of the entire script and an evaluation of the project both need to be completed. There have been rare instances where I've been able to go back to the development exec who gave me the script and say something like, "He opens with the brutal torture murder of a baby and then tries to turn it into a rom-com. Oh, and half the dialogue is in Romanian."

If you run across an obvious turkey like that, you might be able to cut corners and stop early. This works best when the exec has a full load of stuff he wants you to read for him and recognizes he'd be wasting both your time on this trash. More likely, he'll just give you the go ahead to do the "skim treatment." Different places have different was of breaking this down, but I know it as the "10, 25, 50, 75, 90 rule." Essentially, you read the first ten pages, the last ten pages and a few pages where each major act break is supposed to go.

Some writers might consider it a benefit that in most cases, the reader has to take in the entire submission. They'll call bullshit on me and other readers when we say that you're playing a dangerous game by taking 30 pages just to get your story started. Their retort is "Hey, you've gotta read the whole thing anyway, so who are you to tell me what to write?"

I'm the guy you've gotta get past, jackass. And once you get past me, you then have to impress my boss. Trust me, unless I write up the most positive review you can imagine, an exec or agent will be even less charitable about a flabby script than I will. Write as if the reader can toss the script away at any point.

But to get to the heart of your question, let's talk triage and checklists. I think there are a lot of disgruntled writers who try to interpret coverage as if it's some sort of mathematical proof. You can spot these guys because they ignore most of what's written in the comments and try to argue the merits of what the coverage grid shows.

(Sidebar: writers often manage to get copies of their script's coverage illicitly. All it takes is for them to be connected to the right assistant or intern and a review that's supposed to be internal can leak out. This is why many, many companies set it up so that the reviewers name does not appear on the coverage. I've heard horror stories of agency readers being tracked down and chewed out over the phone by angry writers.)

Here's probably the simplest way to explain the review process - the reaction determines the review, not vice versa. What I mean by that is that before I've written up my actual notes and done the little grid, I KNOW whether the script is going to get a PASS or CONSIDER. For the better scripts, I know it's a CONSIDER well before I'm done reading the script. I'm pretty sure most readers operate the same way. When they finish a script, they know whether they like it or not - just as any of you know whether you liked or hated a movie as soon as you finish watching it.

What I don't do is finish the script, write up a paragraph or two each on the Characters and the Plot/Structure and Concept and say, "Hmm... based on what I just wrote, this is probably a Consider." Nor do I go through the grid and say: Premise: Good, Plot: Fair, Characters: Fair. Structure: Good. Marketability: Fair, and then go "Well, based on the point values of each of those elements, this grades as a Consider."

2 "Goods" and 3 "Fairs" could be a CONSIDER, but there are circumstances where it could be a PASS. Maybe there's a circumstance where 5 Fairs could squeak by as Consider, where 1 Good and 4 Fairs could be a PASS. So if you happen to get a copy of your coverage and the grid scores for yours are lower than some other coverage you saw that got a Consider, don't try to argue you deserve a consider on those merits. Despite all the formulas aspiring writers are fed for writing their script, this isn't how coverage works.

So that's the long way around saying I don't have a "checklist." Obviously there are things I will look for - such as engaging characters, strong voice, interesting premise, good pacing - but I don't sit there and go "Character's flaw established by p. 7: that's 3 points."

In a case where there's a lot on my plate and I know I might have to give the weaker ones the skim treatment in order to spend time with the ones more worthy of my attention, here's what usually comes into play:

Is the protagonist clear? I've read scripts where 15 pages in I'm still not sure who the main character is. Can you watch any movie where you don't know within ten minutes who the lead character is? There are some writers who you could give the plot for Back to the Future, and you'd get to p. 20 not knowing if the star is Marty, old George McFly, Doc, Jennifer or Biff because they have no idea how to focus their story. That's a big problem.

Are the genre and tone clear? The first 10-15 pages are crucial for establishing the kind of world your character lives in. Is it slapstick or serious? In a comedy, a character might be able to take the sort of physical abuse that would leave them maimed or in a body cast in a drama. Dumb & Dumber doesn't read like Sense & Sensibility. Even before the story really gets going, I should be able to sense the tone.

Is there a clear hook or jumping off point for the story? One that establishes a firm direction? Marty McFly ends up back in time and averts his parents first meeting. Ferris Bueller plays hookey. Jerry Maguire gets fired from his high-paying job and has to start all over again. The arrogant warrior Thor is exiled to Earth. Usually by p. 15 your reader should have a pretty good idea what your script is about and by p. 30 the main plot should be very apparent. New writers often make the mistake of writing scene after scene that doesn't clearly go anywhere. Story momentum lags, making a less engaging read.

Is the dialogue natural or does it feel stiff and expository? I think this one's pretty self-explanatory.

Those are probably the biggies. And if you manage to screw up formatting and the proper way to write action paragraph (hint: don't tell me what your character "thinks."), that'll also probably also hurt you.

But to give a short answer, it's probably more of a gut thing. After all, I have to like it if I'm going to tell someone to "Consider" it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the answer Bitter! Sanity prevails more or less.