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How can an actor tell if a script is any good?

Photo: Shutterstock/Wave Break Media Photo: Shutterstock/Wave Break Media
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New writing presents exciting opportunities for actors, but it can also leave you with a flat character. Samantha Marsden shares her tips to help you identify whether you have found a role worth pursuing or a show that will leave the audience cold

If you’re an actor, being able to separate good writing from the bad is crucial to your career. Well written, multi-dimensional, complex characters are an actor’s best friend. Choose a project that’s badly written and it’s unlikely to give you something meaningful to work with, or draw an audience in. Choose a good one and it could help launch your career.

Selecting good work can be a minefield, especially if you have no training or experience in writing. Here are a few of the key questions to ask yourself when reading new work, whether it be for theatre, film or television.

Are all the scenes turning?

Every scene should move the story forward. If a scene has passed with no significant consequence for at least one character, then chances are it’s bad writing. Good writing will constantly move the story forward with events and reveals. It will also put high-value things at stake – such as love, freedom or justice.

Is there subtext?

Robert McKee, screenwriting lecturer and author of Story, asks actors: “Can you sense subtext? Are the characters saying out loud everything that’s going on in their minds? Or underneath dialogue and action, do you sense another dimension that the characters are thinking and feeling deeply, something they are not saying? That ‘deeper unsaid’ gives you the material to be an actor. If what the character is saying or doing is exactly what he/she is thinking, then you are just a puppet.”

Is the writing responsible?

Writing should tackle issues with sensitivity. New writing must be read with caution, as some writers have a dismaying world view, or others may not yet have mastered the art of storytelling and can have ethical problems within their script by accident.

Anything sexist, homophobic or racist, for example, is best avoided. Of course, scripts can feature characters with unpleasant world views, but ask how that character is being framed within the context of the story: does the writer appear to endorse their world view? If so, then you should back away.

Does each scene raise the stakes higher?

Every scene should build on the next, with the drama and stakes rising until it’s explosive for the audience. Shakespeare knew all about this. Towards the end of the script, the story, characters and drama should be climaxing. If there are twists in the story that don’t make you feel cheated, then that’s a good sign.

Has the writer held their cards back?

Robert Marsden, associate professor of theatre at Staffordshire University and writing teacher, explains what he believes to be important in playwriting: “A sense of mystery and surprise.”

He adds: “A writer shouldn’t reveal too much too soon. Characters reveal themselves by what they say and do (or don’t say and do). A script begins to work on my senses and imagination when I want to find out why the characters are behaving in the way that they are.

“If a script has too much exposition and characters reveal themselves through their dialogue explicitly and not through their actions or subtext, then I’m ahead of the script and therefore the story. Then I start switching off and head to put the kettle on.”

Is the dialogue strong?

Most people, especially actors, have a good ear for dialogue. If the dialogue feels believable, then it’s likely to be good. But one thing to watch out for here is the writers who use the same voice for every character. It might be good dialogue, but if the same voice is used for every character then it’s not good writing. Each character should speak with their own voice that rings 100% true.

Is the script unique?

Dom O’Hanlon, commissioning editor of plays at Methuen Drama, explains: “A great play to me is one where the writer’s unique voice is able to shine boldly through their chosen form. It’s often clear with new writers when they’re trying to write like someone else or write to a very specific brief.

“Often writers are becoming preoccupied with what they ‘should’ write or what stories they ‘should’ be telling and this threatens to stifle creativity. The best plays I read daily from new writers are those that contain ambition, grit and a sense of daring that grabs you from start to finish. They may not be structurally perfect or completely watertight, but it’s that ambition that stands out to me.”

Are the characters complex?

Characters need to be multi-dimensional and the more dimensions they have the better.

If a character displays internal/external contradictions, it’s likely the writer knows what they are doing. For example, if the character comes across as an arrogant, successful football manager, but on the inside they are insecure with fears of never being good enough, that would be a simple example of internal/external conflict.

Also look out for characters written with internal conflicts, as these will serve the actor well. For example, a lady may want to be the chief executive of a big company to impress her father, but at the same time she may want all the employees to like her. Cue internal conflict as it’s unlikely she can have both. Good writing won’t explicitly say the characters’ internal conflict, but it will have woven it into the action of the script. A talented writer knows to reveal true character through action, rather than through what they, or others, say about them.

Look out for the characters with internal/external contradictions and deep internal struggles, as these will be the characters that allow you to shine as a performer.

Do you trust the writer?

A writer has to create a believable world for the audience to trust the work. That trust can be easily broken if there’s an unbelievable contradiction within the world, so keep an eye out for this red flag.

Caroline Jester, author of Fifty Playwrights on Their Craft, explains what she believes makes a great play: “One that acknowledges its relationship with its audience, one that understands that it would not exist as a play without an audience. And one that has earned the trust of that audience to be taken on a journey into places they haven’t been to before.”

Did you want to keep reading?

If you want to keep reading the script, then chances are you are on to a winner. Trust your instinct when it comes to new writing. If it emotionally engages you, then it’s likely to emotionally engage an audience, too.