How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 1: Read Scripts

November 7th, 2011 by

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!

With sites like myPDFscripts and SimplyScripts, you have access to – literally! – thousands of movie scripts. For free! So in all honesty, you have no excuse.

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.

13 thoughts on “How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 1: Read Scripts

  1. Jim Endecott says:

    Couldn’t agree more Scott.

    I read about three scripts a week. I wish I could read more but sometimes I get the feeling I am reading scripts so I don’t have to write mine so I pace myself.

    Just the other day I read The Thing (Lancaster’s 3/4/1981). The action lines are so tight and lucid. Such a great example. I keep that around just to look at it from time to time and to see how it’s done.

    Find a script that resonates with you, not the story so much but how the writer executed the story on the page, and hold on to it. It’s a great resource and motivator.

    We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here folks, just put different rims and a new tread on them.

    -Jim

  2. Nate Winslow says:

    I sort of wish I’d kept track of all the scripts that I’ve read, but I’d guess it’s somewhere around 700 give or take? And I always feel like I could be reading more: sleep, work or having to read too many bad scripts in one day are usually the things that stop me.

    I think the answer to the last question is exactly what you said in your post.

    Screenwriting has to be the ONLY creative medium in the history of the world where aspiring artists of said medium somehow think they don’t have to absorb copious examples of the craft.

    How many books does a novelist read in their lifetime on average? 5,000? 10,000? How many novels does an ASPIRING novelist read in their life? Probably barely less than that because most people spend their lives reading books anyways.

    To think that you can write screenplays without reading thousands of screenplays just makes me laugh. I read a lot of scripts for work, and most of the bad ones jump out at you by the end of the first page. And besides that feeling of horrible dread knowing that you have to read 110 more bad pages, the vast majority of mistakes in those screenplays read like they’re coming from someone who’s never read a screenplay.

    That’s so weird, Nate!!! I KNOW! Who would have thought?

    If a screenwriter thinks he can be better than the professional competition he’s facing without reading scripts, you’re not going to be a screenwriter. Sorry.

    A football player who wants to play in the Super Bowl but never watches football to study the game? Laughed off the field.

    A poet who’s never read a poem? Probably embarrassed in some elitist way by fellow poets.

    It’s bizarre that some aspiring screenwriters assume that they don’t fall into this category (and I think, especially compared to novelists, it’s because the blueprint they have to study isn’t widely available and already part of their lives. People read books their entire life. People do not read screenplays for homework assignments in 5th grade.) never cease to amaze me.

    End rant.

    But for those of us who have to read scripts and write coverage, please. Read screenplays. It’s better for both of us that way.

  3. ApproBAT says:

    * How many scripts have you read?
    Around 45 non-pro scripts via Triggerstreet.
    Around 25 pro scripts. I have tons saved, but most of them I’ve just skimmed or focused on a particular part for whatever reason.

    * Do you feel like you could be reading more?
    Of course. But with me it feels like I also could be writing more. Not enough hours in the day.

    * What holds you back from reading scripts?
    Time, not in the right mind state, other responsibilities and real life issues.

    * How do you think reading scripts can benefit you in learning the craft of screenwriting?
    I think you covered most of everything, but for me in particular at this point in my career is dialogue. How to go from realistic dialogue that’s closer to how people actually speak (fragments) and how I’d wish more people would speak (more focused and direct) to what people enjoy more with dialogue with memorable lines.

  4. daniel says:

    How many scripts have I read? Probably in the vicinity of 75.

    Do I feel like I could be reading more? Absolutely.

    What holds me back from reading more scripts? Well, like the saying goes, the last thing a gynecologist wants to do when he goes home to his wife is… yeah you get my point.
    But between finding time for writing, class, surfing, watching movies, television, reading novels (which can be quite valuable as well), and the necessary drink with the friends, I become ever grateful that it’s my job to read scripts.
    And not only read them, but cover them, which really gets me both that macro and micro education you were talking about Scott.
    And funny about dropping out of the world of academics for writing, I just declined my Masters of Environmental Health offer for a paid internship at Fox. But as Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

    Kudos Scott, I hope I’m not kicking myself a few years down the road.

  5. Annika says:

    @Scott, just yesterday I was going to pose a reader question asking for your take on the right balance of reading scripts, watching movies, and writing pages. Then I started rewriting the opening to one of my scripts and got all carried away and forgot. But I didn’t forget the realization that prompted the desire to send it the question.

    At the risk of sounding like one of those skinny people who complains that they can’t gain weight no matter what they eat, I write. In fact, I use writing as a way to procrastinate on things like picking up the mail or cleaning the baseboards or all those other things people do to procrastinate when they don’t want to write. I used to read and watch more, but for about six months now, the reading and even the watching have fallen by the wayside, so I’m starting to suspect writing so much might actually be hurting my writing.

    While it’s not an exact science, how do you balance reading/watching/writing. Do you prioritize? Follow a schedule or try to stay flexible? I’m going to guess it comes down to stopping even when you want to keep working on pages… but that seems, I dunno… hard to do right now!

    1. Scott says:

      Annika, seems to be some synchronicity at work because Part 4 of this series is about setting goals and that involves finding a balance between reading scripts, watching movies, writing pages, and all the rest. Look for that Thursday.

      Let me say that there are many variables. For example, I do not recommend reading scripts when you are deep into writing a first draft. That can negatively affect the writer by messing with their narrative voice.

      Also when you write a first draft, I do not recommend watching movies in the same genre you are writing, similarly not to mess with your tone.

      But more of this on Thursday.

  6. SK Tagore says:

    I wud’ve read 15+ scripts since my first visit to GITS. If I’d learned something about screen writing, that is only from GITS, ie when I understood the importance of reading scripts. Thanks again Scott.

    I surely do think that I must be reading more scripts per week. Its only coz of my lazyness I do not read scripts, (and Iam also bad in planning).

    How reading scripts benefit in learning the craft : Basically my mother tongue is not English. So I’ve a little problem in understanding some dialogue. Other than that what I learn from a script are scene breakdowns, plot points, character descriptions and developments.etc. Its a very gud exercise to read a screenplay and analyse it page by page. Helps a lot in writing my own script.

  7. Scott says:

    Let me add this: Every screenwriter goes through stages in their development. And there are some stages where it’s more important to read scripts than others.

    Clearly in the earliest stages — let’s call them ‘beginning’ and ‘intermediate,’ where a writer is just starting to immerse him/herself in the craft — that is the single most critical time to read scripts. I will have more to say on this Thursday.

    But even in ‘advanced’ or ‘professional,’ it’s beneficial to read scripts, most notably current spec scripts that sell and scripts for top movies that are produced each year. A great way of staying abreast of current writing style, sensibilities, and so on.

  8. I have only read like 10 or 11 full length scripts so far, I try to keep up with it , but it gets really hard really soon, since juggling like several things at once. My partner and I not only write but we produce content as well, and we both have full time jobs, so yeah reading one script watching couple movies a week sometimes feel like accomplishment.

    I really like to read the scripts though, It helps , and I learned a lot. Thanks to Scott, for having the “Script Reading and Analysis”, this actually motivates me to read at least one script a week.

    Cheers
    Mragendra

  9. Thor says:

    Great point Scott. I find myself putting off reading scripts more often these days even though I know I need to make the time to do it. Screenwriting seems to be a lot like building a house.

    A lot of our fathers probably thought that since they’d seen a lot of houses they could just make additions or build garages based on instinct instead of studying the blueprints for these houses. These projects rarely turned out as serviceable as a professionally built version. I know my dad’s didn’t. ;)

    It’s the same with movies. A lot of use see a film and think “I can do that” without studying the blueprints to see how it’s all put together.

    I know I’m guilty of doing this lately, and I need to make sure I’m diligent about studying the blueprints.

    Thanks again for the post, and for lighting a fire under my ass.

    Jeff

  10. I am an experienced prose writer (books, essays, articles) but very new to screenwriting – started my first course (through my MFA) just over a year ago, and am now fairly well advanced in my first (and, so far, only) screenplay. So I am very new to reading scripts – up to about 6 now, including Shakespeare in Love and Drag me to Hell – 5 of those within the last month.

    Reading scripts is not emphasized (in fact, barely mentioned!) in the program I am in (which, admittedly, offers introductory screenwriting courses within a multi-genre Creative Writing program). We do a lot of analysis of films, but not really looking at scripts at all.

    I find that you can analyse structure and plot points just fine from the films, without needing to refer to the script. But, now, as I am getting more comfortable with the genre, I am sure seeing the value of reading the scripts too.

    As a neophyte screenwriter, the value I am finding is in terms of formatting (getting used to the conventions, and also becoming introduced to unusual or unique options and examples of the breaking of the rules). And also, as a prose writer, in seeing the completely different writing style that screenwriters use – not worrying necessarily about full sentences, but becoming really good at visuals and at showing, rather than telling. And also, seeing different writers’ unique voices and styles – learning by example what I can do, how far I can (or cannot) push things.

    What holds me back? Ha ha, so much reading to do (all genres) and so little time! I haven’t even watched as many films as I know I should have, not to mention got to the scripts. And, as others have noted, I also need to be writing.

    BTW, I think the strong screenwriting emphasis on structure, and on showing not telling, is going to really help me with my prose writing too.

  11. Since I started in theatre (and still work in that format as well), I’ve read a lot more plays than screenplays – number of plays in the hundreds, screenplays more like 50. Since I’m just starting to get into screenwriting, I’m trying to read a script a day. That doesn’t always happen, but right now I’d say I’m at 3-5 per week on average.

    I haven’t written a single page yet. I’m currently working on concepts – I also try to come up with an idea a day that I post on a private blog – your concept a day post from April really inspired me, Scott! Next step is to work one of those concepts into an outline…but for now I’m finding reading scripts invaluable.

    For anyone new to reading scripts, my best lesson so far has been to read an early draft of a script and then a much later draft. Seeing what the writer changed and understanding why has really deepened my understanding of the craft. Best example so far has been the 1992 and 1997 drafts of “As Good As It Gets” – read them if you get a chance.

    1. Samantha – that’s a really good point. about reading earlier and later drafts. The two that I have done that for are 127 Hours and Black Swan, and it was extremely educational for me. (As well as made me feel far more positive about my own work… when you see the flaws in early drafts of scripts that still became great films!).

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