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The Ten Page Test, Part 2

So I told you that stating your intent was probably the most important part of The Ten Page Test: if a Reader doesn’t know where you’re going with your story by page ten, then chances are they won’t read on. Why? Well – would you? Think about it: you have a veritable stack on your desk, plenty more where that came from and chances are you’ll have plenty to take home with you too. What’s a decent “cut off” point, a place where you can say, “If I don’t know by now what this story is going, chances are I never will“? Page ten, that’s where. So Beware.

And that’s what this biz is all about: chance. I’ve watched brilliant scripts blown out the water by overworked Readers, Execs and agents, just as I’ve seen piles of trash get their writers meetings with super deluxe media bigwigs and commissions on stuff I would pull my own teeth out to get on to. I’ve heard of writers get optioned, only to be chucked off their own script in a hostile takeover and the rewriter take the piece in a completely different direction; I’ve counselled rewriters who’ve been given the worst script in the world and told to make it good. In one week or else. In the words of those great 80s philosophers Tears for Fears, it’s a Mad World.

So if all this is going on, how important your script looks is pretty trifling.

Isn’t it?

No way. How your script looks in terms of format is important. You’re a spec writer, you have to line up round the block with everybody else. There’s nowt special about you; you’re one of many. Same goes for me and anyone else who’s offering up speculative work: Bang2write has some professional clients with acres of TV work and occasionally they will find themselves at the back of the queue. This is because all that’s actually special is what you can offer that agent, prodco, contest. And that is not limited to story alone.

There will be people who tell you that format doesn’t matter. Those are the people who want to eliminate further competition. As long as there are writers out there who overuse adverbs, NCI, break the four line rule and smudge black all over the page, there will be some scripts out there that look pristine and wonderful in comparison – no matter how shit their actual story is.

And guess what? Those pristine scripts will go to the top of the pile, every time. Why? They don’t take as long to read, for starters, so don’t give The Reader a headache. If that script has good format, then that script’s story – as crap as it might be – will be clearer, without a load of junk to distract the reader from it. It may sound surprising, but the longer your slugline, the more extraneous info you have in your scene description, the more words you use, the less coherent your script (and thus your story) becomes. The more stuff you shove in, the less interesting it becomes, since how is your Reader supposed to know which actions are important and which are throwaway? This will be why Readers “miss” some things. Less is more, as the old cliche goes.

There are kids on work experience out there reading our work. I know, ‘cos back in the mists of time, I was one of them. And I was harsh. At twenty, you’re barely out your teens; that judgmental quality follows you right out and up until you’re about twenty two or so and start to calm down, some even later. I learned the hard way; a very famous playwright came crying into the office one day and I was made to apologise for my coverage. I hadn’t said anything particularly hurtful, but I had been careless in my dismissal. It was then that I appreciated this was actually people’s dreams I was dealing with and it’s this notion that I try to build into the ethos behind Bang2write now. And it all worked out in the end; I even send the playwright in question a christmas card – and I get one back.

Sometimes, in-house policy is just as harsh. I recall at one place being asked to stack scripts in the “in” tray by thumbing through them first and making a judgement on the basis of “much black” there was. How arbitrary. Another agent wanted only to see scripts from people who had “bothered to do actual scriptwriting courses” so I had to look at CVs first. A producer I read for wanted all scripts with grammar or spelling mistakes in the first three pages eliminated from the pile.

So, when sending your work out, you can’t do much about certain whims of producers and agents; if you haven’t taken a scriptwriting course for example, there’s not a lot you can do. However, on all of the others you can take positive action. You can reduce black on the page. You can use visuals, instead of referencing characters’ thoughts. You can run a full spelling and grammar check.

Of course story should be the only thing that matters, but as long as there are a deluge of other writers out there, you have to compete. Even a small literary agent can expect in the region of thirty scripts to turn up a week, yet the likehood of taking on more than 5 new clients in a year is slim. This means your ten pages not only have to be tight in terms of intent, they’ve got to shiny and sparkly when it comes to format and description. Readers ARE looking for good format and sometimes, they don’t even care what your name is and/or how experienced you are. I freaked out about two years ago when a very well-known writer sent me his script. I wrote back and explained that I was sure I couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know; he told me not to be so daft and sent me the script anyway – he wanted to know why his script kept bouncing back from a particular prodco when he had had a previously good relationship with them. It turned out his script was written in Arial – as he had always done for 25 years – but that was the only thing “wrong” with it, it was a great script. Anyway, a little digging later and I discovered said prodco had a new Reader, straight out of uni, who was bouncing back all scripts unread that had “format issues”, including those written in Arial.

This is an extreme case of course, but put yourself in the Reader’s place: you’ve got two scripts. One is full of typos, format errors and black is all over the page -but the story is intriguing, though you know it’s going to take up to 2 hours to read it. The other is clean, pristine, with an average premise that you’ve read before, but you know you can read it in under an hour. Which one would you choose? Perhaps this is why average movies make it through to development? It’s a hard assertion to make, but being a fan of The Chaos Theory, from small decisions (Reader: I’m knackered, want to go home!) big acorns grow (yet another slasher pic, GROAN!).

So: is it worth the risk of ignoring format when your ten pages could be judged harshly in such a competitive environment? What is the alternative – plugging away until your story is seen for what it is, brilliant? What if that never happens? Personally, I think it’s a better idea to not get busted when it comes to format; either that or kill all other writers in order to get a better chance. But I just don’t have enough time…

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6 thoughts on “The Ten Page Test, Part 2”

  1. I do try and get the formatting and proofreading right. I’m not arguing against that. You might as well get it right. But given the choice between the two scripts you describe,I’d take the intriguing story every time.

    I spent a brutal month reading and critiquing scripts on TriggerStreet. With a few exceptions, they are ALL more or less well-formatted, usually with passable spelling and grammar, and not too much black stuff. But only one or two had intriguing stories.

  2. I would certainly hope so too, but Readers are only human like anyone else and sometimes make the wrong choice in their jobs. Now an intriguing story WITH proper formatting, grammar and spelling and WITHOUT too much black… That’s a different case altogether.

  3. I sympathise with the kid who threw out the Arial scripts – the first thing I think when I see an incorrectly formatted script is “Okay, this guy/gal hasn’t done their homework.”

    It immediately sets in my mind that they’ve also not bothered to learn storytelling craft… and mostly, they haven’t.

    But also… screenplays look neat. I like how they look. When you’re writing a novel, you’re on your own, just you and the page. But cast a glance at a terrible screenplay, and if it’s properly formatted, it looks like William fucking Goldman. That’s comforting when I’m not writing well.

  4. The intersting thing I’m discovering Oli is that this impetus on Format by younger Readers does not appear to have existed before the advent of the internet and the popularity of university screenwriting courses. I took it as red when I first started reading that all scripts were “supposed” to look a certain way, I was taught that way at uni after all – then I was met with incredulous stares from some hardcore scribes who’d been writing very successfully for TV and film for years and years, some before I was even born.

    So I guess it’s the post-millenium writers who’re “supposed” to format a particular way… As I’ve often said, commissioned scribes can do what they like generally, but as the Arial case demonstrates, even those Commissioned Scribes can fall foul of the dreaded format conventions from time to time when trying to get specs up and running. Readers look at the page in isolation.

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