Every day, scripts get opened by assistants who have been assigned to read them… and then they’re quickly closed. Assistants at agencies, management companies, production companies, and television shows have such an insane pile of assigned reading that if a script doesn’t capture their attention quickly, it likely won’t get read past ten pages. Sometimes, they’re tasked with reading things late at night or on the weekend, meaning that they may be overly critical because a script is keeping them from drinking at brunch or getting to sleep. While this can seem frustrating, it also means that a good script can excite them and make them want to read more. Here are some dos and don’ts you can follow to give your script a better chance of standing out in the dreaded pile.
When reading your script, assistants want to be able to tell what your unique voice and perspective is, typically because representation and producers are looking for fresh and new voices that will be able to sell in a saturated marketplace. In some cases, executives and showrunners will even admit that this is more important to them than whether or not you have a perfect structure. So, along with writing in your style, pick a topic for your pilot or feature that says something about your life story. This doesn’t mean you have to write a script about your personal biography, but it’s helpful if your script says something about who you are, your background, your interests, or your experiences. For example, the writer Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) gained prominence by writing a play called Assistance about her experiences with a traumatic boss. The play took off because of the unique voice and perspective in it, and Headland gained attention because it was something only she could write.
When reading a giant pile of scripts, assistants love to find something that is a different story that they haven’t read a million times before. Every year, there seem to be sample after sample on the same topic, usually something broad and general like a relationship becoming open or the complexities of being a mom. When the movie Bad Teacher hit big, it felt like every pilot sample was a version of “Bad (insert profession here).” This got exhausting for people who had to read twelve versions of “Bad Firefighter” or “Bad Doctor.” Now, you still want to write things that fit the current cultural climate, but you want your premise to be unique enough that it stands out in the pile. If you have an interesting hook, the assistant will be immediately drawn into your script, especially after reading so many general scripts. Even if the script isn’t perfect, just reading something different will be a welcome relief. Similarly, you want to get to this interesting premise quickly, whether that’s the premise of your pilot or the inciting incident of your feature. Sometimes bosses will tell assistants to read the first ten pages, and then only keep reading if they like it. You don’t want them to read ten pages without even understanding the premise of your script and then never give it a chance.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write a beautiful script, but you don’t want to be so subtle that someone reading your script quickly will get completely lost. While this may seem like a drag on your creative process, think of it as a challenge to communicate your ideas in a clear and effective way, assistants will be reading quickly, and they might miss something if it’s buried in a stage direction or said too coyly in dialogue. Consider using formatting to your advantage here as well. If there’s something key in the action lines, make it bold and underline it for emphasis. Now, it’s important to use this sparingly and only when you really want something to stand out. Overusing techniques like this could show overwriting and would likely get your script thrown in the bin. If there’s a key character attitude shift, spend an extra second in it to make sure your reader understands. Write a good script, but also keep in mind that someone will be reading this on a Sunday along with ten other scripts, so they won’t be pouring over every detail with care. Also, this exercise might help you realize better ways to communicate what you’re envisioning and help get the brilliant scene in your head onto the page.
As Sam Smiley writes in Playwriting: The Structure of Action, “Only unavoidable stage directions are appropriate.” In order to make your script enjoyable to read, try not to get too bogged down in getting every detail into the prose of the script. Ask yourself: what key descriptions do I need to include to paint the scene, and what can I leave to the reader’s imagination? This will help make your script fun and easy to read, even if it’s a dark drama. Overworked assistants have tired eyes, and seeing long paragraphs of text is intimidating and unappealing. Scripts that only include necessary details make for easier work, and the reader will be more likely to finish your script. Also, many assistants have to write summaries for their bosses. Lighter prose will help them notice the important plot points to include in their summary, improving the chance that their bosses will take a look at your work.
The fastest way for an assistant to discount your script is to see that it has a lot of spelling or formatting errors. This will tip them off immediately that you’re not familiar with proper industry standard formats and that you’re not ready to take the next step as a writer. It will also slow down the reader and probably annoy them. They may think: If the writer didn’t care enough to thoroughly proofread and format their script, why should I care enough to pass them along to my boss? The easiest thing you can do to not get your script immediately thrown out is to check for typos and make sure you’re using an industry standard script format.
While this may all seem daunting, the good news is that assistants are always trying to discover new talent to show their bosses. So even though it’s tough to break through the pile, there’s also a lot of hope in it. Assistants have to read so much stuff that when they read something they enjoy, it’s a welcome treat. By keeping in mind a couple of tips to make your script fun to read, you will not only have a better chance of getting noticed, but you may find that it helps you create a better final product as well.