This post is mainly geared toward screenwriters, but authors need to pay attention too! Just because you don’t have actors playing your characters doesn’t mean your reader isn’t playing your story out film style in their heads. Replace “actors” with “reader’s mind performers” and you’re good to go.
Every writer needs to hear their words.
Writing is a pretty singular activity, but as anyone who has been on set will tell you, the words you put on the page sound completely different when they are performed. If you’ve done your job, every word you write has meaning, has life and movement. If you haven’t, the actors will stumble through the mayhem and stagger out the other side spewing more profanities than Samuel L. Jackson on a reptilian filled plane.
I’ve had several opportunities to be on set while my scripts were produced. Some experiences were fantastic, earning me a few gold stars and rainbows. Others, well let’s just say the stars were of the ninja variety. But I learned so much from each of these experiences, good and bad. The pacing, tone, and inflection from real people saying your lines proves that what you put on the page is not the end of the story.
Just think about the screenplay as a medium for a second. Scripts are not meant to be read; they are meant to be movies. You don’t “read” movies… Well, not good ones anyway. The characters do the action, say the dialogue, embody the subtext, and so on. Film is by nature a visual medium and a good script can be seen in the mind of anyone who reads it.
So, why do you need to hear the words?
Because eventually some actor is going to have to say your piss poor lines! They may sound great in your head, but I can guarantee you that your dialogue won’t sound like that out loud. For example, I had a line of dialogue that I slaved over more than the entirety of the rest of the scene. I was so proud of this little gem… until I sat down for the reading. The poor actor who got the line stumbled over it the first time, and the second, and took a deep breath before winding up for the third try.
Here’s a hint: if an actor has to go through multiple tries to say your line, it’s probably not their fault.
This line I had once prized as a beacon of my sparkling wit had me hiding behind my binder. I was mortified. Later, I went to the actor and worked out a much better line that they were able to get the first time around and the scene as a whole was better for it. Sometimes, we can become so fixated on a particular item or line or scene that other parts of our story begin to suffer for the sake of that one little ray of sunshine that’s probably not as great as we think it is.
But sometimes we can’t SEE the problem; we have to HEAR it.
Now, I understand that not everyone has access to actors to test out their work, but as long as you have a few buddies you can bribe with a 6-pack and a pizza, there is no reason you can’t hold a read-through. Get one person to read the action and divvy up the characters to the rest. Just make sure that you are not reading anything. Why? Because you’re taking notes! Wasn’t that the reason for this whole soiree?
Watch for things like awkward lines, pacing problems, reactions from the group. All of these things tell you more about the script than you could ever figure out by simply staring at the page. I’ve found from my own read-throughs that there might be a moment that is too buried to be useful or, conversely, one that should be toned down which would then highlight a hidden treasure. I’ve thrown out scenes, tweaked lines, and discovered new things about my own stories that I never saw before, all because the page was no longer flat but three-dimensional.
Use these readings to the fullest, and don’t hold one until you’re sure your work is ready to be seen. It’s nerve wracking enough to put your baby on display, and doing so prematurely is only asking for trouble. But no matter how painful it might seem, be sure to ask for feedback at the end. Trust me, it helps. Not everyone will be able to give you good notes on how to fix something, but they can certainly tell you when something isn’t working or when they want more of something else. Then it’s your job to use those insights to make your script even better.
Most importantly, and what’s really the fun part about all of this is, having actors or friends perform a reading or being on set as you work is filmed is an incredible reminder of why you’re writing in the first place. No one writes a script to be thrown into a drawer. You want to see your story outside of your own head. As soon as you hear your lines spoken, your characters have a voice, they become real.
Your story and characters step out from your imagination into reality.
Authors should do the same thing! Just because your words will be sent out in printed form doesn’t mean you can skirt this issue. As the reader takes i your words, they will be playing them out in their heads as their own personal movies, so it’s even more imperative that your characters sound like actual human beings… unless they aren’t human beings. Then, they should sound like non-human beings. But I digress. You should do this too!
Have an awesome day and happy writing!