Screenwriting : Ever feel like sometimes script coverage reviewers don’t “get” what you’ve written...? by Christopher Neal Fisher

Ever feel like sometimes script coverage reviewers don’t “get” what you’ve written...?

...because I sure have! Don’t get me wrong; all but one of my coverages has been very positive (though with the usual “But”... cropping up, of course). They seem to love the originality of my show’s concept, setting, and dialogue, and to a lesser degree like the characters, and think I have a good sense of their voice. And to be honest, I’m perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that some of the problem may lie in the fact that my series concept, and hence the pilot script for it, are a little bit different from what they’re used to. For one thing, it’s specifically designed to be a serial drama as opposed to a series comprised of “stand alone” episodes, like a Procedural; set in the Acadiana (aka “Cajun Country”) region of Louisiana, I frequently describe it as a “Southern Gothic Soap Opera”, or as being like “Dark Shadows (the original) meets The Sopranos meets The Long Hot Summer”. There are several reasons why I decided to do the show in that format: foremost because I firmly believe that it is the best, indeed the only real way to properly do a show in the Southern Gothic genre; also, I believe that it allows for better, deeper story and character development; finally, it helps keep the quality of the storytelling high, by preventing it from degenerating into a “Monster of the Week” show (a real concern, since things like voodoo and supernatural beings are definitely a part of the genre). Often, script coverage reviewers start off seeming to “get” this, but as they continue, they almost invariably seem to make comments that seem to be more germaine to a series with a stand-alone episodic format. For example, they frequently criticize the pacing of my pilot, seemingly ignoring or forgetting that in a serial drama, plots can and often do unfold more slowly; also, I’ve been criticized for not engaging “show, don’t tell” as much as I should, when while it is just as important in a serial drama as in a standard episodic format series, serial dramas also tend to be more “dialogue heavy”, due to the fact that they are often a particular mix of plot driven and character driven elements. And even when they do seem to really get that it’s supposed to be a serial drama, I’ve occasionally been told things like that I should have each of the arcs in an episode end on sort of a “end of chapter” note before continuing on in the next episode, instead of a “cliffhanger” one. Also, there are aspects of the show and script that, though I try to make them clear through both action and dialogue, the reviewers just don’t seem to “get”. A frequent one is that the patriarch of the protagonist family is not only a local “captain of industry” and land owner, he’s also an old school southern “town boss” of the town he lives just outside of , and which his ancestors founded three centuries ago (much like, say, Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer), which means among other things he engages in various illegal actions (including ones you could get busted under the RICO Act) in addition to his legit ones. However, he is not “OC”; he does not head up a “crime family” like the Mafia or even a syndicate. He does have people in his employ who serve as his “enforcers” (e.g. collecting money from people who run local illegal enterprises, but have his permission to do so, which means in exchange for a percentage of their profits, he uses his influence and money to ensure they are not harassed by the local police), but they are not analogous to “made men” or even associates. Yet what happens? They almost invariably assume he’s also the head of a Mafia-type outfit! Also, because he allows a few pot dealers to operate, and makes the arrangement with the source from which they are to obtain their wares, they think he’s supposed to be a drug lord, when the script makes it clear that he’s merely a “fixer” of sorts in that regard. Finally, I also occasionally get really strange comments that leave me scratching my head. Like one coverage where the reviewer gave nearly all the elements of my script very good marks (7 or 8 out of 10 for all the areas that company grades on). She did criticize me for violating “show, not tell” in one scene (even though the thing she thought I should have shown probably would have caused people to correctly guess a plot point in one of the story arcs that at that point I wanted to leave open to question, as well as would have defeated part of the purpose of the scene, which was to show the often-contentious nature of the relationship of the two characters in the scene). What was really strange was at the end, after all the praise, saying the show would likely not sell because there were no strong female characters with their own stand-alone arc, and that producers would never buy such a “male-centric” series. Wait, whut...? I mean, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire...? And all of the four major female characters in the pilot (three protagonists, one antagonist) are strong women, including the matriarch of the family (she is a housewife, but she runs a plantation mansion, is active in the community, and has no problem standing up to her strong-willed husband). None of them are mere appendages to the male characters, not even the girlfriend of the youngest son of the protagonist family. And one of them does have an arc that’s independent of the male characters (true, in the pilot she is just visiting from out of town, but events in later episodes will force her to move back to town — and she would hardly feature as prominently in the pilot if she was not o be a regular character). There there was one who criticized me using parentheticals to convey the tone of a person’s voice when saying a line (something I don’t do all that often), and another that thought that the main female antagonist (a voodoo priestess) needed a sample of a person’s DNA in order to cast a spell on them (again, Wait, whut...?). Anyway, I’m not writing this post to whine and complain, but to relate some of the things I find frustrating when dealing with script coverage services, and to wonder if it’s because they’re reading my script with certain assumptions which don’t necessarily hold true in my case, or if despite what I think are my best efforts to make things clear in my script, somehow I’m failing in that regard, and asking if other screenwriters out there have experienced the same frustrations.

Clark Ransom

Hi Christopher. In my experience, coverage is very subjective and it depends upon the knowledge and experience of the person providing that coverage. When I seek out coverage, I look for specific people who are highly rated, have their own IMDB credits, and have written in whatever particular genre my project may be.

I have never had someone say my script was perfect, had no plots holes, or did not need some sort of work. Heck, I just went back to a story I wrote almost 10 years ago that was Semi-Finalist in two respectable contests, and I found so many issues in it I was embarrassed.

But that is what coverage is about; what you don't see in your project. I don't consider those things to be failures, just opportunities to learn and improve. And, as you have found, 6 people can read the same project and they will all have different takes on it based upon their own bias or what they feel is germane to the market at the time.

For me, choosing "who" does your coverage is key to getting the most for what you pay.

Gabriel Marinho

A lot of script readers are underpaid, have a huge workload, and need to meet tight deadlines. This affects the quality of the coverage, but it doesn't excuse plot holes and other mistakes a writer occasionally commits. I agree with Clark: seek someone who made into the industry and whose taste for movies is similar to yours. That will increase your chances of receiving decent coverage.

Doug Nelson

Sounds like you're getting similar comments from multiple sources...could that be a clue?

Juliana Beckett

I've had conflicting coverage about specific scenes (e.g., make it more violent, make it less violent) and certain readers definitely connect more with the genre but if I hear feedback about anything from two or more people, I put more weight into it and consider changes I can make.

A. S. Templeton

Even cr@p coverage can be useful, even if only in laying bare the evaluator's mental laziness and opinionatedness passed off as expertise.

Valeria Sweet

What company did coverage for you? I had someone from WeScreenplay and I had a similar experience (serialized drama, found it to have a small audience, didn't seem to get my concept through the end). Wish the reader at least liked my genre haha. I had a YA drama in the vein of Riverdale.

A. S. Templeton

Valeria Sweet by "serialized" do you mean a bounded story delivered in a predetermined number of chapters or installments?

Christopher Neal Fisher

One thing I forgot to mention for some unknown reason that drives me nuts with many script coverage reviewers is that one the one hand they harp about “show, don’t tell”, yet I get the impression that many of them think that the writer should spoon feed the plot to the audience, with no ambiguities or anything not 100% clear in the plot or characterizations, as if we should write to the “lowest common denominator. Frankly, I’d like to treat my audience as being a bit more intelligent than that; like that maybe they don’t look upon a show as being necessarily “brain candy” and nothing more; that they appreciate, and indeed even want, a sense of mystery, of trying to guess what will happen next, instead of having it practically telegraphed to them. (BTW, responses to all your comments and suggestions are forthcoming — stay tuned!).

Tony S.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. - Anton Chekhov -

The essence of 'Show, don't tell' is to use visuals or actions rather than dialogue. A good example is in THE HELP. Chastain stillbirths a child. Wordlessly, the body is laid in a box and placed in a beautiful garden with a rose bush planted above. It's alongside two other rose bushes (as far as I recall).

This respects the viewer's intelligence; that we know Chastain suffered the loss of three babies. Certainly there could be dialogue, "Oh my, that's the third child I lost."

A. S. Templeton

Screenplays are not literature; they are blueprints. Nothing slows down a read worse than purple prose and overdescription in action.

Tony S.

Unless it's done skillfully:\_files/B/Blonde%20Ambition%20-%20Elyse%20Hollander.pdf

Tony S.

BLONDE AMBITION. A missed 'E' in the Hollander Spec which Madonna put the kibosh on. What's the point? It's about the writing. The link leads to the 2019 Blacklist scripts. So many scripts to denigrate, so little time.

Lots of yada-yada from many writers who don't post scripts. Too bad. We can all learn a lot from their genius and "skill."

William Martell

If they aren't getting it, why?

Our job is communication and if they aren't getting it there's a possibility that we are not communicating our meaning or purpose or tone or whatever the issue is and we need to make it more clear.

If more than one reader has the same problem, it's not the readers... it's the script.

Christopher Neal Fisher

Clark Ransom, Gabriel Marinho — I agree that it’s best if you can use a service where you can look up the person reviewing your script on IMDB, find out what genres they specialize in, etc. Sadly, the majority of firms that Ive come across seem to be “you get who you get” when it comes to reviewers, and you only get a code number, not a name (I understand why they do that, i.e. for personal security reasons). I have found a couple that do use the real names of their reviewers, though, and one in particular I’ve had pretty good results with. I think part of my most recent frustrations have come from contests I’ve entered where I’ve paid extra for coverage, thinking that it might give me insight into what the judges are looking for in a script. Not only does that not seem to be the case (though there seems to be no way I can be completely sure of this), but one of them appeared to be off in their understanding of certain aspects of the genre I’ve chosen for my series concept, while another didn’t seem to “get” some of my characters. Also, they didn’t seem to always keep in mind that most of the story arcs in the pilot take place over a period of four days, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some characters that show up early in the script don’t show up again until significantly later (especially when there’s dialogue that makes that fact clear), or that in a serial drama you can have (and often do have) the plot unfold at a slower pace than in a series comprised of stand-alone episodes, as there is obviously more “space” than just an hour for it to do so. With all that, I tend to think in the future I will just pay the standard entry fee, and skip the coverage.

Christopher Neal Fisher

Doug Nelson, Juliana Beckett — Tbh, the only consistent thing i get pfeedback on that makes me question if the reviewer is truly understanding what I’ve written, or if the problem is with the way I’m depicting it, is with regard to the patriarch of the protagonist family of my series. He’s not only a local captain of industry/businessman and land owner, he’s also an old-school southern “town boss”, similar to Will Varner in the film “The Long Hot Summer”. However, unlike in that film, where Varner clearly spells out who and what he is in his initial conversation with Ben Quick, I wanted to convey it via some of the actions he takes in the pilot’s “A” and “B” stories, but discovered that was too ambiguous, as the reviewers kept thinking that he was also the boss of an organized crime family or syndicate in addition to the aforementioned things when he’s not (he has “enforcers” who he sometimes assigns duties to, but that’s not the same thing at all), despite being involved in activities that could get you arrested on RICO predicates if caught. To make it more clear, I inserted a line of dialogue in one scene that should have made who and what he is in that regard clear without resorting to actually spelling it out openly. Still most (but not all) of them did not seem to get it, and still made the same assumptions. Also, Julia, I do get what you’re saying with regard to contradictory advice and critiques; I’ve experienced that not only with script coverage services, but also with members of the local screenwriter’s group I belong to! It can be very frustrating, especially when you’re trying to “learn the ropes”.

Christopher Neal Fisher

Valeria Sweet — I took a look at your IMDB listing. Quite impressive! And it’s not hard to see why you seem to get where I’m coming from pretty well, since it looks like we both trade in the serial drama format for at least some of our storytelling. And I wonder if therein lies part of the problem for both of us re: script coverage. Let’s be honest: even though serial dramas have been making a comeback in recent years, especially with the advent of streaming/on demand services (they’re particularly well suited for binge watching), standard stand-alone episodic storytelling (e.g, procedurals like Law and Order: SVU) still rules the roost. I wonder if at least some of these reviewers are assuming that we’re all shooting for getting something on a major network, and hence judging our work based on the conventions of “stand-alone” storytelling, rather than accepting that it’s in a serial storytelling format, and judging it accordingly? (While there are many conventions common to both, of course, there are also some areas where they differ, e.g. serial dramas, besides usually pacing their story arcs differently, also tend to be a bit more dialogue-heavy by nature, since the stories tend to be derived from the goings on in the “world” the series inhabits and driven by the characters reactions to the things that happen in it, and by their relationships to each other.) As for my proposed series, I describe it as a “Southern Gothic Soap Opera, set in the middle of the Acadiana region of Louisiana (aka Cajun Country). It’s Dark Shadows (original series) meets The Sopranos meets The Long Hot Summer”. I knew from the get-go that it was different from most of the “standard” fare out there, so initially I wrote it as a Internet Soap. However, the pilot script for it in that format got a good enough review from WeScreenplay (they gave it a “consider”) plus from my cohorts at the screenwriter’s group I belong to, that they all strongly felt I should do it as an hour-long. So I took the original pilot plus the scripts for the next two episodes, added some material, and that’s the script I now have. In answer to your question, so far I’ve gotten coverage from the following services: WeScreenplay (x2); Bulletproof; ScriptReaderPro; Screencraft; and a “first 15” from a company running a TV pilot contest (I opt not to mention the company or the contest because the final judging has not taken place yet). The best, most helpful coverage I’ve gotten has been from ScriptReaderPro, and in fact, I’ve used their services for other things besides coverage of the pilot script, like coverage on a pitch bible. Far and away they seem to understand what I’m aiming for the best. The second WeScreenplay and the Screencraft coverages were as part of contests I entered. The WeScreenplay reviewer gave me a favorable review over all, but didn’t seem to get several elements of my script (they thought that a voodoo priestess needed the DNA of someone in order for them to cast a spell on the person!); the Screencraft reviewer gave me a very favorable review, only at the end to tell me it would probably never sell because there were no strong, independent female characters with their own story arc. (Um, The Sopranos? Breaking Bad? Boardwalk Empire? And I don’t know what script they were reading; there are four major female characters, one of who does have their own arc, and while the one with her own arc is definitely troubled, none of them could reasonably be called “weak”.) The worst was the Bulletproof one; they basically said what I’d come up with had been done to death already (major “Wait, whut?” time), and likened it to “Dynasty meets True Blood”. (No and no. I don’t pick my descriptions indiscriminately; if I say “Dark Shadows (original series) meets The Sopranos”, that’s what I mean.)

Christopher Neal Fisher

Tony S., A.S. Templeton — I’m not questioning the general importance of “show, don’t tell”; there are many places in my pilot script where it’s used to good effect; in fact, both people in my screenwriting group and script coverage services rightly pointed out places in earlier drafts of my pilot script where I should be doing that, and I adjusted it accordingly. The problem is that sometimes I’ve been told that I should be doing that in a scene by a reviewer when there’s a very good reason for why I’m “telling” about it in the dialogue rather than depicting it as in a separate scene. For example, in the “B story arc” (one of two intended to be season-long stories), a nephew of the protagonist family’s patriarch is attacked some months before the events of the pilot by a wolf while on a hunting trip. A month or two later he begins to disappear around the time of the full moon, showing up days later dirty and disheveled, with no memory of where he’s been or what he’s done. His father, the patriarch’s younger brother, thinks he’s been turned into a Rougarou (Cajun/Creole shapeshifter), while the patriarch, who is very skeptical, is highly dismissive of this, thinking this odd behavior is because he’s suffering from something like PTSD because of the attack. In one scene they argue angrily about this, when the patriarch reminds his brother that all they know for sure is that he was attacked by a wolf (neither the patriarch or the brother witnessed it), and that for some undetermined reason he’s been disappearing around the time of the full moon, but those in and of themselves don’t prove that he’s become a some sort of creature. Now the Scriptcraft reviewer thought I should have shown the attack and the nephew’s monthly excursions instead of having the brothers talking about it. So why didn’t I do that? There’s more than one reason, but the prime one was because besides making the script even longer, I feel that my depicting the attack objectively, instead of referring to it abstractly, would “telegraph” to the audience that he is indeed now a Rougarou, instead of leaving the audience to have the mystery of wondering whether the patriarch or his brother is right, until it is revealed later on in the B story that the brother has been right all along

Marty Howe

Why dont you just have a scene, where his arm is bandaged (or something) PERSON unwraps the gauze from his forearm, the large wolf bite marks are almost healed (or something blah blah)

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

Yes! But don't give up. Every note is valuable. Just keep pitching. And editing. And writing. And evolving. It will happen!

Christopher Neal Fisher

William Martell — yes, that’s a possibility, and one I’ve considered of course. At the same time, though, I wonder if might not be, at least in part, lack of familiarity with the genre my show idea is set in. Admittedly, Southern Gothic is not as common as, say, Police Procedurals or Governmental Procedurals (.e.g. West Wing, Madame Secretary). They may not realize that the “town boss” is a frequent character in that genre., and that superficially such characters have a certain degree of overlap with more common organized crime figures, like mob bosses, as it seems like no matter how clear I make the character, some of them still get this wrong.

Christopher Neal Fisher

Marty Howe — actually, there is a scene later on in the pilot that makes clear that the character has become a Rougarou (werewolf). The whole reason for me not showing this fact until that point in the script is to keep the audience guessing/wondering, and also to give the audience more insight into the characters in the scene (since both are intended to be “regulars”), and their relationships with each other.

Christopher Neal Fisher

Sarah Gabrielle Baron — Thanks! I’m fully committed to this, and have every intention of keeping at it until it does happen., no matter what it takes, or how long it takes!

Ismael Judá Moraes Reis Dias

I do, I had to explain that my Fantasy script was more like Batman Begins than Lord of the Rings (Since I kept a far distance from LOTR).

But nothing that bothered, after it he gave an amazing analysis.

Eric Sollars

Many times I get what the reader wants the story to be about. Never any benefit to me.

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