Friday, November 14, 2008

Professional Screenwriter, Step 1: Reading

Here’s the first of a quick guide on how to become a professional screenwriter, starting with the absolute basics: reading scripts. I am always surprised when I meet new or aspiring screenwriters and they proudly declare that they don’t read scripts, either because they can’t be bothered (‘it takes up too much time’) or, shock, they’re just not interested. And yet, they expect others to be interested in THEIR screenplays; their finely honed works of art that shows off their ingenious style and devastating use of craft. Not.

It’s easy to tell the difference between writers who don’t read many scripts to the writers that are pretty much obsessed by screenwriting. Those who ‘DON’T’ usually employ a standard style and format where all your basics are covered but there’s nothing particularly distinctive or original in the way they dramatise their work.

Those who ‘DO’ usually demonstrate a solid understanding of style and drama that sets it apart from others in the slush pile. Quite often, there will be a palpable sense of immediacy to the writing that says: ‘something’s going on here, check it out’. Lean description, crisp imagery, a funny or dramatic turn of phrase, and a story that draws your eye to the page. In his recent interview on the BBC writersroom, Russell T said about Paul Abbott's scripts that you could tell how the scenes were going to play by how they appeared on the page. This is 100% true, but difficult to explain. We all know about ‘vertical writing’ and having ‘white space’ on the page (less is more etc) but it’s not just about cutting down on your description. It’s about understanding the balance between the pace, characters and dialogue of each scene, and the story as a whole.

A well-written scene, or script, will LOOK promising by simply how it appears on the page. But more than that, each line of action or dialogue will lead you on to the next with an easy flourish, using either a comic touch, an intriguing line or plain good old fashioned compelling drama. It’s a highly advanced level of screenwriting, and only one that can be achieved by READING LOTS OF SCRIPTS. It doesn’t matter if they're amateur or professional screenplays. If you read a hundred scripts over the course of two months, you probably wouldn’t need to buy or read a book about screenwriting ever again. Reading scripts sharpens your instincts and awareness of the whole process, and hopefully inspires you to raise your game to a whole new level.

Next up, step 2: Writing.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the lamentable thing is how hard it is to actually getting hold of decent scripts. I've been trying to get hold of scripts for shows like: Entourage, Californication, House MD, but with no luck!

Lucy said...

Anon, as Danny says, you don't need GOOD scripts - often a bad script will teach you just as much on what NOT to do.

Anonymous said...

http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/House_MD_1x03_-_Occam%27s_Razor.pdf

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lucy, but there's only so many times I can read the Bonekickers script. Zing!

Stephen Gallagher said...

Alex Epstein has a page of links at http://www.craftyscreenwriting.com/download.html

When reading scripts it's worth developing an instinct for the difference between actual screenplays and transcripts -- they're not always identified as such, but you'll learn nothing from the latter. It's like the difference between a scientist's notes and the label on a shampoo bottle.

Jill R said...

Great advice as usual Danny. I've been reading scripts from the bbc writers room website and the writers tale website, anywhere I can find script for free (sorry but I'm a skint student).

Wyndham said...

Last month I read five scripts a week, now I'm down to two a week - my home is filled with paper, but I've found it an incredibly useful process. Now I'm addicted. What you forget about the very best scripts is their absolute simplicity.

Piers said...

Anonymous: If you want to buy US scripts, there are a couple of options.

Book City
Script City

There are scripts available for all three series you mention.

Lee said...

Anonymous, if you're still out there, the link for that House script has changed. It's now http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/House/, where you can find more than the one episode. You'll also find the pilot for Californication here.