How to Know If Your Script Doesn’t Suck

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Maybe we never really know if our screenplay is excellent. It’s a subjective process. But one thing you should make sure of before you send your work out into the world… don’t suck. There’s a lot of road between a good script and terrible one.

Before you endeavor to not suck, suck. We’ve all written terrible stuff. It’s part of the deal. I’m writing a first draft right now that’s pretty lousy in some places and is okay in others and sort of awesome in about three spots. I think. I’m not sure yet. And that’s the fun part.

I embrace the suckage and uncertainty as it allows me to be free. I get to suck for a while and then I rewrite and rewrite and it gets better. Hopefully. The goal is to create the best possible draft I can before I send it out for notes and feedback. And then to rewrite again, depending on the notes. How will I know it’s good?

Maybe you’ve gotten to a point where you can tell if a script is solid enough to share. If not, there are ways to help you get there.

Probably don’t show your script to Jay Sherman… ever. Photo Courtesy: Fox

Get Trusted Feedback

There are many resources where you can get feedback, but do be choosy about who you show your work to. Bad feedback is dangerous. Or at the very least, a waste of your time.

If you have a writer’s group that you’ve put some time into, great! Show them the script you’re putting out there when you’re ready to. Workshop it with them. However your group works.

Should you show it to a friend or a partner? Depends. I don’t know about showing it to friends who aren’t writers or other types of filmmakers. I’ve found that although my non-filmmaker friends are awesome, they don’t usually give real feedback I can use. That saying about “If you want someone to like your script, show it to your mama” is real for a reason.

You can also send your script to coverage services but that’s a mixed bag. I’ve gotten good notes. I’ve gotten confusing notes. I’ve gotten some really terrible advice. I like to know who’s actually reading my stuff. I need background, context, and qualifications before I hand my script over to someone. Proceed with caution.

You can also ask other writer friends to recommend a reader. A good reader is hard to come by. Treat him or her well. Pay them what they’re worth. Maintain that relationship. They can be essential in your career.

Jack Lipnick is also not a good source for notes especially if you’re Barton Fink. Photo Courtesy: 20th Century-Fox

To Take the Note or Not Take the Note

Once you get those notes, don’t be afraid of them. But don’t just guzzle the kool-aid and change things up. Take the time to process them. Ask yourself if the notes will make your script better, more compelling, addictive, consumable? Does it feel right? Be honest as you can be with yourself.

If you’ve got the time, try incorporating the feedback and see how it plays. If you don’t like it, scrap it.

I’ve gotten some great notes I didn’t use. Why? They were for another script, not mine. This was from one of those coverage services. It’s like the reader was reading someone else’s script. The notes were sending my story off into a completely different direction. They were great notes, though. Just not for my script.

Sometimes a small note makes a huge difference. I got a subtle note from a fellow writer and not only did it make that particular script 10 times better, it changed the way I wrote to a certain degree.

Read Your Script Out Loud

You can do this before you send it out for notes. But definitely re-read after your changes. Get a friend to sit and read with you. Or read it to yourself. At some point, you may want to record the read. Audio, video, whatever you want. But then listen to it. Maybe take a walk and listen to it away from your desk or wherever you write.

Does it flow? Entertain? Bore? Seem jarring? Take a day or two and listen to it again.

Until you become the well-oiled machine of Dalton Trumbo, take a break. Or do both! Photo Courtesy: Bleecker Street Media

Take Some Time Between Drafts

Time is key. I’ve written things that I spent so much time with that I couldn’t tell any more if the script was working. I knew I needed to step away and didn’t take my own advice. The draft grew and grew and next thing I knew, I had a brick. I didn’t even have the energy to read it. So that one got left behind. Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and pick out any good bits, if there are any.

Now? I take my time. Sometimes it’s a few days. Sometimes it’s a month. But never really beyond that. For me, after a month, I pretty much feel like I’ve dropped the thing off at the fire station and won’t go back. Set your time as it suits you but breaks give a fresh perspective.

Unless you are writing on deadline and you have someone breathing down your neck. Well, that’s a whole other article, right?

Premature Sharing

Whatever you do, have confidence that your script is ready to hit the streets, especially if you are not established. Because I’ve seen many writers pass around what is basically a rough draft and it backfired.

I blew myself up when I got started. I handed over something I had worked on a lot but hadn’t taken the time to get any real feedback on. I had worked connections to get the script into the right hands. It was a prime situation. Turns out, I was better at pitching my work than actually doing it.

My screenplay was rough and no one had time for me once they looked at the first few pages. Fortunately for me, I’m sure I was forgotten before they ordered lunch.

Don’t be like Hans. Don’t pass out a rough draft and get a nasty surprise. Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Here’s another cautionary tale…

I met a newbie writer who had just written her very first screenplay. A friend told me that the story was brilliant. The idea was based on a relative of the writer’s who engaged in a real life crime that is almost too good to be true. She had gold in her hands.

She gave this script to me and wanted honest feedback. Now, my thing is to never be unkind. There are too many jerks in the world. I don’t need to add to that. But I do want to be constructive. It’s tricky, though, when something blows. And, man oh man, this thing was a stinker. It barely made sense.

I dreaded sitting down with her because I wanted to give her something constructive to work with. I finally came up with some notes that were hopefully something she could use, but ending with suggesting that she take a few more passes at it.

I wanted to start out very gently and then work up to the bigger issue. I was carefully wading into the first note when she cut me off and was appalled that I didn’t love her word garbage. She was making this face like she was getting bad cell phone service while she began to turn bright red and bash my half-said innocuous note. Uh, nope.

I immediately stopped talking. This wasn’t my first rodeo and one of my biggest peeves is when someone wastes my time. She was a friend of a friend, this writer. And I learned once again to get a better sense of someone before reading their work. So shame on me. But she really needed to learn some manners. This is not how you take a note, even if you vehemently disagree with it. Especially if this is your very first screenplay and you’re brand new at the game. I mean, I gave her a very nearly-nothing note and was kind of shocked to see her fall to pieces.

The kicker of the silly/frustrating encounter was that she informed me that she’d already taken it around town to some fairly large production companies. Meaning, she had mailed it off to the addresses of top companies and hadn’t heard a thing. But she was proud of the fact that she had gotten her stuff “out there” to the big dogs and who was I?

Nobody, kid.

She felt that simply typing 125 pages of nonsense was enough work. I don’t wish her ill. Maybe we’ll see her big caper on the screen one day. Maybe she learned. Maybe she didn’t. I’ll never know. Life is short. That was all of the time she was getting out of me.

Make sure the word on the street is about your writing and not that you’re a world class wanker. Photo Courtesy: HBO

Don’t Be an A**hole

See above story. Also, humility is a super power.

How do you make sure your work is ready to hit the streets? Please share your stories, process, or any tips in the comments below.

author-avatar

Lisa Waugh worked her way through six years of a state college and then decided to work only one job in radio as opposed to three to get a degree that would help her land a job in… radio. She then moved onto TV news, then cable news, and then a fun-filled place that made cartoons. There was a ghost involved. She’s been paying the bills as a writer for over two decades. Screenwriting, copywriting, script doctoring, tons of web content for startups that are digital dust by now, joke writing, and a lot of entertainment writing, mostly about TV. She loves writers and wants to see them succeed because writers rock.

39 Replies to "How to Know If Your Script Doesn't Suck"

  • comment-avatar
    Joe Smith March 23, 2017 (6:00 am)

    I am guilty of prematurely letting my work leave the nest. Bad. Very bad. Very discouraging that my crap didn’t smell nice and fresh. However, now I’m at the opposite end where I don’t let anyone read my work. Bad, very bad. I don’t know who to trust with honest critique who actually knows what they’re talking about. Sigh

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (11:50 am)

      I struggle with the same thing. I used to have a great reader and then he stopped doing it. He wanted to retire. Now, I share things with my two buddies via Skype. I don’t know if we’re all hitting the right marks but it’s supportive and fun at least.

    • comment-avatar
      Pete F March 23, 2017 (4:08 pm)

      Hello, Lisa,
      Good post. Really. What I have had to do is two main things:
      a) Let it marinate. You talked about this a little.
      b) Take it somewhere to a reader you know hits hard, is ruthlessly honest, BUT whose input is always in the direction of what to do to get it to the next level.

      I think it also helps to know that almost EVERYBODY gets rewritten, and almost NOBODY writes perfectly good stuff on the first try. I had an eye-opening experience two weeks ago when I found the script to a movie I absolutely love. The story is sheer brilliance. I got a copy of an early draft and was shocked; it was AWFUL. It was NOTHING like what ultimately emerged.

      If this helps anybody, I’ve seen this much: even the big players write fairly crummy stuff in their early drafts. I do reader work as well as write ’em myself; it’s really true. Your friend just didn’t realize that. Maybe she has by now.

      Thanks for the post. Really very helpful.

      • comment-avatar
        Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (4:40 pm)

        Thanks for the advice, Pete. Yeah, maybe she stuck with it. If it’s what she really wants to do, I sure hope so.

  • comment-avatar
    Tim Paulson March 23, 2017 (6:00 am)

    Thank you very much for this Lisa! It’s interesting, fun and insightful. I’m going to follow your advice! THANKS!

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (11:48 am)

      Thanks, Tim.

  • comment-avatar
    Stephen March 23, 2017 (6:08 am)

    I belong to a play readers group. I bring my pieces in to have them performed. The feedback is great and I get a chance to hear and see the story come to life. This practice usually shows where dialogue and action needs to be revised.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:22 pm)

      A good group is worth its weight in gold. Thanks, Stephen.

  • comment-avatar
    Anthony M March 23, 2017 (6:55 am)

    One sure way to check if it sucks. Read your script without the dialogue. If you can’t picture the action or follow the scenes without character speech, then you need to rewrite. I’ve read quite a few screenplays by “first scripters” that were nothing more than talking heads or contained long descriptions of props or background that do nothing to move the story forward.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:19 pm)

      It’s very useful. My early stuff, and even some of my recent stuff, can sometimes fall into that “talking heads” ravine. So reading it aloud really points that tendency out. I can also be verbose. And tangenty, apparently. Hehehe.

  • comment-avatar
    George March 23, 2017 (7:36 am)

    Excellent advice! Can I be a part of your group? 🙂 Okay, just kidding…but thanks for the info.

  • comment-avatar
    guy crawford March 23, 2017 (7:40 am)

    Great article. As a newbie myself I tend to vacuum up everything I can read on the industry. Sometimes it’s contradictory advice from different sources but a common thing is be ready before you submit a script. Build relationships and nurture them. Above all don’t forget that it doesn’t cost you a thing to be exhibit manners but the rewards of doing so are priceless. Thanks!!

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (11:57 am)

      Right on, Guy.

  • comment-avatar
    David L. Carter March 23, 2017 (7:40 am)

    I need to do that, Stephen. Nothing like hearing your words to find your faults and successes.

    My frustration is receiving feedback where the reader didn’t understand what is on the page. At that point it falls on me to determine if I am guilty of poor writing or they didn’t “get it”. I try to have at least three people read my script to see if there are common notes.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:05 pm)

      I like the common notes advice, David.

  • comment-avatar
    Lilia F March 23, 2017 (7:58 am)

    Oh man, once after a positive note I said something like, “Thanks, I’m very proud of that.” It has to be the opposite of humility…

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:11 pm)

      I’ve blurted some pretty silly and embarrassing things that were no where near the humility zone. I can get nervous in situations.

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue March 23, 2017 (8:40 am)

    So…. the last several articles I’ve read would make me run very far away from Screenwriting U. Lucky for me I’ve already completed the Master Class. But one more that resembles one of the ‘bad attitude’ writing groups and I don’t think I’ll be reading the magazine anymore.
    This is JUST like the bullying that happens in writer groups, this writer went off on a tangent about Premature sharing as if they are somehow superior to their example when pretty much everyone is guilty of doing what the woman in the example did. And the WHY of why you don’t prematurely share never came out… because they were VENTING istead of informing.
    This is why I don’t WANT to know other writers, why I am content sitting in my basement writing my heart out with a tiger guarding the door. That tiger is very hungry all of the time.
    Overall, my advice for writers is practice. Don’t pay any attention to the mixed messages thrown at you by every ‘expert’ on the subject of screenwriting. Remember, they aren’t you. Even if the person has IMDB credits and is considered ‘pro’, I learned a long time ago in another art form that ‘pro’ ONLY means you get paid for it. And guess what? There are lots of Superior writers whose actual work never gets seen because somehow one of these ‘pros’ got their eyes on it and stole the concept and the script for themselves, changing only names, hair and eye colors. (The reason I now copyright my work before ANYONE sees it)
    Because of articles like this, I honestly don’t care if I ever send out any of my work again. Not because it’s not good enough, but because no one else shares my vision. No one understands me, and I”ve already been told by ‘experts’ through words and actions that there is no place for me at their table. There is no place for me in LA, and as we’ve all been told, if you aren’t willing to move to LA you will never sell a script.
    I’m not willing to move back to LA.

    • comment-avatar
      Frank R. March 23, 2017 (9:36 am)

      I feel ya, Cobalt.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (11:46 am)

      Oh wow, Cobalt Blue. I certainly did not mean to run you off. My intent was to share some experiences, maybe they help, maybe not. I apologize for coming off as venting and it kind of hurts to be considered a bully when I’m far from it. My angle is that I don’t have one. I’ve had tons of failures, still do. This article would be a great example as I didn’t get the right point across to you. I don’t feel superior to anyone.

      And thanks for the advice. Everyone is free to ignore me and whomever they want. I’m disappointed that I disappointed you. I wish you the best of success. Truly.

    • comment-avatar
      Tammy Gross March 23, 2017 (1:53 pm)

      My latest experience really matches up with Cobalt’s 1st point (not the paranoia). One guy in my professional-level group just went off on a 2-hour line-by-line tirade why everything didn’t work, & was so into his own opinion that he wasn’t reading the actual words on the page! Of course it doesn’t work when you don’t want/expect it to. The best feedback comes from non-writing filmmakers in the group.

      Fictitious Hemingway quote from Midnight in Paris:

      Gil: …I’m just looking for an opinion.
      Ernest Hemingway: My opinion is I hate it.
      Gil: Well you haven’t even read it yet.
      Ernest Hemingway: If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.

      I do want writers’ opinions on some things, but not on whether they “like” it or not. I just want their professional perspective, putting themselves in the shoes of typical Hollywood readers (which, sadly, are mostly frustrated writers).

      • comment-avatar
        Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (4:33 pm)

        Two hours? Oofta. As for getting another writer’s feedback… depends on the writer for me. I’ve run across the gamut. After a while, I’ve found a couple of great writers I can trust not do be jerks. Love the Midnight in Paris reference.

  • comment-avatar
    Frank R. March 23, 2017 (9:34 am)

    I’ll keep an eye out for more of your articles Lisa, loved this one! I’m in the middle of a real blockbuster script, will need feedback, do I make the check out to you? 🙂 (Only half kidding, kind of serious. I’m in Grandma’s will so I’m good for it.)

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:02 pm)

      Hehehe, Frank!

  • comment-avatar
    Patrecia Kay Jackson-McCurdy March 23, 2017 (12:32 pm)

    I usually spend quite a while writing and rewriting – So, I know that my screenplay doesn’t suck – when I read it all the way through and laugh at all the right places. Yes, I think I’m funny. I have an imaginary movie reel in my head – and when I’m writing – this reel becomes active the minute I put my head on the pillow at night. I keep a pen and pad on my nightstand. I reel off to the night before and continue the script each night, until it is finished. I also do my rewrites this way.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (12:41 pm)

      Freaking love it! I love that you watch it in your head like that. I try to do the pad by the nightstand thing and then leave the pad somewhere else, like in the bathroom. So I end up foggily trying to type something in apple notes.

  • comment-avatar
    Jack Steeley March 23, 2017 (2:54 pm)

    I’ve had to learn how to take criticism, and it wasn’t always easy. A year ago, I had five out of six scripts rated in the top 25% at a prestigious screenwriting contest. I’m not excellent – none made semifinals – but I think that means most of my stuff at least doesn’t stink. I used the feedback to rewrite four of those five. I’m still thinking about how to tackle the fifth. The one that ended up outside the top 25% will have to wait for better inspiration.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (4:37 pm)

      That’s pretty freaking amazing. I’ve never had the gumption to throw myself into a screenwriting competition. I like your even keel approach.

  • comment-avatar
    gkn March 23, 2017 (4:48 pm)

    Excellent article, Lisa. It didn’t come off as venting or bullying at all. It’s extremely difficult to know when your script is good enough to show to producers. It took me 10 or 15 years to finally find some halfway professional writing friends who give good notes – by which I mean who don’t try to graft their story onto yours, who know what questions to ask when they don’t get something, which can help you see what’s not clear, developed enough, or, sometimes drowned in too much distracting peripheral stuff. It’s an art, a talent you develop while dealing with your own problems, and by no means easy.

    That’s why, when you’re lucky enough to find someone who’s really trying to help, you need to listen and be grateful. And ask questions yourself if the story they read sounds completely different from the one in your head – which maybe didn’t make it clearly to the page somehow. It’s true, cobalt, that “opinions” and generalisations are not helpful. All that’s far too subjective. We don’t all have the same tastes. One thing I tried once was to ask the person who read it to tell the story to me, as if it was a film she had just seen. I was blown away by all the things she picked up on right, and also by a few things that had been misunderstood. But maybe she was a gifted story-teller. I’m not sure that would work with everyone, or every story.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 24, 2017 (10:51 am)

      Excellent, gkn. Thanks for the support and advice. It does take a while to find the right feedback. Sometimes you use it. Sometimes you don’t. For me, it’s nice to engage with someone on a thing I’m working on.

  • comment-avatar
    C. DeRykus March 23, 2017 (7:31 pm)

    Thanks for the insights. I resonated totally with your cautionary note about coverage: “I need background, context, qualifications before I hand my script over to someone. “. I now look for a service offering a “Here’re our readers’ backgrounds. Pick your preferred one.” option. They exist thankfully. I found a couple and choose the first. Although, I’m not affiliated, related, receiving kickbacks, or just plain sucking up to them, I found sellingyour screenplay.com very helpful… and I opted for a great reader in my genre.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 23, 2017 (7:46 pm)

      Thank you for saying, C. And thanks for the recommendation!

  • comment-avatar
    Julianne March 24, 2017 (12:35 pm)

    Here’s my problem: I’m just starting out writing with a solid background in improv comedy. I think improv has been massively helpful in helping me generate ideas and work out different parts of my brain that I wouldn’t normally. BUT another crucial aspect of improv is that it’s fleeting. You create this incredible thing out of nothing with a group of people; and you’re fully invested all throughout. But then someone edits the scene and it’s over. You’re constantly moving on to the next funny thing, never ruminating for too long on any one idea. I think this philosophy may have permeated my psyche in an unhealthy way. Nowadays I’ll sit down to outline and write something more long-form, then will wake up the next day already somewhat bored and questioning whether the idea was even worthwhile in the first place. I’ll often come to the conclusion that my idea is awful/unoriginal/boring/some combo of all of the above, and will abandon ship before I even really get started. I know it’s not really related to this article, but I’m eager to learn: is there any way you know of to combat this strong initial wave of negativity? How can you tell whether your negative assessment is valid or is more a reflection of deeper insecurities?

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 24, 2017 (6:34 pm)

      Oooh, this is an excellent question. How about I investigate some answers for you and make that my next article? I’ll have improv people who write and can share some real world struggles and solutions. I struggle with this all the time. So standby for a piece next week where we can fully explore many angles. Thanks for your question, Julianne.

      • comment-avatar
        Julianne March 28, 2017 (10:24 am)

        That would be amazing! I look forward to it

  • comment-avatar
    Shirley Hassen March 26, 2017 (9:07 pm)

    I have several scripts, short and long of my own in different genre. I also have several scripts different genre with 2 writing partners and I wouldn’t mind you critiquing our work but the trouble is finance.

  • comment-avatar
    Tim Aucoin April 6, 2017 (12:05 pm)

    The hardest thing about being a writer/screenwriter is not thinking your script is amazing and there’s no way it won’t sell, I’m definitely guilty of that myself. I do freelance coverage and the majority of the scripts I get are pretty bad, but what do you think is the number one question they ask me? “How do I sell this?” They’re more concerned with selling it before even learning the basics, like structure and coherence. Notes are imperative for a rewrite, either through a group, a fellow writer friend, or a service. I’m happy to report one of my recent clients placed in some contests based on the notes I gave her. Yay! Love the article, thanks.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh April 6, 2017 (12:12 pm)

      Oh man, so true. Thanks for the comment, Tim.

  • comment-avatar
    Henry March 2, 2018 (7:08 pm)

    I’ve been working on a screenplay for 3 years now. Its not an everyday thing for me, because i have my reasons. Yesterday, i was fortunate to put an hour into it. I write and rewrite and rewrite and write as my life may wander, but my mind keeps refocusing. I believe, I will finally be completed by summer, as I put this into my play book. I will then look for a reader to help me professionally polish it to standards, attain copyright and do what I used to do best…market. The title is an eye opener and will help me to sell this excellent true story. I appreciate your experience and insights in helping people like myself grow more confident. Peace. HN

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