30 Things About Screenwriting: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

July 4th, 2015 by

You can learn pretty much everything you need to know about screenwriting by doing these three things:

Watch movies.
Read scripts.
Write pages.

I coined this triptych nearly four years ago and it seems to have caught on. Here’s why:

Why watch movies?

Because to be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Movies must be in your lifeblood – and the best way to do that is to watch them. If you haven’t seen all of AFI’s Top 100 Movies or the IMDB Top 250, now is the time to start.

Why read scripts?

Because every script you read is a learning experience. If it’s a good script, you can break it down scene-by-scene to determine why it works. If it’s a bad script, you can see aspects of writing you do not want to emulate. By reading screenplays of great movies, you can see how the pages were translated onto the screen, thereby giving you insight into how to write cinematically.

But most important, you need to read screenplays because these are primary source material, the ‘stuff’ you traffic when you write. Reading other writers’ screenplays is a great way to expose you to different approaches, which will help you inform and define your own unique style, your own distinct voice.

Screenplays are the form through which you tell stories – and the best way learn that form is by reading scripts. If you haven’t read the WGA Top 101 list of screenplays, now is the time to get started. You can go to simplyscripts.com or other screenplay sites to access literally thousands of screenplays.

Why write pages?

I don’t really have to explain this, right? You know that you have to write to get better as a writer, not just the words you manage to write, but how you approach writing from a psychological, emotional, and spiritual perspective. Nobody is born a writer, we all become writers, it’s an active process that is ongoing throughout our lives.

But most important, you need to write to feed your creativity. Putting words onto paper is an act of incarnation. Rewriting and editing your words are acts of shaping the material. Screenwriting is a craft, but you have to be able to tap into your world of ‘art’ in order to make your pages come alive.

Writing is the process whereby you create stories — and the best way to develop that process is to do it. Every day. For this, I have no websites to which to point you. No lists with which to challenge you. Just this fact: When you aren’t writing, someone else is.

Screenwriting is an incredibly competitive business. There are no short cuts to success. But there are three habits you can embrace that can teach you everything you need to know about the craft, about creativity, and about your writer’s self:

Watch movies.
Read scripts.
Write pages. 

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 4, 2013]

You don’t need to spend a dime to learn the craft of screenwriting

April 3rd, 2015 by

From time to time, I like to remind readers of this simple fact: You don’t need to spend a dime to learn the craft of screenwriting. If you devote any time trolling the online universe of script consultants and screenwriting ‘gurus’, this is likely a message you will never hear or see, and for good reason: They want your money.

To be fair, some of these outfits may provide value for dollars spent. Others not much or at all. I hear from writers quite often about their experiences with various online screenwriting ventures and man, let me tell you, it’s the wild, wild effing West out there.

Caveat emptor!

So again, you can learn the craft of screenwriting with minimal expense. Here are 5 tips:

1. Watch movies.

2. Read scripts.

3. Write pages.

I coined this mantra myself about 5 years ago. You can read my thoughts on it here.

You can watch movies for cheap by checking out DVDs from your local library. Subscribe to a streaming service like Netflix where you have literally hundreds of movies you can call up on demand. One of the advantages of digital delivery systems for movies nowadays is the quality doesn’t degrade, which means you can go to theaters that offer late runs for $4-5 and you won’t have to suffer through a scratched print.

You can read scripts for free. There are 114 movie scripts currently hosted on this site, not only free, they’re legal because each has been made available to the public by studios and prod cos during their annual For Your Consideration campaigns. Of course, there are lots of other sites online that host thousands of scripts illegally. While I can’t recommend them, you can find them. Point is, scripts are easily available and they cost nothing to download and read.

You can write pages for free. If you don’t have a screenwriting software program, you can use Celtx which basic level costs precisely $0.00.

4. Study the pros. Why would you even think about giving your money to a script consultant or screenwriting ‘guru’ who is not or has not been a professional screenwriter or TV writer? Much about the craft of screenwriting can only be learned by working in the front lines of the business in Hollywood or other entertainment centers around the world. How to get the low-down from professional writers? Easy. Interviews. I would imagine there are tens of thousands of Q&A’s online with professional screenwriters and TV writers. You can start here on my site:

Interviews [Audio]

Interviews [Video]

Interviews [Written]

There is the Scriptnotes podcast with screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin.

There is The Moment podcast with screenwriter Brian Koppelman.

There is The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith podcast featuring interviews with screenwriters and filmmakers.

And there are my interviews with screenwriters and filmmakers, each going in-depth into their stories, approach to creativity and writing process.

All of these resources are available for free, wisdom dripping from the minds and mouths of actual professional writers with nary a dime spent.

5. Use free online writing resources. Rely on the good ones, writers who dispense solid insight and inspiration about the craft. There are several out there. One I’ll mention: Terrible Minds, hosted by Chuck Wendig. Wonderful site. And of course, there’s Go Into The Story. We are approaching 17,000 posts, so the archives here provide a wealth of helpful, free information.

That said, you may feel the need for guidance in learning the craft, and there are good arguments to be made to support this choice. But before you commit any financial resources to anything, research the hell out of whatever outfit you’re considering. Think long and hard about whether whatever services they offer will help you grow as a screenwriter. Go in knowing that the odds against you achieving any financial success from writing are extremely long. Make sure you’re doing this because you love writing.

If you have any doubts, remember: You don’t need to spend a dime to learn the craft of screenwriting. You can get everything you need to know by immersing yourself in this process: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. Study the pros. Use free online writing resources. It’s not an easy process. It requires a special kind of dedication and incredible persistence. But you can do it.

Final thought. If you have questions about a particular online screenwriting outfit, but aren’t sure about if they’re any good or not, feel free to email me. Having been involved in online education since 2002 and hosted this blog since 2008, I have a pretty good sense of what’s what out there. More than willing to share my thoughts with you.


Classic 60s Movies: The Entire Series

February 3rd, 2015 by

January was Classic 60s Movies month on the blog. Here are 30 movies from that decade spotlighted by our distinguished group of guest posters:

2001: A Space Odyssey


Bonnie and Clyde

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Cool Hand Luke

Dr. No

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

Easy Rider


Jules et Jim

Lawrence of Arabia

Lonely are the Brave

Night of the Living Dead


Planet of the Apes


Rosemary’s Baby

The Apartment

The Blue Max

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Graduate

The Jungle Book

The Loved One

The Manchurian Candidate

The Music Man

The Odd Couple

The Pink Panther

The Sound of Music

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Pretty impressive list. How many of these movies have you seen? I have not seen Repulsion or The Loved One, but I intend to remedy that as they go on my Must See list.

And that’s really the whole point of these decade by decade retrospectives we’ve undertaken over the last year or so: To motivate folks to watch movies. This practice, along with read scripts and write pages, are the foundation of any screenwriter’s education. Here are the other decades we’ve covered thus far, over 120 guest posts in total now stored in the GITS archives:

70s Movies
80s Movies
90s Movies

Thanks to everyone who has participated in this effort. You are helping create a resource to guide writers in what movies to watch and analyze, building up their base knowledge as they immerse themselves in the world of cinema.

Next up: The 50s. We’ll get to that a few months down the road.

In meantime… WATCH MOVIES!

TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar

January 15th, 2015 by

Watch movies. You know you need to do this to learn the craft. Moreover virtually any conversation about a script project with anyone involved in the movie development system will invariably result in multiple references to this movie or that. If you’re sitting there and the exec says, “Hey, it’s like that scene in 12 Angry Men,” or “What I’m talking about is something like that bit of business in Double Indemnity,” as opposed to trying to fake your way through the meeting, much better to know your cinematic shit. Or in the words of the inimitable @MysteryExec:

If you have some gaps in your movie coverage, this is a great time of year because starting February 1, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) runs their annual 31 Days of Oscar series. You can download a PDF of their entire month-long schedule here. For a taste, check out the lineup for just the first two days of the series:

Sunday, February 1
The Old Man and the Sea (1958)
The Jungle Book (1942)
The Four Feathers (1939)
The Wind and the Lion (1975)
The Great Race (1965)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956) (best picture winner)
And the Oscar Goes To… (2014)
Wings (27) (Paramount pool title) (best picture winner)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (best picture winner)
Cimarron (1930) (best picture winner)
The Broadway Melody (1929) (best picture winner)

Monday, February 2
Camille (1937)
Random Harvest (1942)
Humoresque (1946)
The Great Lie (1941)
Magnificent Obsession (1954)
Imitation of Life (1959)
Little Women (1933)
42nd Street (1933)
Public Enemy (1931)
Grand Hotel (1932) (best picture winner)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)
The Champ (1931)

I’ve seen a lot of these, but I’ll make a confession: I’ve somehow missed Grand Hotel. Here’s the opening scene of the movie:

Gotta watch that movie. And others. I’ve set my DVR to record several films on TCM’s schedule.

I know professional screenwriters who have TCM on all the time. It’s a tremendous resource.

So do yourself a favor. Check out 31 Days of Oscar on TCM!

Reader Question: For great films, should I watch them or read script first?

July 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @JoshHoltCity

Scott, if I’m fortunate/unfortunate enough to have never seen a number of great films, should I read or watch first?

First off, you are both fortunate and unfortunate not to have seen a “number of great films.” Unfortunate because you do not have the collective experience — yet — of having seen all those great cinematic stories to have fed your mind, body and soul. Besides on a practical level, you absolutely need to watch as many movies as you can, especially great ones, because every conversation about story development in Hollywood references movies over and over and over again. A studio executive trying to make a point says, “Like that scene with the horse head in The Godfather,” instead of nodding your head limply because you haven’t seen the film, much better to be able to get the reference because you have screened it.

That said, you are fortunate because you have virgin eyes. My God, the thought of seeing some of my favorite movies for the very first time: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, Casablanca, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Alien, Psycho, The Exorcist, Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources, Tampopo, Fanny and Alexander, Wings of Desire and on and on…

You have a great gift: You get to experience these classics and more for the first time. In that respect, I envy you.

Advice: Print out the IMDB Top 250 list and make it your goal to watch every single one of those movies. That may be the most important thing you do as a budding screenwriter and filmmaker. There is a Gestalt type of learning you can attain in no other way than immersing yourself in a bunch of movies.

Now to your actual question: Read the script or watch the movie first? I am curious what readers will say, but if we are talking great movies like Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lawrence of Arabia, I’d say watch the movie first.

You want to take in that whole film experience knowing as little as possible about the story so you can be swept up in the narrative. On your first screening of a great film, you don’t want to be sitting there comparing the movie to a script and going deep into story analysis, rather you should allow yourself the chance to become immersed in that universe.

After you see the movie, then you can bust out the script and re-watch it, comparing script to screen. By the way, that’s a great exercise.

I will say there are a bunch of movies I’ve seen after reading the script, but I’m nearly three decades into this. It’s hard for me to watch movies without having one track of my mind in analysis mode. So knowing the story before I watch a movie isn’t such a big deal to me. With certain exceptions, of course, movies I just absolutely have to watch knowing as little as possible about the story in advance.

But you’re young! You still deserve the chance to experience the awe and wonder of seeing movies fresh.

So my bottom line advice is watch the movies first. Then read the scripts.

Readers, what do you say? I suspect most of you will agree with me, but maybe not. I’d be especially curious to hear from folks who work in Hollywood development circles whose job requires them to read scripts before the movies get produced. How do you deal with that? Do you find that hinders your experience of watching a movie? Or not?

See you in comments for your thoughts.

And Josh, enjoy the classics!

How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying — Part 2: Watch Movies

May 6th, 2014 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 2: Watch Movies

Like Read Scripts, the admonition to Watch Movies should not come as a surprise even to casual readers of this blog. It is the second part of the triumvirate [“Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages.”] I promote on a semi-regular basis because I think they are each a critical component of how to learn the craft of screenwriting.

Today I want to dig down into reasons why I think watching movies provides an enormous benefit to a screenwriting aspirant.

* While reading scripts is important, watching movies provides a way of experiencing a story that highlights one key fact: Film is primarily a visual medium. You may or may not get that from a script, depending upon how visually the script is written and how attuned you may be to visual nature as you read it. When you watch a movie, however, you simply can not ignore its visuality.

In my experience, most fledgling screenwriters rely too much on dialogue. While important, what a character says in most movies is nowhere near as critical as what they do, what happens around them.

Somewhere along the line, you absolutely need to learn to think visually first in your screenwriting. Again: Film is primarily a visual medium. The best way to grasp that fact is to watch movies. Every second of every frame is a reminder of that most basic fact.

* Watching movies not only reminds you film is a visual medium, it also schools you in visual grammar. Every movie, even bad ones, features scene composition, framing shots, movement, cross cuts, perspective, point of view, scene transitions, all of that and much more. We may think that is the job of the director — and during production it is — but that does not translate into the writer simply setting up an imaginary camera in a locked-off position, then describing the action. Rather the fact is we get the first chance to direct the movie by how we orchestrate scene description, scene construction and so forth.

Do we use camera shots and directing jargon to convey that in our writing? Not nowadays, that goes against current screenwriting style. However there are numerous ways — from breaking up paragraphs of scene description into single lines, each representing a camera shot, to the use of secondary sluglines (or shots) to emphasize points of focus — to ‘direct’ the story on the page without resorting to directing lingo.

Ultimately this is about the combination of watching movies and reading scripts. You watch movies to inform and train your visual sensibilities. You read scripts to see how good, contemporary screenwriters traffic in imagematic grammar to convey their story visually.

* As noted yesterday, there is a difference between learning how to write a screenplay and how to be a screenwriter. The former is a very narrow, focused aspect of the craft. The latter is much more expansive, requiring an immersion — there’s that word again — into the world of cinema. This is especially true in Hollywood. You simply can not expect to transact any pitch, open writing assignment, or script notes meeting without a broad exposure to movies. Why? Because movies are reference points.

I would hazard to guess that in any Hollywood meeting about a script project, there will be on average 25 movie references. A studio exec wants to make a point about an action scene and may bring up the shoot-out in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the final sequence in The Expendables. A producer may remind you to come up with a funny bit of business for a specific character like C.C. Baxter in The Apartment or Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean or. A director may have specific camera shot in mind from Rear Window or Drive. Conversely you may want to make a point about the use of a talisman object like the snow globe in Citizen Kane or the spinning top in Inception. Indeed there may very well be references to obscure movies, early films by Peckinpah or Wyler, foreign films by Bunuel or Itami.

Now multiply those meetings each day — your manager, other writers, a producer, after screening chit chat — it’s likely your conversation will involve hundreds of movie references.

How are you going to be able to build your movie vocabulary in order to keep up with all those film references? Simple. Watch movies.

* It’s more than just about being able to cover your bases in terms of movie vocabulary, it’s about becoming an active part of the culture of cinema. Tarantino may never have done much in the way of formal film studies, but when he worked at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, he dug into cinema by watching thousands of movies. In fact, he is quoted as saying, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.'”

This is not just about immersing oneself in the culture of cinema, it’s about exposing yourself to a variety of styles, genres, and forms so that you may find your own voice. Does this sound similar to what I noted yesterday about reading scripts — “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?” Absolutely, it is the watching movie equivalent.

* There are different ways to watch a movie. There are times when all you want to do is kick back, relax, and let yourself go with a film, enjoy it as pure entertainment. Great. Nothing wrong with that, indeed you are more than likely picking up something in that process either consciously or subconsciously. On the other hand, there is enormous value in analyzing a movie as you watch it. Whether that involves checking your watch every time a plot point happens, tracking them by their minute count, creating a scene-by-scene breakdown, or turning on a DVD, flipping your chair around and listening to the movie, you will learn something new and add to your understanding of how movies work.

The opportunities for learning involved in watching movies are limitless, but the single most important key here is to make sure you slot in time each week to screen a film… or two… or three.

How well versed in movies are you? Check out the IMDB Top 250 movies. How many of them have you seen? If it’s less than 100, you have some catching up to do. More on that Thursday.

A few questions for you:

* How many movies would you guess you have seen in your lifetime?

* How many movies do you see each week?

* How do you think watching movies can benefit you in learning the craft of screenwriting?

For Part 1 of this series [Read Scripts], go here.

Tomorrow in Part 3: Write pages.

[Originally posted November 8, 2011]

Final Call: 30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

October 17th, 2013 by

For my original post, go here.

For your suggestions yesterday, go here.

Let’s do one more day to solicit your take: What movies would you consider to be essential for us to watch? Movies where we can learn something substantial about the craft. Movies that are critical to watch and analyze to be able to converse capably with people involved in the Hollywood film development community.

Please post 3-5 movies in comments that you feel would best fit an Essential Movie list for screenwriters to watch.

One last chance for your suggestions.

Thanks for your help with this project!

Update: 30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

October 16th, 2013 by

For my original post, go here.

What I’d like to do today and probably tomorrow is solicit suggestions from the GITS community: What movies would you consider to be essential for us to watch?

This is not necessarily a Best Of list, but rather movies tied to the craft of screenwriting.

For example, here is a thought from Shaula Evans:

For a GITS-generated list, I’d love to see people suggest movies that they have learned from as screenwriters, along with what they’ve learned. That would supply the data to create a diverse set of movies that can teach us a broad set of writing lessons.

That’s a good place to start: What movies have you learned the most from in terms of your understanding of the craft?

Please post 3-5 movies in comments that you feel would best fit an Essential Movie list for screenwriters to watch.

Thanks for your help with this project!

October: Hidden Gem Month?

September 17th, 2013 by

Note: I intend this post to gauge your interest in taking on what I think could be a cool series, but I take my damn sweet time getting to that point, so please be patient and read through my musings until you hit the payoff toward the end. Thanks!

Here in the Wonderful World of GITS, I’m always trying to think of ways to provide information, inspiration and insight for readers. That was the driving force behind my commitment to doing interviews with screenwriters on a regular basis, a weekly series that judging from the email and Tweets I get, is quite popular. As well it should be. What better way to learn about how to write and think like a professional screenwriter than hearing first-hand from professional screenwriters.

Another thing that emerged this year is a rotating monthly series of daily posts occupying the Noon (Eastern) 9AM (Pacific) slot. Thus far this year, we have had the following:

April: Story Idea Each Day for a Month

May: Movies You Made

June: 30 Days of Screenplays

July: Movie Story Types

August: Scene Description Spotlight

September: Scene-Writing Exercises

I look at that list and I think that’s pretty good, as it c0vers a lot of ground. But what to do for October?

Then it hit me: In my never ending quest to motivate folks to watch movies, why not a Hidden Gem Month? What’s more, what if I reached out to the GITS community and offered any of you interested to write a guest blog post? Do you have a favorite movie that deserves more attention than it gets?

Perhaps an older film hidden in the shadows of time.

Maybe a cult classic.

How about a foreign film.

I’d like to gauge your interest in taking this on. If I can get 25 people to commit to writing a brief Hidden Gems guest post, I think that would be totally cool. Imagine the variety of movies we could amass. I would create a post template to make it easy on you, all you’d have to do is plug in the information, provide a couple of paragraphs about why you love the movie so much and why we should all watch it, and you’d not only be doing a public service, you’d also get your name in some bright bloggy lights!

So who’s up for PROJECT HIDDEN GEMS?

I can think of so many hidden gems I’d love to promote. Here’s one:

That’s right, Repo Man, a cult classic if there ever was one, the 1984 movie written and directed by Alex Cox, starring a who’s who of great character actors including Harry Dean Stanton and Tracey Walter, where many of the key characters are named after beer (Oly, Bud, Miller, Lite), and featuring a musical appearance by none other than The Circle Jerks doing an acoustic version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan.”

How about you? Surely you’ve got a hidden gem you would love to brag on. Here’s your chance.

Can I get 25 movie loving souls to step up for this project? And to sweeten the pot, each one who participates will receive a special batch of GITS creative juju!

So whaddya say? Are you in… or are you in?

Keys to the Craft: Think Concepts. Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. Live Life.

December 2nd, 2012 by

Here is a compilation of the series on screenwriting I wrote this week:

Think Concepts.

Watch Movies.

Read Scripts.

Write Pages.

Live Life.