One of the most effective ways to learn about screenwriting is – wait for it – reading screenplays.
Yet, I’ve read so many rants about the quality of scripts, that it warrants a clear view on what is out there, and what we can learn from them.
When Django Unchained won Best Original Screenplay, I was dismayed. While I found the movie exhilarating, the script was a complete disaster. It was obvious that the voting Academy members had not bothered to read the screenplay.
More recently, some people have questioned the quality of the script for Promising Young Woman, insinuating its success is undeserved. We are all missing the point. Irrespective of any Academy Award nominations, Django is about Tarantino, and PYM is about Emerald Fennell — not the script.
We’ll talk about this in a minute, as both fall under the category of auteur films.
I recently posted a video to our YouTube channel about the topic, but I wanted to give you a more methodical breakdown.
So let’s dive in.
What Screenplays Should You Be Reading?
A screenplay is not an effective learning tool, just because the movie was successful or because you managed to lay your hands on it.
From the thousands of scripts on the web, there are only a handful I recommend to my students as exemplary writing. (I am using these for the online course I designed, Immersion Screenwriting. The story of how this course came about is here.)
We need to treat most scripts with a healthy dose of scepticism.
A wild variety of scripts circulate on the web, from unproduced amateur scripts, to fan fiction or TV specs. Looking for the pilot of Rick and Morty, a while ago some sites would offer up one of the many fan specs instead. Go figure…
Yes, you can learn something from reading any script. But if your time is limited, you’ll need to choose. The scripts that matter roughly fall into one of 2 categories: the studio script, and the spec.
The Studio Script
Most of the PDF’s out there are studio drafts, simply because they’re the movies people watch, and they are disseminated virally. Better teaching examples exist, but they are harder to find, as they excite less people.
Studio scripts are written by established writers who are hired and paid to do so. Sometimes early drafts leak, and unfinished scripts appear on various websites. While they may illuminate the process if you compare them with later drafts, they’re not always examples of how to write well.
Completed studio scripts could be misleading, too, as they rarely showcase the type of material you should write. Most are adaptations, sequels, remakes or franchise material, and you have no access to the rights of any of this, as it is exclusive studio property.
The Spec Script
A spec script is written on the speculation that one day it will sell. The writer is not paid for their time, as they fund the development themselves. In this way, they keep complete freedom and control.
A great source of spec scripts is the Black List. If you have never heard of it, it’s time to do your research. In my view, these are the type of scripts you can learn from the most.
While it is a bonus to know what scripts find their way to production, you should be reading scripts people buy. And the annual Black List is a barometer of what scores high among agents and executives. And these are the ones that do the deals.
Mind The Draft
Before reading a script – and certainly before drawing any conclusions about writing quality or style – check what draft you’re holding.
(TLDR for this section: The perfect screenplay to study is the marketing draft of a sold spec script.)
An early draft is useful only if you compare it with the finished film. Compared to later drafts or the finished film, it shows development or production decisions. In this way, we learn what didn’t work in the mind of the writer (or director/producer).
This is the one that gets producers across the line. It makes people part with their money – if they do. Therefore, it is the best version of the script to learn from as a beginning screenwriter. Sometimes, the marketing draft is labeled the ‘final draft’.
The shooting draft will more closely resemble the finished film. It may have received input from the producers and/or director. And any post-sale changes may have somewhat muddled the writer’s original vision.
These are pretty rare, and that’s okay. Post-production drafts aren’t useful in terms of writing style, because it is a purely technical draft of a script that was likely sold or greenlit in a very different format.
For Your Consideration
Every year around Oscar time, you’ll find a flurry of studio scripts available ‘for consideration’. Like Django Unchained, remember?
Technically, they are meant for Academy Members, but often the PDF’s are widely available. These production drafts may have been rewritten, polished or sanitised after the sale, or even the movie’s release.
Not All About Story
Only a fraction of working screenwriters sell their specs. The others sell their skills.
We all remember the names of those who get their own stories to the screen. But they’re only the tip of the industry iceberg. Most of the money is under the surface.
If you want to make a living from your writing, don’t get caught up in the hunt for the high concept. What matters is the clarity and freshness of your writing more than your unbridled imagination for wild cinematic adventures.
Unless, of course, you’re a multi-hyphenate.
Beware of the Auteur
Aspiring screenwriters watch more films than the average human. We’re always out to find something new and refreshing. We love rule-breakers, because they surprise us and make us believe we can do it, too.
What some forget is that many films in this category were written by the director, and greenlit based on their visual prowess. Think Paul T. Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron and Kubrick. Some small indie auteur films fall under the same category.
When you are excited about a movie, ask yourself why it was made. Auteur projects are all about the voice and visual style of the writer-director. They’re not about the story per se. Many of them were greenly based on earlier work by the filmmaker, be it a short film or previous feature work.
Of course, you were told that every movie is first and foremost about the script. But some… are not.
Instead of reading 2001 A Space Odyssey, Eraserhead or The Grand Budapest Hotel, study Alien,  Days of Summer or Hell Or High Water. The core vision was incapsulated in the script, and not in the mind of the director. And each of these was executed in a supremely effective, wonderful writing style.
What Can We Learn From Reading Screenplays
I look out for three things, when reading screenplays:
- First, by focusing on spec sales, we find out what sort of concepts, themes, genres and story types are popular in today’s market.
- Next, we can learn how stories are organised. You can learn this from the finished film too, but it is useful to see how structure is articulated on the page.
- Finally, we study writing style to see how specific challenges are addressed on the page.
Now you know what scripts to look for, it’s time to get reading!
If you don’t have the time to hunt for scripts, or choose which one to read, sign up for a curated program, such as the Immersion Screenwriting course, where the scripts are cherry-picked for you.
The course offers a methodic approach to reading and processing the material, following an achievable schedule of daily reading and writing tasks.
And to finish, here is a little bonus for you: 10 Great Screenplays. (No catch. Just a download.)
What are the scripts you have learned from the most? Please tell us in the comments!
Happy reading, and happy writing!
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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