At a recent meeting of a writers group, we were doing table-reads of our screenplays in order to critique and improve our writing. One of the participants was less than enthusiastic, lamenting that this would be better done on a computer before coming to the meeting. So, was he correct? Why do we read out loud?
There are certainly some advantages to reviewing a written work alone, quietly on your computer. This is especially true if your primary focus is finding typos and checking format. Format, especially in spec screenplays, is critical and is a moving target. If you get the chance, read the screenplay of William Goldman’s classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It would never make it past the first studio reader nowadays.
But there is more to a screenplay than format.
Unlike a novel, which exists only on the printed page, a screenplay is not the finished product. The words on that page are meant to be heard. When we do hear them, we garner at least four advantages.
First, written English is not the same as spoken English. What may read OK, may sound wooden or artificial when spoken. Listen for the rhythm and flow of the dialog. Also, if your readers give the wrong inflection or show the wrong emotion, it may be that your intention was not clear.
Second, we become aware of whether we have really created characters, or if it is just our own voice coming through. In his book The Story Solution, screenwriter and professor Eric Edson writes about the need for dialogue to come out of the lives, joys and pains of unique characters. He advises that during a table read: “Do not read any parts yourself. Just sit and listen. Say nothing, defend nothing….If your dialogue comes out sounding like all the characters speak and think in the same way, then there’s more work to be done.”
Next, we overcome the illusion of perfection. When we read something we’ve written, our brain can play a trick on us – we read it and see what we meant to write, not what we actually wrote. Hearing something out loud, makes us really conscious of what we’ve put on the page.
Lastly, and very importantly, you gain the wisdom of the crowd. When one person tells you something is wrong or confusing, you might think, “Oh, they just don’t get it.” When most of the people around a table miss something, laugh at the wrong place, or otherwise are not in harmony with your vision, it’s time to re-think what you’ve written.
Having enjoyed or endured the table read, you then have several tasks. Accept the good ideas and incorporate them into your next draft. Revise areas that may have caused confusion or that did not create the desired effect. And, the hardest, delete the things that just didn’t work. Then, smile and keep on writing.