There’s a lot of bad screenwriting advice on the internet and I feel like I’ve heard most of it. Even some of the good advice is delivered in a less than helpful way in order to feel brief and authoritative or sometimes just to fit in a tweet. I thought as a working writer it might be helpful for me to share my advice on advice, what’s worth taking and what’s going to hurt more than it’s going to help.
Advice on Advice 1: Read It Out Loud
A pretty common piece of advice I’ve heard over the years is to get your script read out loud. In itself, definitely not a bad thing. My writing partner James and I had a read-through of a script last week that’s set to shoot in June, and hearing the words in the mouths of our two very funny leads made me feel massively enthused about the project and motivated to try and make sure the scripts are equal to the level of their performance. Basically I spent an hour and a half laughing at my own jokes like a massive dick and it was brilliant.
But I’ve also been involved in read-throughs that didn’t go so well and I think that’s the thing, it’s always worth reading lines or sections to yourself or with your writing partner (I can often be found mumbling jokes to myself like a maniac trying to get the rhythm right) but I think when you bring in other people you need to be careful. Sometimes getting something read can be the thing that kills it.
If something’s going into production then a read-through is a natural part of the process but if you decide to do one for your spec script then there are a few things to think about.
1. Who is going to be doing the reading?
Are you going to hire professional actors or are you going to ask friends and family? Are the people reading right for the roles? Are they motivated enough to put themselves into the read or are they just here for the pay check / out of obligation? Essentially a read-through is only going to be as good as people doing the reading and once you get going you don’t have much control over this. I guess if someone starts doing an accent midway through the read you can ask them not to do the accent but you can’t just say ‘could you be better at reading’? (Well you could but I’m not sure it would help).
Good scripts can make bad tv shows or films and the same applies here, you’re sort of making the thing, if you make it bad then you’re going to think it’s bad.
2. Is your script ready to be read?
This is a really hard question and some writers will never answer yes to this. When I write a first draft I’m usually desperate for people to see it but I know I need to go through the process of getting notes from my trusted sources, going back and forth on a few more drafts and getting the script in a shape that is at least close to the type of thing I want to be putting out into the world before I hand it over to others. If I got that first draft read out loud there’s a good chance that I’d hate it and I’d lose all my passion for the project and maybe I’d never write again.
*Major Caveat – if you’re working to a tight deadline or on a topical show sometimes you won’t have the luxury of getting things to that level but in my experience you’re carried by adrenaline and the hammering of a joke into shape is pure craft.*
But back to my point, you have a big choice to make and that’s when do you do your reading? You have limited time and resources so consider whether this is the right stage for this, maybe you'd benefit from bringing on a script editor (hi) or could you just read the script out loud to yourself?
Get this decision right and the momentum of a good read-through can carry you forward but get it wrong and the pain of a bad one can stop you in your tracks.
In conclusion, I’d say at its core this is a useful piece of advice. The reason you write a script is because at some point you’d like it to be read out loud. Your baby bird might not fly yet but getting it read aloud early in the process can at least help you make sure it has wings and isn’t some kind of battery hen that’s just a torso designed by evil scientists purely to be carved up into chicken nuggets.
What this advice isn’t saying is get all of your things read out loud by professional actors all of the time. If you want your idea to succeed you have to care about it deeper than anyone else and fully believe in its potential, you might not think anything could make you love your idea baby less but trust me a bad read-through is very capable of doing that.