Hitchcock knew and respected the importance of a good script:
"To make a great film you need three things - the script, the script and the script." - Alfred Hitchcock
Script Read: Part I - Why you should read scripts?
Whether you want to learn the craft of screenplay writing or perhaps even becoming a professional screenwriter with the goal of making a career from it, the advice you will get from every book, article and industry professional is to read as many screenplays as you can!
Why? Because next to writing in general, it is the best way to learn about how to write a screenplay. Just like learning a new language, if you read and write in the language you want to learn, you’ll eventually excel in it. Taking courses or reading about script-writing it is not enough.
An awesome and fun way to get the most out of learning the craft is to first read a particular screenplay, watch the movie afterwards and compare the script with the actual film. I have hosted plenty of Script to Screen events where we’d watch and discuss the movie in a small cinema after reading about it at home.
What is great about this approach is that you get input from a group of your peers and a different angle from a whole group of artistic individuals. A screenplay is a blue print of a movie, so it makes sense to see a movie from different perspectives. As a writer you can already add a lot of elements into your movie such as directing and acting, after all you are the producer of you story.
Most important benefits of reading a script:
You will get an idea how to write tight, visual screenplay descriptions. A page of a screenplay equals a minute of a screen time. That’s not much, especially as dialogue is cramped in there too.
This means that action descriptions have to be condensed, not too wordy, active and visual, but at the same time written in a captivating way.
You will learn how to write in different genres. The writing style is different from genre to another.
You will get a feel for characterization, how they are described, act and talk. You will learn how screenplay writers use subtext to say something without actually saying it.
You will learn about a main character’s journey and their wants and needs and how the plot moves or should move around that character’s journey. A script should be character and not plot driven. Every cause in a movie has an effect on the protagonist.
The antagonist and supporting characters should serve the protagonist’s journey and create an entertaining plot, which is relevant to the main characters journey.
You will learn how a theme and message is portrayed in a movie.
You will learn about how writers structure their screenplays, from a three-act structure to scene structuring.
You will learn about how to format a screenplay. There are tons of rules on how to format a screenplay. For example, how to write scene headings, sounds, character introductions, etc.
Script Read: Part II - Where to find Scripts to read?
So now that you understand the benefits of reading a screenplay, the next question is where do you find them? Check out Script Aid’s Script category. Here you will find a list of links with descriptions of worthwhile websites.
Script Read: Part III - Which scripts should you read?
I’ve been asked a lot by my students and script clients alike as to what scripts they should read and that is always a tough question to answer. There are lots of good screenplays out there.
After doing some research online, I kept stumbling upon the 101 Greatest screenplays from the Writers Guild of America chosen by professional Film and Television writers in 2005:
Another interesting link I found is the list of top academy screenwriting nominations and winners:
I personally love reading screenplays which are not only good, but ones which I like. I do also read screenplays I don’t necessarily care much for, however given its importance to understanding and learning the craft, it's crucial that other writers do as well.
As a script consultant I read all kinds of screenplays from different genres, in varying stages of completion. What's most important for a writer is read as many screenplays as possible.
You should also consider reading scripts from the genre you picked for your project. It's actually a good idea to learn the craft starting with one genre, as different genres tend to follow a certain set of rules. Become good in one genre before moving on to the next one.
Lastly, start first with your favorite genre because learning the craft is difficult to begin with, so you might as well start with the topic you love and know most.
Script Read: Part IV - How to read scripts?
Before you start reading screenplays or while reading screenplays, I highly suggest that you concurrently read books on formatting rules and books in general on how to write a screenplay to better understand the terms and specifics of screenplay formatting.
This way you will better understand the suggestions below. You may not understand some of the terms just yet, but you will as you go along, so don’t feel discouraged if not everything is clear. Just go ahead and do the best you can to analyze screenplays.
1. Try to read the screenplay in one go, as if you were watching the movie. This way, you won't lose track of the red thread of the screenplay and get a clear first impression.
2. After that think about your first impressions or even write them down. What was it that you liked and what you didn’t like. What was it that you think worked and what didn’t work.
3. Take a break, then read the screenplay a second time and pay attention to:
Formatting and Writing Style
How long is the screenplay? Too long is never good, neither is too short of a screenplay. 90-110 pages is good.
Does the writer follow standard formatting rules? Is it sparsely written - are there whiter rather than black spaces on the pages? Are the scene descriptions short and structured? Are the dialogue parts short?
Are the scene descriptions written in present tense and does the writer use original wording which is non repetitive? The English language features a magnificent and vast lexicon of words, phrases, jargon, slang; an endless stream of vocabulary to come up with, make use of them!
Camera angles are NOT supposed to be used in screenplays, but a you can still describe how things are shown through structuring and paragraphing actions, watch out for how the writer applies this to his story telling.
Is the concept of the screenplay original? Is it fresh and unique and not too similar to previous movies? If it is, does the screenplay offer a fresh take?
Is the content original? E.g. fresh action scenes, characters with dialogue, visuals, use and style of locations, etc.
Are there any cliches in the movie? If so, is there a new spin on them?
Is the title great and a reflection of the screenplay's story?
Is there a clear 3-act structure? There doesn’t need to be, but if it is a different structure does it work?
Is there a strong opening and ending, including opening sequence and ending sequence? Are all the turning points there and where they should be?
Do the main characters get introduced and set-up fast and in an intriguing way? Do they all get enough screen time and development throughout the script? There is mostly always one main character, the protagonist. All the other characters support the journey of the main character, yet they can and should have their own little story arc, their own narrative.
Is each scene structured neatly with a beginning, middle and end? Are action descriptions structured? A story should unfold as the audience sees it but it's also there to intrigue the audience. Also, a lot can be done creatively with paragraphing and order of scene descriptions and dialogue.
Are there original scene transitions? Jumping in and out of scenes in a clever way and creating visual scene transitions which flow make a read easier and inviting.
If there are several plots, can the writer fit all plots in and deliver continuity?
Does each scene move the character’s journey forward and in an entertaining way?
Are turning points within the 3-act structure strong, original and become engrossing as the story unfolds?
Are there enough high and original stakes? They could stem from within the character or externally from antagonists, other characters, etc. The more high stakes the better.
Is the script predictable or are there enough original twists and turns?
Is the pace and tone of the story in tune with the scripts genre(s) and the journey of the character(s)?
Is the story believable (enough) and are plot contents believable and original?
Is there an exciting and fresh style to the plot? Does the writer come up with amazing ideas to drive the action along.
Is there an appealing, original and 3-dimensional protagonist who goes on a meaningful journey?
Is there an original antagonist who’s origin somehow hinders the protagonist to reach his goal and raises the stakes?
Are the secondary characters original and do they support the main characters journey, the antagonist or both and the plot of the movie?
Are there not too many characters and does the number and grouping follow genre rules? (e.g. are there enough characters to get bumped off in horror movies)
Is the dialogue and behavior in tone with each character’s personality and original? In other words is the character believable, complex and fresh.
Is there enough subtext and is the dialogue not too long, wordy and on the nose? It should be short, punchy and riddled with subtext. Yes there are movies with long dialogue, but screenplays get rewritten plenty and often times actors have their input.
Is the screenplay visual? Movies are supposed to be visual. There shouldn’t be too much dialogue. Quentin Tarantino gets away with it as he is already famous.
Are there original and fresh visuals in the screenplay?
A screenplay is not a novel. Only what is seen and heard should be on the page.
Is there an image system? Are the same visuals being used throughout the screenplay e.g. props, objects, color, surroundings, symbolism, payoffs, etc.
Is the surrounding and its elements used to reflect a character’s personality in an original way? E.g. where the character lives, what he wears, eats, etc.
Are surroundings, its elements and characters used creatively, originally and in tune with the genre?
What it the screenplay’s main genre? Are there any sub-genres or is it a genre-mix? (e.g. a movie can have a main genre, but because of certain elements becomes a genre mix or has a sub-genre e.g. satire mixed with horror like in “Get Out”.
Does the writer follow the genre rules of their chosen genre? (e.g. suspense building in thrillers like “The Silence of the Lambs”)
Does the screenplay take a new spin regarding genre rules? (e.g. “Scream” turned the slasher genre on its head)
Does the writing style, tone and visualization match the genre (e.g. fast-pasted, efficient and highly visual for action movies like in “Casino Royal”?
Does the dialogue and characterization match the chosen genre (e.g. quirky characters and funny dialogue for comedies like “The Wedding Crashers”?
Note regarding Drama: Drama can be a genre within itself, but every movie has or should have drama at its heart, as characters go on journeys and there are conflicts.
What is the target audience of the screenplay? Gender? Age group? Genre?
Does the screenplay appeal to a wide audience or is it restricted to certain viewers?
Which contents of the screenplay will appeal to its target audience and why? Are they original enough to fulfill the target audience’s appetite or exceed it?
Does the Script Title do the script justice and is it aimed at the target audience? Does it evoke an instant image for the movie and movie poster? Is the title original?
The list of things you can watch for goes on and on. As you learn the craft by reading books on screenplay writing, read screenplays and start writing yourself you will become more and more familiar with the above.
Script Read: Part V - Exercise, Tip and Selected Links
Pick the screenplay of your favourite movie or a movie you have recently enjoyed and read it.
If you want to learn a little more watch the movie and compare screenplay and movie.
Detailed Step-by-Step article with a lot of depth.
A great article on why you should read screenplays with a comparison of a screenplay writer’s script scenes before and after he read screenplays. Super interesting.