Why Live Reads Matter
by Tim Schildberger
Live reads are an incredibly important part of the writing process – and an incredibly underused resource.
Let’s be clear – hearing a robot voice on your screenwriting software is not an effective live read. Getting your spouse, your cousin, and the next-door neighbor’s kids to gather in your living room and have a crack at acting is a big improvement on the robot, but it’s still not super effective.
When I talk about live reads, I mean professionally trained actors giving you the best they have so you can hear a version of your script that actually helps identify strengths and weaknesses. Organizing such an event isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t live in Los Angeles, and that’s why we’ve made the live read a core component of Write/LA.
Now that we’re on the same page, here are five reasons you should take advantage of every opportunity to hear your words read aloud in front of an audience.
This one’s easy – hearing your script read by great actors will save you time, because in the space of however long it takes to read your script, you’ll identify most of the good bits, and all of the bad.
If your script is over 120 pages long, there’s your first lesson – it’ll get dull.
If you’ve indulged your inner novelist by falling in love with flowery descriptions or included too many detailed costume choices, the person reading your screen directions will dominate, and it’ll get dull. And a little awkward.
If you’ve put one too many flashbacks into your dream sequence, your reading will get confusing, which means your script is confusing.
With a live read, you won’t need to wait months for an agent to get around to reading it. Hearing it will make all the areas that still need work obvious in one evening. Time saved.
The reason a robot voice doesn’t cut it is because it’s a robot – no interpretation, no unique spin, no skills poured into the reading. Actors are people, and people can show you things about your characters, your pacing, your scene structure, and your story that a robot can’t.
Good actors give you something you can’t possibly give yourself. Hearing them bring the people you’ve created in your head to life is a precious gift during the writing process. For good and for bad.
A live read is an opportunity for improvement. Don’t just sit there and let it all flow over you. Analyze as you go. Sure, it’s great if a joke makes you laugh or a dramatic moment gives you the feels – but try to hear it as the rest of your audience does. Pay attention to their reactions as much as your own.
Do the scenes follow each other organically? Does the story make sense? Is there momentum, or are there moments where the whole thing lags? Is the lead character driving the action or constantly reacting?
You should certainly enjoy the good moments and identify your script’s highs – just don’t avoid the lows. And don’t get lost in the dialogue. It’s important to listen to what’s being said, but it’s equally important to see if you’re actually telling a compelling story. Sometimes, witty lines can cover story cracks. It’s your job to hear the cracks.
And by the way, if you’re writing comedy and you get laughs, that doesn’t always mean the script is working. It may just mean you write funny jokes. Understand the difference.
After the reading, get feedback from the actors about the person/people they were playing. Maybe they didn’t understand a decision. Maybe there was a line of dialogue that didn’t fit – who knows? You won’t if you don’t ask questions after the reading.
The same goes for friends/other writers in the audience. See if you can get another opinion in the room, and make sure you listen. You don’t necessarily need to agree with what’s said, but you do need to hear it. Understand that difference, and you’ll get genuine value from hearing not only the reading but the feedback that follows.
You finished a script. Beginning, middle, and end. You’ve given actors something to dig their teeth into. Make sure you take a moment to appreciate all that you have accomplished. Whether this draft sucks or not, celebrate. You committed time, mental energy, and self-discipline to actually completing something. Hearing it performed by actors is something to be proud of.
For a moment. Then get back to work.
Take every chance you can to hear your words read aloud by skilled voices. There is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain. A live read is a gift – it’ll save you time, give you insights into the inner-workings of your structure, characters, and dialogue, and provide a moment to acknowledge all you have accomplished. Make the most of it, and your script will improve dramatically.