One tip frequently suggested to aspiring screenwriters is to consume as many screenplays as possible. While absorbing vast amounts of content is undeniably important, there are also interactive practices you can incorporate into the reading process to further develop your abilities and improve your screenwriting.
Ideally you already know whether you’re planning to write a feature script or TV episode, but even during the exploratory phase, it’s possible to examine how scenes are established on page and in the final product. The first approach is learning how a script translates into the visual medium. The second is the opposite—analyzing what you watch and discovering how to present it in writing.
As you dive deeper into each process, you’ll notice how both can enhance your technique. Even for seasoned writers, these blueprints can assist when attempting to author something you’re unaccustomed to, whether it’s transitioning from film to TV, or from genre-to-genre.
Keep in mind that these tactics require active participation on your part. At Harvard University, scholars teach first-year students the method of “thinking-intensive reading,” which in concept, can be applied by screenwriters who want hands-on reading exercises for improvement. Actively engaging with the screenplays you read by taking notes and analyzing character or plot decisions allows your writing to progress as a result of the thinking required to dissect materials.
Let’s explore a method you can use to implement active participation during your script reads. A general recommendation is to choose a screenplay that you’re unfamiliar with, which offers you a fresh lens to diagnose how the content translates to screen. Additionally, you may want to consider the type of genre you plan to write and select a title accordingly.
After you’ve made a selection, prepare to take detailed notes. If you’re working from a physical script, ensure you can mark up the pages or have a separate notepad available. Otherwise, utilizing stickies and highlights directly in a digital file is a great way to save paper. Notation will make it easier to reference specific moments from your read.
Once you begin reading, what you focus on will depend on the ways in which you hope to improve your screenwriting. Do you tend to write long passages for descriptions? Does your dialogue sound unnatural? Are you lacking consistency with your structure or format? Choosing one topic to fixate on can be helpful. Consider how the author of the script writes in relation to the area you chose—by concentrating on only one technique, you’ll see how information is rendered to the screen in ways you may have previously missed.
For example, say you’re writing a half-hour comedy pilot—are your descriptions crisp and concise while still funny? Does your dialogue feature comedy that flows from line-to-line and from character-to-character? Do you have at least one joke or hilarious moment on every page? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” you’ll want to study how professional screenwriters approach their episodes in relation to your focus area. If you can commit additional time to the process, multiple examinations of the script—each targeting a different compositional facet—is beneficial once you screen the episode itself. Following detailed examination of the script, start the journey of closely watching the content and evaluating how the filmmakers brought the script to life.
This technique of active participation can be applied to any genre or subgenre and, if nothing else, will demonstrate how various writers approach similar content with unique storytelling tactics. When you read, aside from jotting notes, imagine how to develop your voice while maintaining industry standards within your scripts. As a side note: produced writers commonly break conventional script rules you may have read about in screenwriting books or articles. Don’t attempt to copy another writer’s style, since it probably won’t fit your strengths. The script readers who will evaluate your work will be able to pick up on any hints of imitation. Learn from others, but find your own voice.
Now that you’ve developed a method for seeing the direct impact of the script-to-screen process, let’s explore the inverse approach. As in the previous section, the most effective strategy is to choose a film or show you’re unfamiliar with to capitalize on the knowledge you gain. Once you’ve selected the material, prepare in similar fashion to the preceding section—bring out the notepad or open the script editor directly on your personal device.
During the screening, plan to watch the content more closely than you would in a typical setting. Constantly consider how you can adapt the material into script format. While this method may feel simplistic compared to marking notes on a screenplay, it can admittedly be more time consuming than reading, as you may need to rewatch scenes until you’ve captured the essence (especially when you’re trying to absorb dialogue). If you’ve never tried forms of transcription, you might think it’s “easy” to convert what you watch into a script, but we’re not talking about bare essentials—the full gamut is required. Write the script as if it’s your own; as if you’re hellbent on selling it to an executive or producer. Be patient when writing dialogue, potentially repeating each line to determine every syllable; then discern how to express the descriptions, tone, mood, and environment.
After each scene is alive in your script, read through it and ponder the following: does it effectively communicate the scene you just watched? If you sent it to a friend or confidant, could they visualize the sequences? Once you’re satisfied with your interpretation, continue until you finish the entire script. You may be surprised by how much you learned from simply adapting a product that’s already been produced.
If you’ve written your own screenplays prior to your attempt at the screen-to-script process, then dust them off for another read. What changes can you make to your stories with your newfound knowledge? To improve your screenwriting, you must also master the rewrite process, combining the techniques presented in this section with sound rewriting ability can provide your script with a better chance of being produced.
Upon completion of both strategies, what are your takeaways? What can you add to your scripts to make them stand out? How did active participation help you as a writer? If you need to revisit either method, turn to your favorite cable network or streaming service for fresh video content; if you need a starting point for locating screenplays, check out this database, or download Academy Award winning scripts here.
Remember, your goal isn’t to copy anyone’s writing; rather, establish your own style. Some scripts may appear different than others, with camera angles and other types of direction. Don’t worry about directing the camera or focusing on the spec elements unless you’re actually writing a shooting script. The more you use these methods, the quicker you’ll teach yourself to write effectively for any genre or visual medium. Continue practicing and you’ll improve your screenwriting craft in rapid fashion!
If you’ve been working to improve your screenwriting and are now looking for submission opportunities, check Submittable’s film opportunity listings, published once every two months.