Have you ever met an aspiring novelist who's never read a novel? Neither have I.
I have, on the other hand, met many people who consider themselves aspiring screenwriters who have never actually read a screenplay.
"But I watch tons of movies" is often the response to my amazement that someone who wants to write screenplays has never read any. This response is like meeting an aspiring composer who says she doesn't read sheet music, but says "I listen to a lot of music." That person may be a great musician, improviser and producer, but actually composing music in the language of sheet music is not one of their skills. That means they can write for themselves and their immediate collaborators, but can’t write and sell sheet music for others to perform.
Just like an improviser who doesn’t compose is called a musician or producer (or DJ, nowadays), a writer who doesn’t write is called a creative producer or a director. They are fine professions and storytelling is part of all three, but in order to be a writer you need to develop the craft of writing screenplays.
Which means reading them. (Of course you also have to watch a lot of movies , more than you read, just like a composer listens to more music than reads sheet music.)
Some people, when confronted with the incongruity of their situation, complain that they are unable to find any screenplays to read. Others say that they don't really know what to read or how to read it. Since you can't write something you can't read, this post will help you figure out both where to find screenplays to read, and how to go about reading them.
The purpose of this article is to help with both of those problems.
How do I read a screenplay?
Screenplays have a few basic components:
INT. SLUGLINE GIVES LOCATION AND TIME OF - DAY
An action block, which contains the description of the on-screen people, places and action.
CHARACTER NAMES (And perhaps a parenthetical) Proceed their dialog.
“FADE IN” is well known example of a transition, which is an editorial suggestion in script form. It is traditional to start a script with it, but another transition might get substituted (or none at all). It is no longer common to put a transition between every scene, but sometimes you will see the once ubiquitous CUT TO being used, especially by older writers.
A slugline starts with INT. or EXT., gives the short name of the location the scene takes place in, and ends with DAY or NIGHT (sometimes the time of day is a little more specific, but simple DAY vs. NIGHT is more common currently).
Action blocks introduce characters, describe locations, and specify on-screen action (and sometimes key sound callouts). What you’re reading in the action blocks is ultimately a set of instructions to the filmmakers about how to stage the scene.
Character names, dialog blocks and parentheticals (when used, they're discouraged but not forbidden these days) tell you who is speaking, what they're saying, and perhaps gives a suggested tone or corresponding action in the parenthetical.
Those are the basics. Some screenplays may specify shot callouts as well. These would be in ALL CAPS and left justified, and may have keywords such as ANGLE ON, POV or INSERT. Or it may just describe a place, such as ACROSS THE STREEET. This is considered uncommon in spec scripts and pre-shooting drafts, but you're likely to run across it if you read screenplays, since often what you can get your hands on are shooting scripts.
Essentially, knowing that format is all there is to reading a screenplay. You can study a lot about structure and various theories about character and theme, but the main point in reading a script is to determine whether or not it "worked" for you (you enjoyed and/or it moved you), and if so, why, and if not, why not. That's not necessarily a matter of fitting the experience into a theoretical construct, but reading the form and internalizing it for yourself.
You can learn practical lessons about writing by figuring out what kind of style and flow appeals to you for both dialogue and action, as well as examining the inter and intra scene pacing.
Pacing is simply a matter of relative lengths: when action blocks, dialogue blocks, and scenes are long vs. when they're short, basically. Also pay attention to when, and how often, plot signifigant things happen. Signifigant moments for character relationships and theme, on the other hand, should happen in every single scene in a great script.
Future posts will deal more in-depth with structure and theory, but it's best to first read a bunch of scripts "fresh" -- but before you bog your mind down with such things.
Where can I find screenplays?
There are a number of general screenplay libraries on the Internet. Here are some of my favorites:
What should I read?
Screenplays on these sites are generally in one of two formats: text or PDF. Sometimes you find Final Draft (.fdr), Movie Magic Screenwriter (.mmsw or .scr), or Word (.doc or .rtf) documents as well. Generally, PDFs are most likely to be accurate replicas of a version of the script as actually written by the screenwriter(s). With the other formats, it's generally not clear whether the document is a reformatting of a printed version of the screenplay or a transcript of the dialog and scene description written by someone watching the film.
From the point of view of screenwriting craft, transcripts are essentially worthless Transcripts don't show you the actual words the writer(s) put onto the page. You're better off just watching the film. (If you're buying screenplays, which is quasi-legal at best anyway, beware of transcripts. Reputable sellers like Script City and Hollywood Book and Poster will tell you if the script is a transcript or not.)
The formatted scripts you'll run across are shooting scripts, and pre-shooting drafts. Of the two, you'll learn the most about writing spec scripts from the latter.
Spec Scripts & Pre-Shooting Drafts
A "spec script" is the name for any script written without any contract, in the hopes of selling it to someone or making it yourself. It is material written "on spec," i.e. "on the speculation" that someone might buy it.
The best way to get exposure to large numbers of spec scripts (of wildly variable quality) is to become a profesisonal script reader for the studios. But if you can't (or don't want to) do that, screenwriting community sites like Amazon Studios and Trigger Street Labs are full of spec scripts -- also of wildy variable quality. T
Critique community sites like those are basically on-line writers' groups, though an in-person writers' group (by virtue of being smaller, and more personal) is more likely to give you in-depth critique. But for the purposes of finding a lot of early stage spec screenplays to read, such sites are excellent.
Occasionally you stumble across one, but it is relatively uncommon to find spec scripts by established writers (but I've listed three above: John August's, Alex Cox', and Elliott & Rossio's).
For material that was the writers' original, and not a contract assignment, what you are most likely to find circulating online (and in the script shops) are pre-shooting drafts of scripts -- revisions of the original spec, post studio notes -- and not the spec that sold in the first place.
When you see a script that says "first draft" on it, it more likely means that you've found a first studio draft than that you've found the original spec script. However, in terms of writing style and format, these pre-shooting drafts are the same as spec scripts, the writing is just more refined in the post-spec drafts.
Pre-shooting draft scripts are your best bet for reading the kind of writing you're aiming for: the format is correct, and the writing has been polished. You should read as many of these as you can.
Definitely read scripts written by masters such as William Goldman, Paddy Chayefsky and Billy Wilder, and by contemporary "literary" screenwriters such as The Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman. But also read scripts in the genre(s) you intend to write, good and bad. If you train yourself to start paying closer attention just as you're losing interest, reading bad scripts will teach you as much about what to avoid doing in your own scripts as reading good ones will help you understand what to do.
Spec scripts and pre-shooting drafts look basically like this excerpt from John August's Go:
EXT. A DITCH - NIGHT
A full moon and crickets CHIRPING. Somewhere in the night, DANCE MUSIC is blaring, but here it's only a whisper with a beat.
Water trickles out of a jagged pipe. Splashing up mud, the riverlet weaves through hamburger wrappers and sunbleached beer cans, spent condoms and an old Rolling Stone.
The tiny stream ripples past glass and trash and the body of a woman. Face up, breathing. Dead grass caught in her braids. Her name is RONNA MARTIN. She's eighteen, black and bleeding. Bleeding a lot.
She tries to push herself up, but the dirt around her crumbles. Her legs are useless. Despite it all, there's a smile of perverse joy to her face, like she's just remembered the punchline to a favorite joke.
CLAIRE (V.O.) You know what I like best about Christmas? The surprises.
Real shooting scripts add various information that should not be in a spec script. This includes scene numbers, camera information, and revision information. Revision information comes in the form of a list of revision dates and color codes on the front page of the script, changes made in each revision printed on colored pages, and a revision call-out on the page (basically in case you need to fax the material to the talent) that looks something like this: REVISED - GOLDENROD. There may also be shot call-outs inserted into the scenes that don't use camera angles specifically, but specify MONTAGE or INTERCUT or call out shots such as "ON BOB" or "ACROSS THE STREET" that look like new scene headings (all caps, left justified) but without new INT./EXT. or time of day slugs.
Some spec scripts do the latter (shot callouts, without angles or move specifiers such as PAN or DOLLY), if utterly necessary, but specific camera angle/framing/move callouts, scene numbers, and revision pages are considered solely the domain of the shooting script. Once you know how a shooting script differs from what should be put in a spec script, you can safely read them as examples. They often don't read quite as smoothly as a non-shooting draft, and specific camera angles and moves may have replaced some of the descriptive language that you'd need in a spec, but otherwise they're relatively similar.
The two samples from There Will Be Blood below include scene numbers, camera angle callouts (CU.), and shot callouts:
5 INT. SHAFT -- LATER 5
CU. PICK into earth once again.
CU. DANIEL. He sees something in the earth here.
HIS POV: IN THE ROCK. The clear tracing, glistening vein of a SLIVER ORE CHAMBER.
HOLD ON HIS FACE. AND THE CAMERA EXAMINES CLOSELY THESE MINERALS IN THE ROCK.
CAMERA PANS LFT, becomes their POV: Coming towards them, from the distance is a man. This is ABEL SUNDAY (50s) He is very frail, small, worn;
ABEL SUNDAY Good evening. DANIEL Good evening.
They gain ground, get closer. THREE SHOT. HOLD.
That kind of camera information is verboten in a spec script because putting it there denies the Director and Cinematographer the opportunity to do one of the most fun parts of their jobs. It also makes the script a more awkward read. The screenwriter is obligated to convey the visuals with description, and the minimum amount of technical callouts.
There is another kind of shooting script, mostly used in shooting industrials and some documentaries, and is not at all like a spec script. That is the two-column shooting script. This format is useless for narrative screenplay writers, because it's never used for that. Sure, it could be used for narrative film shooting, but it isn't.
Newmarket (and similar) "shooting scripts" books
Book company Newmarket Press offers a series of books that contain the shooting scripts for various films.
However, the formats of the script books vary from actual spec and shooting scripts. They are generally not printed using 12 point Courier on 81/2 x 11 paper, so the page counts are off and/or the text has been rescaled for the smaller format. The shooting scripts in books definitely don't have colored pages and revision annotations. And not all books of so-called shooting scripts are even in shooting script format. Some do not have line numbers (in the Newmarket series, the American Beauty script does not, but Shawshank Redemption does).
Some people also a claim that the scripts that are printed in these books are revised after the film has been shot to always match the final edit, rather than to truly reflect what was used to shoot the film. I don't currently have both the Newmarket (or other publisher) book of a script, and a script that I know for a fact to really be the final shooting script draft of a film, to make a comparison. (If someone does and passes along that informaton, or if I come across such a pairing on my own, I'll write a future post about it.)
In general, the Newmarket books seem pretty good in terms of faithfulness to the format, particularly by comparison to other script-as-book offerings. But you're sill better off reading printouts or PDFs that are either scans of printed scripts as used during production, or that were made from the original computer files of the script as delivered.