There are no hard and fast rules of screenwriting (formatting rules aside), but there are a number of key factors that readers look at to determine whether or not your script will be worth the full read within minutes of picking it up. Ray Morton of Script Mag has listed out the 12 key signs of a promising script:
Professional script readers will often claim that they can tell if a screenplay is going to be good or not after reading just a few pages. This is true – for me, anyway.
Granted, I can’t assess every single nuance of a script’s story in just five or ten or pages, but by assessing twelve specific elements, I can tell if the story, characters, and dialogue have potential and if the writer has the ability to pull off whatever it is she/he is attempting. Here are those twelve elements – those twelve signs of a promising spec:
1. The script is short – between 90 and 110 pages: The average length of a feature film is between 100 and 120 minutes (yes, I know that a lot of modern movies run longer than two hours, but those films are usually the result of self-indulgent directors abusing their right to final cut and does not reflect a desire on the part of the industry at large to make longer movies – studios and theater owners still prefer pictures to be two hours or less so that they can screen them as many times a day as possible and so want screenplays sized accordingly. Besides, as we all know, more often than not there’s nothing in the narrative content of these overlong films that warrant their excessive length — for most, the extreme running time usually hurts the story, especially the pacing, rather than helps it). Given that one page of screenplay usually takes about a minute to unfold on screen (heavy action usually takes a little more time to play out; dialogue a little less), this means that a spec script should run somewhere between ninety and one hundred-twenty pages, with the industry’s current preferred average being one hundred-ten. If a script runs longer than one hundred-twenty pages, that tells me the writer doesn’t know the industry standards or, worse, thinks that he/she is an exception to them. It also tells me that the script will more than likely be overwritten, unfocused, poorly structured, and/or poorly paced, as these are the usual causes of an overlong screenplay. If, however, a spec is one hundred-twenty pages or less, then I know the writer has paid attention to industry strictures, but (more importantly) has figured out how to focus, structure, edit, and pace his/her story so that it can play out in the proper amount of time.