You may remember a 1967 movie How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Here is the IMDB plot summary:
Twenty-seven year old New York window washer J. Pierpont Finch believes he can be a success in the corporate world after he impulsively picks up the book “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”. The book promises its reader that he can climb the corporate ladder simply and quickly. The Worldwide Wicket Corporation, the business in the office building whose windows he washes, is, according to the book, the perfect type of business. There, he meets secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who sees in Ponty, as she calls him, an unassuming man whom she believes the corporate world will eat alive. But Ponty, memorizing what the book tells him, does quickly climb the corporate ladder, but not by doing any real work.
Ah, if only learning the craft of screenwriting was so easy. It’s not. Despite all the products in the marketplace promoting “proven systems” and “secret formulas,” there is only one way to become proficient at the craft: You have to really try. That is the only legitimate path to success as a screenwriter.
This week I’d like to present to you five things you can do to help you learn the craft of screenwriting and put you in a position to succeed. They are completely free. They don’t require anything at all except this — your time, commitment, focus and effort.
In other words, by really trying.
Can it help to read books, attend seminars and take screenwriting classes? Absolutely, I wouldn’t have co-founded Screenwriting Master Class if I didn’t think Tom Benedek and I could help mentor writers in what it takes to write and approach the craft like professional screenwriters. But no matter what you learn in any formal setting or through your own ad hoc approach to educating yourself about the craft, these five practices I’m presenting to you this week are important and should be an essential part of your learning process.
Part 1: Read Scripts
I’m sure you’ve seen me harp on this point often, so I will grant you it is not some new, revelatory insight, but it deserves its place at the top of the list. Moreover I’d like to take this opportunity to delve more deeply than I have before into what I think are some of the key benefits from reading scripts on a regular basis.
* A bit of personal history. Originally I was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic in Biblical studies and the Patristics era. During my seven years of study at U.Va. and Yale, I read a ton of what is known as primary sources, that is material closest to a person, place, time, etc. In my case that meant I did a lot of reading in Greek and Latin, canonical and non-canonical texts, letters and treatises by the early church fathers, and so on. That process gave me an incredibly valuable lesson: There is nothing equivalent to the direct experience of the reader engaging him/herself with primary source material. Critical analysis and interpretation by other writers and scholars is valuable, but there is something unique and special about connecting in an immediate way with the original content.
So, too, with screenplays. There is no way to duplicate the direct experience you have cracking open a script, starting at FADE IN and working your way through a story all the way to FADE OUT. The script may suck, the script may be marginal, the script may be great, but in each case there is a type of learning you can not duplicate any other way than by engaging a story in the immediate way you do by reading it.
* If your goal is to write great scripts, doesn’t it make sense you should be reading them? I mean doesn’t that just seem logical? Novelists read thousands of novels. Poets read thousands of poems. Songwriters listen to thousands of songs. Somehow this principle doesn’t apply to screenwriting? Of course it does! It stands to reason the more scripts you read, the more you will come to understand the craft.
* But how does reading scripts translate into that understanding? It works on a variety of levels. There is the micro level whereby, for instance, you can read a script and create a scene-by-scene breakdown. You can dig deeper into the story by doing a major plot point analysis. You can see how the script works per its sequences. You can study how the writer handles each scene. You can dissect their use of dialogue, themes, pacing, style, narrative voice, and on and on. You can surface all sorts of wisdom by drilling down into each script and its component parts.
* There is also a macro level of learning that comes from reading multiple scripts, a type of Gestalt learning. Gestalt is a German word for ‘form’ or ‘shape.’ In English, we use it to refer to the concept of ‘wholeness.’ How this applies to reading scripts: The more scripts you read, you just start to ‘get’ things, you begin to grasp the holistic nature of story as conveyed in screenplay form. The same subject areas you study in each individual script — character, plot, dialogue, theme, pace, style — you can learn in a macro way through the experience of reading many, many scripts, thereby accumulating a Gestalt sense of story.
I’m sure there is some cognitive scientist out there who can explain this phenomenon, all I know is that at some point in my own personal immersion into the craft, it all just started to click. So when I work on my own stories or consult with writers on theirs, and I can see a problem arising in Act III from something they’ve just said about a character in Act I, the ability to make that link is a result of reading scripts (along with other aspects of learning which I’ll get into the rest of this week).
* Per that word “immersion,” if there is a talisman for this series of posts, it’s that. It’s not just about learning how to write a screenplay, it’s about immersing yourself in the world of screenwriting. There is a difference. You can know how to write a screenplay, but not succeed as a screenwriter. A screenwriter needs to be versed in scripts, movies, writing, Hollywood and an entire culture of film. Reading scripts is an essential aspect of that culture. Everybody who’s anybody in the script acquisition and development process in Hollywood reads scripts. From intern to head of production. In some ways, it’s the lifeblood of the movie business. If they are reading 200+ scripts a year, shouldn’t you? It is a critical part of your immersion process.
* Finally there’s finding your voice. Every script by every writer has its own style, its own take on format, its own approach to pacing and handling scenes, its own unique feel and tone. What better way to expose yourself to a variety of approaches than by reading a wide selection of scripts? Invariably what will happen is you will pick up something from this writer, then another something from that writer. You will play around with them in your own writing, tweaking and twisting, eventually making them into your own. You engage in this creative dance — imitation, recreation, adaptation — and in combination with your own life-experience, creativity, and inherent approach to storytelling, you develop your own distinctive voice.
If I had to guess, I would say reading scripts is probably the weak link for most aspiring screenwriters. They do a pretty good job watching movies, they ply their trade writing pages, but reading scripts? I’ll bet that’s the first thing that slips off the to-do list.
And that is why I’m trying to lead by example here on GITS. We have our weekly Script To Screen series, which allows you the chance to compare what is written on the script page to how it gets translated onto the screen. Then there is the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series. This was something that arose from the GITS community. In all honesty after 25 years in the business, do I really need to be reading movie scripts? Probably not. But I’m committed to doing it. Why? Because that’s how important I believe reading scripts is. Besides I’m still learning the craft, so I’d better practice what I preach!
How to succeed at screenwriting? You need to really try. And your first step should be to read scripts.
A few questions for you:
* How many scripts have you read?
* Do you feel like you could be reading more?
* What holds you back from reading scripts?
* How do you think reading scripts can benefit you in learning the craft of screenwriting?
Tomorrow in Part 2: Watch movies.