Keys to the Craft: Read Scripts

November 28th, 2012 by

If you want to learn the craft of screenwriting, here are five practices you need to adopt:

Think Concepts. Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. Live Life.

Monday, I wrote about Think Concepts.

Yesterday: Watch Movies.

Today: Read Scripts.

Look, I get it. I know you don’t like to read scripts. I experience a monthly reminder of this every time we do a GITS Script Reading & Analysis where it’s largely empty echoes, whistling winds and tumbling tumbleweeds around these here parts.

I’m pretty damn sure you don’t want to hear me yammer on about this subject.


Why? Because there may be no single more important practice to learn the craft of screenwriting than reading scripts.

* Classic scripts: A great place to start: The WGA 101 list. For a wider range, there are sites like SimplyScripts.

* Spec scripts: It behooves you to read and analyze spec scripts that have sold within the last year or two in order to stay on top of narrative and stylistic trends.

* Any scripts: Unproduced, even bad ones. You can learn something from all scripts, even amateur ones.

When you read scripts on a regular basis, you start to intuit narrative patterns. You pick up a sense of how to write scenes. You mature your ear for dialogue. You see a variety of different writing styles. You get ideas of your own. You learn how the pros do it. And in the case of recent selling spec scripts, you track what Hollywood is buying.

There is real value in reading scripts.

And now it’s time to bore you with an Old Fart story.

Before I wrote the spec script K-9, I read four things: Syd Fields book “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,” and three scripts: Witness, Back to the Future and Breaking Away.

Apart from having seen thousands of movies in my lifetime and a couple of cinema courses at UVA, that was the extent of my screenwriting education.

When Universal bought K-9 and I officially broke into the business, I knew I had a lot of catching up to do if I had any chance of staying in the business.

One thing I did: Get my hands on every script I could to read and analyze.

Now back in those days, there were no PDF scripts. The Internet was orange juice cans, a series of tubes, duct tape and dial-up modems powered at 28.8 bps.

If you wanted to find a script, you had to go out and search for it. Physically. Like actual feet on ground, hand to hand.

My main resources: Assistants and writers. The former I sweet talked for the latest specs and production drafts. The latter like a cult, meeting at coffee shops and street corners, swapping scripts like semi-holy relics. Once I got hold of an actual screenplay, I had to take it to a Kinko’s and have it copied, then return the original.

Okay, there was no trudging five miles through thick snow, fending off wolves. But still, do you have any idea what a pain in the ass that was?

Cut to today where you can find almost any script you want online with a few keystrokes.

So if there’s an edge to my post today, it’s this: Writers today have it so easy. Therefore why is it so hard to get them read scripts?

Needless to say, I will continue with my yammering.

Read. Scripts. Damn. It.

Tomorrow: Write Pages.

Comment Archive

21 thoughts on “Keys to the Craft: Read Scripts

  1. “Look, I get it. I know you don’t like to read scripts. I experience a monthly reminder of this every time we do a GITS Script Reading & Analysis where it’s largely empty echoes, whistling winds and tumbling tumbleweeds around these here parts.”

    “There is real value in reading scripts.”

    When you’re right, you’re right. Damn it. Buuut–I have to be choosy about when I read someone else’s work, or else the self-loathing, “I have no talent compared to _____” sets in.

    So, for the sake of my writing self-esteem, I’ll binge script-read before I start a new project. Never during.

    1. Scott says:

      Two things, Traci. Totally agree reading exceptional scripts can, over time, be a bit debilitating. But I find you can balance that out with inspiration. It’s like that quote from Ted Elliott:

      “When I hear aspiring screenwriters who talk about, ‘Yeah, I saw Godzilla and it was terrible. I can write better than that.’ My feeling about that is, no, go watch The Godfather or Casablanca or Ghostbusters, and say, ‘Holy crap! That was great, I want to write something that good!’ If you look at a movie and say, ‘That’s crap, I can do better,’ then basically all you’re trying to do is write crap plus one. It’s far better to try to write the best thing you’ve ever seen, because at least you’re aspiring to a higher level.”

      Second thing, and I’m glad you mentioned it, I do NOT recommend reading scripts in the SAME GENRE of what you are writing when you are writing it. Don’t want that cross-pollination, potentially pollution, with your creative process.

  2. Here’s my problem. I’m a persnickity little bastard when it comes to reading scripts. If it’s not one that I feel is in my wheelhouse (i.e. comedy, horror, adult drama) I more or less shun it. If I had any sense at all, I would do the opposite and read more action/sci-fi/thriller scripts, broaden my scope, and probably learn something fer Pete’s sake.

    Also, I tend to read the same scripts over and over. Ones that I have found particularly meaningful or educational in some way.

    Which leads me to an interesting question – – what script do you folks use as your “go to” script to get that little extra juice, that little nudge of inspiration?

    Mine is a somewhat ridiculous one that I found on the streets of L.A. in 1994, from a weird vendor who also had bobblehead chihuahuas and cassettes of his own little mixtapes. A hard copy of Earl Mac Rauch’s BUCKAROO BANZAI (revised third draft dated 2/18/83).


    1. Shaula Evans says:

      Jeff, I can’t adequately express my jealousy over your Buckaroo Banzai script. Wow.

      My go-to script at the moment is Four Lions. It’s a comedy, so you might enjoy it, too.

      1. Shaula, it’s a dinged up, yellowed, creased, dog-eared mess…but the original brads are intact! 😀

        Thanks for the tip on Four Lions. Looks like my kind of thing, to be sure. I’m (the only?) fan of “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” by Albert Brooks so this’ll do just fine!

        1. Shaula Evans says:

          Then it may well be up your alley. I’d love to hear what you think of it, Jeff.

  3. Shaula Evans says:

    Incidentally, we’ve just opened up a script discussion area on the GOYOQ Forums. Right now, the scripts under scrutiny are: All About Eve, Citizen Kane, The Disciple Program, The Nines, and Shadow 19. Everyone is welcome to come and discuss the scripts you’re reading.

    Also, if you are looking for scripts to read, don’t forget Scott has run several excellent series that analyze scripts or excerpts from scripts:
    – the extensive script link library in the Genre Essentials series
    – GITS Script to Screen series
    – GITS Great Scene series
    – GITS Screenplay Analysis series

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, that’s a great idea. I’m sure you won’t mind if I re-post this info.

    2. Shaula Evans says:

      PS One more great script source: if you are a college or university student or alumni, you may well have access to your school’s online library of scripts. I’m a McGill alumna myself and the McGill script collection is tremendous–they have a subscription to the Alexander Street Press American Film Scripts collection of more than 1,000 scripts.

  4. Daniel Smith says:

    Why don’t more people read scripts? Probably because the great reservoir of scripts (The Internet) is also the biggest distraction and time-waster on the planet.

    Surf’s up!

    1. Scott says:

      Daniel, I suppose this is true. But to be honest, I’ve NEVER met anyone who complains about or confesses to reading TOO MANY scripts… unless it’s professional script readers who get paid to read. My experience is that reading scripts is the lowest item on their to-do list… which is why I keep hammering the point.

      But yes, if you do find yourself JUST reading scripts and not watching movies, not thinking concepts, not writing pages, and not living life, then you should try to find a balance.

  5. Dean Scott says:

    Scott, you mention reading spec scripts – where does one get access to these?

    1. Scott says:

      Dean, check out the current post up top on the blog. The easiest thing is to subscribe to an online tracking board like the one I link to in the post. There are strict usage rules, which there should be, to protect the work of the writers. As I note ALL the time, the circulation of spec scripts that have sold should be ONLY for educational purposes. No posting in public, only private reading.

  6. David says:

    The screenplays for this year’s awards contenders are here, including Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Rust and Bone, Moonrise Kingdom, Promised Land, Smashed and This is 40.

    1. You’re a prince David! Thanks so much for clustering them all in one place, much appreciated!

    2. Shaula Evans says:

      Seconded! Thank you very much, David. Merci bien!

      1. David says:

        You’re welcome. For good measure, I’ve just added the screenplay for Lincoln by Tony Kushner.

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