Thursday, January 14, 2010

What should a new writer read?

A writer friend of mine decided to try his hand at screenplays today so of course I gave him my abbreviated primer. I love that, being able to help someone not make the same mistakes I made. So of course I told him the basics: Read Wordplay, John August, check out Done Deal forums, download Celtx. Then I sent him three spec screenplays to read as examples.

The one script I always send is Tonight, He Comes. That screenplay, to me, represents everything a screenplay should be - a terrific story, great characters, challenging ideas, badass action pieces. I also sent Zombieland because his is a zombie piece, and The Hangover because that screenplay has such great flow and good dialogue and because I didn't want to send him only action scripts. I sent him modern screenplays because even though the classics are terrific, I think it's best to learn on whatever follows the updated rules of writing.

We all know the best way to learn to write a script it to read a bunch. So now I pose the question to you: What would be your choice for spec screenplays a new writer should read? Why?


  1. that picture is so cute, by the way.

    I always tell people that they should read a screenplay from every different genre, to see how an action screenplay is written differently from a romantic screenplay, and how an "absurd" screenplay (like Charlie Kaufman's stuff) is different from a drama screenplay.

    I also think it's highly important to read stage plays, to study character development and great dialogue.

    um... last screenplay I read was "Wanted" it was really interesting to see how the action sequences were detailed. the next one I have on my list is to read "Burn After Reading" and plays by Vaclav Havel.

  2. good fucking choice! thanks for turning me onto that script, by the way.
    maybe writers, not scripts. Something by Shane Black, something by by Wm Goldman?

  3. Totally depends on the nature of the script.

    I know when I'm getting lost with how action lines actually look on the page I always refer back to The Matrix and The Dark Knight. They're tight and rhythmic.

    BUT they also provide examples of things aspiring screenwriters wouldn't get away with. Hand in a 141-page behemoth like TDK and you're probably history.

    Shooting scripts are less helpful in my experience because they're built for different purposes.

  4. I would first suggest he get on Triggerstreet and sign up to read some user submitted scripts. As painful as they can be I think this is an incredibly valuable lesson to have to endure truly (with all do respect to the writers who finish the scripts and have the balls to post them) awful scripts.

    This will give him a starting point.

    THEN direct him to some great scripts to really appreciate the difference.

    My favorites from the recent black list.

    Motor City – Chad St. John. The action is just awesome. Less then 50 lines of dialogue in the whole script.

    The Days Before – Chad St. John. Great Sci-Fi action. Chad is going be a rock star in the years to come.

    The Brigands of Rattleborg – S. Craig Zahler. I include this script because it taught me an interesting lesson. This is a no holds bar, I don’t give a fuck if my Mom reads it or not, script. It’s raw and intense. I find myself holding back sometimes just in case my wife is reading over my shoulder. Fuck that. Right what whatever comes into your twisted mind.

    Tenure – Mike Million. A “talky” script. Well done. I think Luke Wilson made this movie.

    Contact me if you need any of these scripts.

    After that I suggest you have him scene card his favorite movie, writing one 3x5 card for every scene with a few notes on what the scene accomplishes. I did this the other day for the first time with My Cousin Vinny. It really opened my eyes to the fact that EVERY scene in that movie is a setup, payoff, callback or referencing a unifying device.

    I’ve really enjoyed Hal Ackerman’s “Write Screenplays That Sell”. Got it for Christmas. The first screenplay book I’ve connected with so far.

    Good luck and have fun!


  5. I don't think a new writer who's never seen a screenplay before should start at Triggerstreet. I think they should look at proper screenplays first, then once they master the form, look at how it can be done poorly. I wouldn't want to start anyone off with bad habits because it's hard to break from something once you learn to do it.

    That's why I thought it would be neat if we all declared our favorite scripts for demonstrating how it should be done.

  6. There is no way to know what the mistakes are unless you see them.

    I think it's equally important to see the right and wrong way to do things side by side.

    At this stage I am assuming you are talking about story form and not the margins and font size. The majority of Triggerstreet scripts are formatted correctly.

    With all of the software out there formatting is secondary.

    My point being he won't know they are great scripts (besides the fact that we tell him they are) unless he knows what a shitty one looks like.


  7. I know that I would never, ever show a kid a bad essay until after I've shown them what a good essay looks like. Perhaps we just have different ways of teaching.

  8. However you would show a kid an incorrect sentance and ask them to correct it?

    I see what your saying. I just think the bad scripts teach just as much as the good ones.


  9. I agree. My issue was with the idea of showing him the bad scripts first.

    Of course you show a kid a bad sentence and then ask them to correct it, but how will they know what to correct if you don't show them the proper way first?

  10. Your right. I should have said make sure he reads the rough ones as well. Not necessarily do that first.


  11. Hi! Saw you posting at GITS and thought I'd stop by.

    I know that I had written several screenplays before I became a volunteer script reader for a non-profit group here in L.A.

    I learned a LOT from doing proper script analysis, but I already had the format down at that point.

    I don't have any recommendations for screenplays to read; I usually watch movies and analyze from that BUT I do tend to poke through the Blacklist scripts when they come out, because they are readily available, they're usually well written, and you can find out what people think about them from places like ScriptShadow.

  12. I fully get the value in showing a new writer bad scripts. Heck, when I was interning I read a lot of "slush pile" stuff that was almost as bad as what you'll find on Triggerstreet and I learned a lot from them. It was also a good way to get used to the idea that 95% of what's floating around out there is pretty bad.

    That kind of experience is great when evaluating scripts, but I think it's most useful for a writer to "learn from the best." I think it's also helpful for new writers to read scripts that they haven't seen as movies so that their imaginations are freer.

    Tonight, He Comes is a smart one because while it was produced as HANCOCK, there were substantial differences between the two. Beyond that, I think it also depends on what sort of genre he's interested in working in.

  13. Truth is, the writers I like are probably the ones screenwriting teachers hate. Sure, everyone loves Tarrantino, but we're told to not use novelistic asides like he does, lest we forget our place on the bottom of Hollywood's pecking order!!

    Ranting aside, I'd say Tony Gilroy is a great bet. Like the Coen brothers, his work is literary yet accessible.

  14. I personally believe in the Mr. Miyagi Method. Rather than read any screenplays, I'd point to The Screenwriter's Bible for formatting and Film Art (what a lot of schools use) for technique and reference.

    We are the film. We need to know as much theory as possible. The more you learn about what makes movies great (not screenplays) the easier you get around blocks.

    I've learned more from Deleuze's Time Image than every screen play I've read. I've read probably a few hundred in the last two years.

    I'd also recommend UNK's archives. I managed to finagle a script of his and WOW. Studying his techniques was worth more than the script, as good as it was.

    Also, I find that reading books for directors helps as they will take your script and film it. If you can "speak" to them, he won't change a lot.

  15. I do not believe in reading screenwriting books. I read a few when I was starting out and found them to be worthless.

    I learned everything I needed to know, and continue to learn more, from reading screenplays and talking to other screenwriters.

    Some of my favorites screenwriters:
    Shane Black
    Scott Frank
    Walter Hill
    William Goldman
    Joshua Zetumer
    Tony Gilroy
    And the previously mentioned newcomer, Chad St. John. He really is fucking awesome.

  16. Yeah I hadn't heard of Chad St.John. I'll check him out.

  17. I would recommend to watch and analyze movies and try to figure out how the story is told before you move on to reading scripts.

    I find that screenwriters who start with reading scripts - rather than analyzing movies - tend to fall in love with SCENES and DIALOGUE.


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