Secrets of the Gatekeepers: What Script Readers Want You to Know

by | Apr 26, 2021

I read a lot of scripts. Like a lot. And it’s so much better when they’re brief. So I’ll cut to the chase: here are the top nine things to increase the chances your script makes it past the gatekeepers:

Your Action Lines Matter More than You Think

If a writer’s action lines are wordy, then I’m already not on the writer’s side — I know the script is going to be bloated, and take longer than it needs in order to tell its story.

Here are a few pro tips to make your action lines pop:

  • Use the form of verb that is shorter: For example: “sits” rather than “is sitting.”
  • Hook me by using interesting verbs, that reveal character, rather than soft ones: “plops” rather than “sits.”
  • The order you explain things in makes a big difference. In general, first describe the room or setting in one or two short phrases. Then describe the person, and what they are doing.
  • If I’m confused and have to frequently re-read for context, no matter how great your story is, it will not likely be recommended to move forward.
  • In general, limit your use of pronouns in action lines. If there are two women in the scene, and you write, “she does such and such,” I will likely be confused as to who is doing such and such.

More Than Likely, Your Script Shies Away from the Most Powerful Aspects of the Protagonist’s Emotional Journey

A lot of otherwise strong scripts miss out on their potential to move forward because the writer does not take the plunge to really enter the characters’ authentic emotional journeys. Often because it’s scary; it takes courage to write an emotionally powerful script. And the same holds true for comedies — the truth of the emotional situations is where the real comedy gold is. Don’t shy away from the emotional rawness. Dive in!

Page Count is Less Important than You Think

Sure, sometimes I check how many pages a script is before I get to the end. But that’s only if the writing feels bloated, and if I’m dreading the rest of the read. But if your scenes start late, end early; if the action lines are crisp and clear; if I’m interested in finding out what happens next; and if I’m emotionally invested in your protagonist, I don’t care if your script ends on page 100 or 115.

Story Structure has More to Do with Strong Goals, Obstacles, and Escalating Stakes than the Page Number at which Your Act Breaks Happen

Here’s what I care about: Does your script hold my interest? Does it inspire me? Does it make me feel the feels? The best way to emotionally connect me to your story is through writing great characters in a great world, with meaningful and compelling stakes for their clear goals, along with unexpected obstacles. I’m not paying attention to what exactly happens on page 60. Just entertain me.

Please Make Your Stakes Higher

Pro Tip: For each of your characters, deepen the stakes (the bad thing that happens if they do not achieve their goals) by asking why it is SO important to the characters that these stakes don’t happen. Make it a really deep and meaningful reason… then go even deeper.

Your Characters, More than Likely, Sound the Same

Pro Tip: Follow your characters around in your mind’s eye and let them speak to you — interview them; interact with them; take them to dinner. Make them sound like people with distinct points of view; not like puppets just pushing the story forward.

You May Wanna Double-check that Your Characters’ Actions are Authentic

I often read scripts where the characters’ behavior feels convenient to the plot rather than authentically motivated. Pro Tip: Authentic characters choose the path of least resistance.

Make Your Characters’ Goals Really Clear

Pro Tip: Choose goals that are external, specific, achievable. And it always helps if they’re time-bound.

It Would Likely Be Beneficial to Get Another Set of Notes Before Sending Out Your Script

You can get better with each draft. But don’t be too quick to send this draft all over the place — Get feedback from readers before calling in favors or submitting to contests. Make sure your script is as great as you can make it before throwing your hat in the ring.

So there you have it! A few tips to get you started. It may seem daunting, but implementing each of these practices will boost your chances of making it past those pesky gatekeepers and into the hands of the people who can get your script made. Happy writing!

ProPath Screenwriting