John Flynn-York is a writer who's been living LA for two years. He read scripts for Principato-Young Entertainment before starting his current job writing coverage for a production company with an open submission policy. We sat down with him and asked him Five Questions about his job:
How did you get your current job as a reader?
I moved to Los Angeles a little over two years ago to attend UCLA's Professional Program in Screenwriting. While I was taking classes, I started interning at a management company in Beverly Hills. When my internship was over, the manager I had been working for put me in touch with a production company that he knew was looking for script readers. They had me write sample coverage, and based on that, hired me.
What's the workload like? Is it full time gig, or is there a fluctuation in how many scripts you get assigned?
The workload varies. Sometimes, it's close to a full time job, but more often it's part time, maybe 20 to 30 hours a week. It depends on the amount of scripts coming in.
If you had to pick one or two of most common mistakes you see from these writers, what would they be?
The most common problem I see is characters not being given specific objectives to achieve. This may sound like a small issue, but it really goes to the core of a lot of different areas: character development, plot, dialogue. It's not entertaining to watch characters who aren't doing, or trying to do, anything; conversely, we care about and root for a character who is pursuing a goal. What they're trying to achieve tells us a lot about who they are as a character, and how they're trying to achieve it tells us even more. Whether or not they're successful is beside the point -- in storytelling, it's the trying that matters.
Another problem I see frequently is a lack of clarity in communicating the premise. Some writers seem to know what their premise is, but have a hard time translating that into a story; other writers don't even have a basic idea of their premise. This is the fundamental idea of the movie or show we're talking about here, and it needs to be crystal clear. If it's not, then everything suffers. I don't know what the characters are trying to achieve, I don't know who they are, I don't know what this story is about.
What are some suggestions you'd make about evaluating your script before sending it out?
It's easier than ever before to send your work out, both in terms of how many avenues there are to get it read and the ease of the actual process. I don't know if that makes writers less likely to read over their material before sending out, but I do see a lot of work that's fairly sloppy. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos – for the most part, they're easy mistakes to correct. Contrary to what some people will tell you, though, a few mistakes here and there won't kill a script's chances. But a scripts that's full of them says something about the writer and how much effort they put into their work.
That's the easy stuff, though. Spell check can catch a lot of errors, and a read dedicated to grammar and spelling can help clean up everything else. It’s much harder to look at your own work and evaluate things like character, story, and dialogue. The most helpful thing, I think, is to have someone who's interested in screenwriting read the work and give you notes. They’ll catch things you won't, and another perspective can be very helpful in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your material. It can also be really useful to read your work out loud. Many things that work on the page don't work as well when spoken, and that can be a kind of guide to rewriting dialogue. Again, a friend can be really helpful with this, but it works well on your own, too.
As someone who is exposed to such a high variety of scripts (from pros, from yet-unproduced writers, from hopefuls), what would you say is the biggest takeaway is and how has it affected your own approach to writing/getting noticed?
It may sound disingenuous, but I think it's more important to be great at one thing than it is to be good at everything. There's a lot out there, getting your work noticed is hard, and it's not enough to just write a decent script, although even doing that isn't easy. To stand out, a script really needs to be memorable, and that means doing something really well. If you're funny, be as funny as you can be on the page; if you write characters well, write a character who's going to stick with anyone who reads your script; if you can tell a great story, then really go for it and tell the most interesting story you can. In other words, play to your strengths as a writer. That way, when someone reads your script, there will be something about it that they can recommend to other people -- how funny it is, or how great one of the characters is, or the incredible twist in the third act.