In screenwriting, you are the God of the universe you’ve created in your pages.
You understand how the world works — its laws and machinations — and you have an intimate knowledge of your characters, because you gave birth to each one.
And because you poured your soul into those words and reshaped them time and again until a gorgeous work of art emerged, you likely no longer see the challenges or opportunities that yet run through those pages.
This is the perfect moment for a table read, whether a group of friends or classmates who can bring different perspectives to your screenplay. The latter is the point of Raindance Toronto’s Screenwriting Foundation Certificate, Level Two.
For the uninitiated, the table read is much as it sounds: writers sitting around a table, reading your pages aloud, portraying your characters, delivering your dialogue; your movie but without the picture. And your job, as the writer, is to simply sit there and listen; taking notes as insights arise, but otherwise offering no feedback on the read.
Mind you, when I write “simply sit there”, there is little simple about that act.
Then, once the reading is done, each of your readers has the opportunity to share his or her thoughts on what they read. What aspects of the pages really resonated for them? What bumped, whether it left them uncertain about something or they simply didn’t believe the story? And perhaps the most important question, did the pages leave them with a desire to read more?
And just as when your pages were being read live, your job as the writer is to simply sit there and take notes.
You’re not here to defend your work, but rather to understand it better, to gain insights on how it is interpreted and received. This isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — personal. This is about improving your craft, your art, by experiencing it through the eyes and mouths of others.
And even if you don’t feel the feedback was particularly helpful or useful — perhaps especially when — you simply say thank you, and mull over the feedback later.
By this point, you may be wondering why you would ever submit yourself to this form of torture. Why would you willingly and purposefully play Abraham to your screenplay’s Isaac?
It is a test of the purity of your intent, of your willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, of your desire to be a better writer.
And honestly this trial brings many rewards.
You created this world so you know exactly what everything means, how everything fits together. That does not mean, however, that you’ve written this on the page.
Hearing your pages read aloud will highlight any gaps of logic or meaning, if only in the hesitations or misunderstandings of your readers, and ultimately in the questions arising in their feedback.
To you, it may feel like you’re being asked to explain the existence of air, but this screenplay is not your readers’ home world. To understand your world, they may need to understand the concept of air.
2. Awkward/confusing wording
Often, the written word looks fine but the minute you try to say a phrase aloud, it tongue-ties the speaker, or it simply doesn’t make sense.
How we write and how we speak are two very different things, even if we ignore grammar. This is obviously more important in the dialogue, but anything that slows down, complicates or confuses a reading is a potential show-stopper.
Cleaning these up can be invaluable to your hopes of getting your screenplay through competitions or filmmaking gate-keepers.
I am a firm believer that in the best written screenplays, you could remove the character names from the dialogue and we would still know what lines are spoken by the same individual.
A major challenge of screenwriting is that you are typically a single individual trying to speak with many voices and personalities. Hearing those voices spoken by others will immediately tell you how well you have done that.
At the very least, you will learn when two or more characters use the same phrases or patois. Does each character speak with a unique voice?
More deeply, how well does a character’s speech reflect where they are emotionally/psychologically in the moment or as they arc across the story? This aspect may be limited by whether this is a cold (aka first-time) read or you have a novice reader, but the information is there for the listening.
In your head, you may have written an action-packed sequence, but hearing the action read aloud quickly tells you how ponderous or active your descriptions truly are.
Have you completely over-choreographed a fight sequence such that the reading becomes tedious? Are you micromanaging your characters such that any flow of dialogue is disrupted by relatively trivial notes to pick up a coffee cup or cock an ear?
Alternatively, have you written a series of “talking head” scenes that seem fine on the page but could be absolutely boring on screen? Remember, you’re writing a SCREENplay, not a RADIOplay.
Ultimately, storytelling is about the feelings it evokes in the readers and audience, so how well have you accomplished this?
Even in the coldest of cold reads, you will likely begin to hear how your screenplay is impacting the readers. As they begin to understand the characters and the unfolding events, see the stakes and feel empathy, they will imbue their reading with that emotion or tension. If you know a particularly tense or emotional moment is coming and it never arrives, that is your cue to look at that scene.
And if you’re writing a comedy — or didn’t know you were writing a comedy — where are the laughs? Do your jokes land? Did laughter occur at an unexpected moment (this can be good or bad)?
Trial by fire burns
Whether in the table read itself or in the feedback that follows, hearing these challenges (and successes) can feel crippling (and exhilarating). It is a vital step, however, in giving your screenplay its greatest opportunity.
And quite honestly, it is fun.
In my experience, leading Raindance Toronto’s Screenwriting Foundation Certificate, Level Two, you will discover a supportive network of writers who not only want to improve their skills, but also want you to succeed. It’s kinda what Raindance is all about.
Randall C Willis is an award-winning screenwriter based in Toronto. Randall is part of the writing team that produced the sketch comedy TV special Some TV!, and co-wrote several theatrical comedy shows staged across the city. Randall’s specialty is story and his ability to help writers develop both their ideas and their unique voices. He has brought those skills to bear with the Austin Film Festival, where he has served as Second Round Reader, and in his story analysis & editing business <a href=”http://sowhatsyourstory.ca/”>So, What’s Your Story?</a>