Interview with script consultant Linda Seger

One of the many delights of the St. John’s International Women’s Festival was the opportunity to spend time with Linda Seger, script consultant and author of numerous books on my reference shelf on script writing, adaptation and character development.

I took the opportunity to do a short interview with Linda on her process of reading scripts.

What are you looking for when you read a script?

Focus. I’m reading to see what this story is really about. At times, writers feel a need to fill their scripts with too many issues, characters and themes and it is difficult to grasp the essence of the script. When that happens, I look to the climax of the script. The focus should be there.

I also am looking for the best scenes of the script. That gives me a very clear idea of what the writer is capable of. There’s no sense using an Academy Award winner as a model if the writer hasn’t got the chops at this time. I use the best scenes as the way to encourage a writer.

I have had situations where the writer disagrees about the best scenes. One time I read the first three pages of a script and they were some of the best comedy writing I had ever come across. However, the writer veered away from that wonderful humour and went to some dark places which is where she wanted to focus. I found that part of the script less original, but that’s what she wanted, so my job was to focus on her desire.

I am also of course looking for structure-making sure that there are arcs, acts and scenes that make sense to the overall theme of the script.

I’ve read that if a script doesn’t sing in the first 15 pages, it is in trouble.

That is certainly true in a finished film. But as a script consultant, I’m looking for wherever the script works. If it doesn’t work until the last 10 pages, then I’ll try and pull everything up to that level. Sometimes writers don’t really start soaring until well into the script. Often the beginning, in early drafts, is filled with a very long set up and so we have to address that.

Certainly,the context of the world needs to be clear from the outset of the piece. For instance, in Romero about the Latin American priest, the producer presumed we knew about the priest and what he had accomplished. Some of my work included using the first 5-10 pages to establish the character and place him in a context so there wouldn’t be confusion for the rest of the film.

What is the one lesson writers can learn?

Probably that script writing is both a craft and an art. There’s a mistaken belief that if you take one script writing class, you are ready to write a script. Writing is a very complex process – like dancing or any art form that has technique you need to master. Learning all about the craft – structure, images, and integrating scenes is the most crucial part of being a script writer. However, you need to move on from craft to art and that requires going deeper into the character, the themes and images. You have to keep writing to find your individual voice.

How do you suggest people go deeper into character?

Observe people. Have a journal where you jot down characteristics of people you see anywhere, your family members, or outrageous characters that you meet in your daily life. Real people provide you with the material for the many details that make characters in scripts fascinating.

What are your favourite films?

I think of Amadeus and Shindler’s List as the big gems and Stand by Me as the little gem. I’m always looking for films which go deeper both in theme and character. I also admire Witness since I have a personal connection to the people who wrote it. As well, my husband sort of proposed to me in the barn-raising scene, so it is very special to me.

Linda Seger is the author of 12 books including nine on screenwriting. She’s given seminars in 32 countries around the world and consulted on over 2,000 scripts.

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