Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Transcribe Screenplays

April 13th, 2011 by
Perhaps you’ve heard stories about how a young Felix Mendelssohn transcribed note for note musical scores by Johann Sebastian Bach, just to get the feel of how Bach wrote music.

And about how F. Scott Fitzgerald transcribed the novels of writers he admired such as Charles Dickens to get the feel of their writing.

Well, why not do that with screenplays?

If you’re struggling with any of the following:

* How to handle scene description
* How to manage transitions between scenes
* How to balance action and dialogue within scenes
* How much scene description is too much / too little
* How to write realistic dialogue
* How to use primary sluglines and secondary sluglines
* How to write series of scenes, series of shots, and montages

Sure, you can read great screenplays. But what about typing them – word for word?

In my never-ending quest to accumulate screenplays of my favorite movies, I commented in one of my screenwriting classes that I couldn’t find a script online for my all-time favorite movie To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Some months later, I received a PDF of the script. One of my students had purchased a hard copy of the script. Then typed it up word for word in Final Draft. Made a PDF of it and sent it to me. And here’s the thing: She had quite positive comments about the transcription process, noting she felt like she understood the story much better having typed it out word for word than before.

Quite a learning experience!

Besides if it worked for Mendelssohn and Fitzgerald, don’t you think it could work for you, too?

This has been another edition of Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.

[Originally posted September 3, 2009]

15 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Transcribe Screenplays

  1. Mr. Bootles says:

    I haven't tried transcribing screenplays, but I used to outline films by scene and dramatic action. I found it very helpful for learning structure.

    Example:
    EXT. BARBERSHOP – DAY
    Max meets Mr. Blume and offers him a gift; either his "Perfect Attendance" or "Punctuality" pin. Mr. Blume picks Punctuality.
    INT. BARBERSHOP – DAY
    Max introduces Mr. Blume to his father.

    I often wondered if doing this kind of exercise via notecards would allow you to restructure your favorite films more tangibly.

    Food (probably more like snacks) for thought,

    Mr. Bootless

  2. Jack Dawe says:

    It would be even better if you could transcribe great screenplays IN ANOTHER KEY. If not play them on the piano in several keys at once –

  3. Scott says:

    @Mr. Bootles: You may like this site.

    @Jack: That's interesting. Maybe switching a key in a screenplay would be switching genre? Imagine The Godfather as a horror movie or Casablanca as science fiction.

  4. Teddy Pasternak says:

    I've never tried this, but how about transcribing a movie into screenplay form, including dialogue, scene descriptions et al, by watching the DVD and then comparing it to the original screenplay and see how far off you got. Lots of work but would make an interesting exercise.

  5. Mr. Bootles says:

    Jack,

    I have found that while creating these kinds of blueprints, I could easily turn them into comedies.

    Scott,

    Thanks for the lead on the site! It is now bookmarked!

    M. Bootles

  6. Mr. Bootles says:

    Teddy,

    Though I haven't done that, I do enjoy shooting scripts much more than transcripts. It can be very interesting to see what is sacrificed and/or created through the process.

    M. Bootles

  7. Annika W says:

    I started to do this once, after reading that Hunter S. Thompson typed The Great Gatsby 7 times to get a feel for Fitzgerald's writing. Wonder if he knew F. Scott had done the same for Dickens, kind of like a genetic code being passed down.

  8. jjg says:

    I did that with "Chinatown." Learned more from that one script than several classes.
    Idea for the site: Post excellent examples of.. scene description, action sequences, etc. Then we plebes can type them word for word.

  9. James says:

    I did this with several scripts that were in RTF format. (TRUE LIES, TERMINATOR 2, ALIENS, couple others). Threw them into Final Draft to see where they'd fall in page count.

    I've also done outlines that have broken down certain movies shot for shot. I did this more for directing than screenwriting though. The opening of RAIDERS is one I dwelled on for a long time.

    It's also one I've pretty much internalized as a script. I love the structure of that opening. (It's also mirrored in Indy 3. Pretty close in INDY 2. And completely offtrack in INDY 4 — as in INDY 4 doesn't have a very Indiana Jones opening).

    I also have heard of some screenwriting instructors playing a scene for students and then having them write the scene from memory. One of the scenes in particular was from THE GODFATHER where Brando tells Michael about the family business, and what his hopes and aspirations for his son had been. It's a pretty talking head scene, which is what I find interesting about that exercise.

    I'm not so sure the swapping genre thing is the best thing to do, in terms of learning how to write tight little scenes.

    Each genre puts a unique impression on every scene.

    The practice of copying is to learn how those before you handled their genre. To copy, while altering seems like it has the potential to muck things up.

    (And I'm not talking about cutting trailers here. I think there's a lot to learn genre swapping trailers.)

    But creating/writing scenes, and tone, in a given genre is a rather difficult thing. You should practice learning the genre you want to write in inside and out before you go around flopping the genres.

    The ability to write in a specific genre is something that I see lacking in almost every single spec script I have to read.

    The irony is, it is probably the one thing that will quickly set a pro writer apart from an amateur.

    Each genre has its own structure. It's not a formula. But the feel and tone dictates genre, as much as character dictates plot.

  10. Nick West says:

    I'm totally going to do this.

  11. ascribe says:

    @Nick West–me too

  12. Sojourner says:

    "…or Casablanca as science fiction."

    Pluto Nash beat us to it.

  13. Scott says:

    @jig: File your idea under "Great Minds Think Alike." I ran series of weekly posts for about a year called Scene Description Spotlight. You can see the posts here.

  14. mattd_85 says:

    I recently transcribed a produced screenplay and found it to be a really rewarding process. It really helped me to get a feel for how action/description should be written, I suddenly feel like I have a grasp on brevity and writing effective action that creates an image… Something I struggled with before. That coupled with the experience of hand writing a first draft of a feature, which made me stop and consider every word rather than just bashing the keyboard, and I feel like I’ve improved as a writer.

    1. Scott says:

      Thanks for that, Matt. I’ve transcribed scripts myself, early on in learning the craft. The point about considering “every word” as you noted? Once you reach final draft stage, that is a good mentality to have. Make sure each word counts.

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