How to Please a Story Analyst
by Susan Kouguell
Way back when, I was a story analyst for production companies and studios. Here is my story. And this is the story you should know.
Most scripts submitted to agents, production companies and/or studios will get coverage, which is a story report written by a story analyst (also called a “reader.”) Many story analysts are recent college graduates, looking to break into the film industry. Most are smart, overworked and underpaid. Many are aspiring screenwriters who are reading for a company to support their own screenwriting and are paying their dues in this job to get their foot (and their own scripts) in the door.
Story analysts are the lowest people on the film industry totem pole. They are often the lowest paid, yet they have one of the biggest tasks – to find that winning screenplay! Story analysts might get three scripts (or more) to read overnight after a full day of reading. It’s your job to grab their attention and make them want to check a READ on your script’s coverage.
Story analysts are looking for talent, not just the winning property. They may PASS on a script because it’s not the type of project their company is looking to produce at that time, but will hold onto to it as a writing sample for other projects they currently may have in development or for future assignments. Or, the production company, studio or agency might contact the writer to see his or her other work, which might lead to a writing job or a script sale.
“I’m tired of rewriting so I’m just going to submit my script now,” If you are saying this, then you’re not passionate about your script – and in turn, story analysts will share your sentiments and reject your screenplay. Story analysts read countless scripts per week. They must feel your commitment to your script. They want to like what they read.
Story Analysts’ Confessions
Years ago, when I worked as a story analyst for Miramax Films (Harvey Weinstein), Punch Productions (Dustin Hoffman), Paramount Pictures and Viacom, I befriended my fellow story analysts. Of course we commiserated (okay, complained) about our low pay and long hours, but once that kvetching session ended, we revealed what was really annoying us. Most of the scripts we were covering were weak. Okay, honestly, many were just plain bad.
There were some common threads as to why these scripts were bad. I compiled my discussions with colleagues, and included my own first-hand experience as a Screenplay Doctor and a former story analyst in my book, The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! Here is an excerpt:
Complaints & Observations
- We are intelligent, but few of us have psychic abilities. If it’s not on the page, we have no way of knowing what’s in your head and what you intended.
- If your first ten pages don’t grab our attention, it will be difficult if not impossible to redeem yourself later. Beware! This may result in a PASS.
- Each and every character must be unique, have a distinctive personality, and serve a purpose in the story, otherwise you are truly frustrating us.
- Don’t throw in the kitchen sink. We know you are not confident about your story when you include extraneous plots and characters.
- We may not have gone to medical or law school, but generally we are well read. We will immediately recognize if the terminology or research in your script is weak or implausible.
- Even superheroes’ actions need to be plausible! If you have action scenes, be sure that they are realistic and well executed; otherwise we will be inclined to PASS on your script.
- Don’t keep us in a confusing time tunnel! If your script jumps forward in time, whether it’s several months or several years, then be sure that this is clearly indicated in your script.
- Film, unlike plays or novels, is a visual medium. Endless dialogue and too much description will persuade us to PASS on your script.
- In your description paragraphs, don’t telegraph what is about to be seen and/or heard in the dialogue and/or action. Enough said!
- Don’t direct your script with camera angles. Using camera directions is absolutely frowned upon. We know that directors and producers do not want to be told how to shoot their movie!
- A script is not a novel. Dense paragraphs of descriptions are a turn off. Each separate action should be a new paragraph. Be brief and concise. Make each word count. Since we are often tired and overworked, these paragraphs become a blur of black lines and consequently, we may overlook important details.
- Avoid heavy-handed exposition at all costs. Don’t over explain information about back-story in dialogue. We know if you’re setting up a whole scene just to get exposition across.
- Watch out for rambling scenes! Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time. You must keep this in mind if your scenes run long since we are looking for a well-paced screenplay.
- When we read voice-overs, we often panic. We don’t want to be spoon-fed information. We don’t want to hear the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue.
- When we read flashbacks, our alarms start to go off! Generally, we frown upon flashbacks because we know flashbacks rarely work on film. If you really feel that you need to use them, know that we will be scrutinizing them to see if they are indeed necessary.
- Incorrect format will get a quick PASS! Don’t cheat and use a smaller font or change the margins. We will catch this immediately. Respect the time of the person reading your script.
- Don’t submit your script unless it looks perfect! No typos. No coffee stains. No photocopying lines. No missing or extra blank pages within the script. Believe me, you don’t want us to become irritated because we are attempting to decipher text between the spots and smudges, and trying to figure out which page belongs where.
Take your time writing and rewriting your screenplay. You do not want to cause any unnecessary stumbling blocks that will result in your screenplay getting a PASS. Always do your best work before submitting it.