I just had a fabulous conversation with someone who inspired me to write this post. This person was super famous, global. Celebrity status. I’m talking like an A-list star … someone you’ve seen on billboards, in movies, and Super Bowl commercials …
Okay that person was actually my mom, but just run with me for a second.
You see, my mom is nearing retirement and wants to give writing a try now that she’s got time. Given that her son is someone who analyzes stories for a living, she naturally asked for my opinion on her idea. We had a brief chat about her premise (it’s quite good actually), and I immediately started breaking down the concept, giving advice on where I thought it should go, challenging her to push characters further in certain directions, and pointing out weak spots in her structure. And I did this all in less than ten minutes. She stared at me for a beat before uttering with an astonished tone:
“Wow, you’re really good at this!”
“Well, duh,” I said with a smile on my face. “I read. A lot.”
If you want to be the next Aaron Sorkin or Diablo Cody, you should, too.
There’s no magic secret to success in Hollywood as a scribe (trust me, I’m not holding out on you). It all comes down to the same boring, monotonous tasks that everyone knows they should do but nobody wants to. Because let’s be real: the daily grind kinda sucks.
However, one of the things that has always baffled me about young writers is how many of them DON'T spend any time reading material in the medium they are trying to pursue. You wouldn’t want to become a doctor without studying medical textbooks first. And you wouldn’t make it very long as an accountant if you didn’t read up on tax laws. Nobody would hire you!
So, let me make this loud and clear to all of you out there aspiring to one day see something you’ve written hit the big screen: you need to read as much (if not more) than you write. And honestly, I don’t want you to read the good stuff …
I want you to read bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. Absolute crap. I want you to be bored out of your freaking skull because the writing is so bad.
Because more than anything else, this is what is going to make you a better writer. You will learn so much about what NOT to do by reading bad scripts. More than you will learn by reading good ones (though there’s absolutely a benefit to reading those as well).
Don’t believe me? I promise, it’s true. If your goal is to get past the Hollywood gatekeepers, then you need to put yourself in the shoes of a Hollywood gatekeeper. You need to know how the other side of the fence feels when they read incoming material.
I often get told by acquaintances what a cool job I have. Working with writers, developing ideas, and being at the heart of the action seems like a dream career for many people. Well … yes and no. Some days are flat out awesome, I won’t deny that. But others can … well, they can drag. There’s no escaping it. Because, ostensibly, my job is to read. And with that in mind, let me ask you a question: what percentage of the scripts that I read do you think are actually good?
10 percent? 20 percent?
Wrong on both counts.
It’s less than one percent. Less than one flipping percent of scripts I cover are enjoyable from start to finish. It doesn’t matter if I’m working at a talent agency, production company, network, studio, or freelancing for a writing contest. Doesn’t matter if the script came from an agent at CAA, WME, or APA. Doesn’t matter if the person has big credits or is a complete nobody (no joke, I’ve read EPs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag). Most scripts are just plain boring (or at the very least, average, which is akin to boring to me—if the material doesn’t grip you, it’s hard to get excited about it, point blank).
And it’s for this very reason why I have learned the ins and outs of story structure so well.
Nobody likes being bored. We’ve built our entire society around the idea that we want to AVOID this feeling as much as possible, right? It’s why smartphones exist, and cat videos are the most popular thing on YouTube. We all want to be entertained or engaged by something. So, let’s imagine that you pick out 100 scripts and begin reading. And let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the first 50 of them are terrible.
The characters don’t feel realistic at all, you have no emotional connection to them. And because you don’t give a crap if they live or die, you don’t care about the plot. The dialogue is on the nose. There’s no theme or deeper message behind the story you just read. All of the telltale signs of a below average screenplay. You’d probably be pretty frustrated with your life, huh? I mean, it takes at least an hour and a half (usually more) to read a script. So that’s like, what, 75 hours of your life wasted?! How frustrating!
But then, you reach for script #51, and wouldn’t you know, it’s actually good. You care about the characters. The narrative engine keeps you engaged. The writing is sharp, the dialogue snappy, there’s a message behind it all tying everything together. Holy cow, we have a winner here! I want you to hold on to this good feeling. Keep it close and never let it go (because who knows when the next good script is going to cross your desk). But more than that, I want you to do something incredibly important now:
I want you to compare this one good script with all of the bad ones. I want you to figure out what this script did to keep your attention that all of the others didn’t. This is how you become a better writer. You learn what NOT to do by reading bad screenplays. By identifying precisely what they did, and then applying those lessons back to your own writing.
Did the first act not set up the proper foundation for drama? Better make sure yours does.
Did the main character wander around aimlessly, with no direction or purpose in the story? Ensure that your hero/heroine has a clear and obvious goal they want to achieve.
Did the second act go in 20 directions all at once, failing to capitalize on any single narrative thread? Cool, streamline yours.
Was there so much plot crammed into those 120 pages that there was no time to become attached to the characters? Insert more emotional moments into your writing.
Was the dialogue repetitive, constantly recounting things you already knew? Time for a dialogue pass on your project.
You can piecemeal a great story together by figuring out where others have mis-stepped before you and avoiding their mistakes. It takes time, but this is the best (and honestly cheapest) way to learn. All it takes is effort and time (bonus points to those of you who know the movie I just referenced here).
Don’t get it twisted: this is not something that is going to come on the first dozen scripts you read. Or the next dozen after that. Volume is incredibly important in this exercise. Just like you wouldn’t judge a baseball prospect in his first 20 at bats, you can’t begin to grasp what excellent writing is until you’ve experienced both sides of it. You have to have a large enough sample size so you can know, definitively, what’s engaging and what’s not. Generally, the first few scripts you read will probably seem alright to you, even if they’re not, because you don’t have anything to compare them to.
Malcolm Gladwell coined the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. While I don’t think you need to read 5,000 scripts in order to do this (that’s where my math comes out to), I do think you need to read a lot more than you (likely) are currently. You need to read hundreds of scripts. If you can get to a thousand over the course of a few years, even better. And the more you read, the more dynamic a writer you’ll become.
Now, there are several very important caveats to keep in mind here.
Caveat #1: You need to read scripts that are applicable to today’s time. Meaning you shouldn’t Google the screenplay for Raging Bull (made in 1980), or It Happened One Night (1934) and use those as comparisons. While there are certainly things to learn from these scripts on a purely narrative basis, nobody writes like that anymore. I once heard of a group of people who sent the script for Casablanca in as a submission to all the major studios (just with the title and character names changed … everything else was the same), and they were rejected from all of them. While these movies are classics, they are also from a very specific time. You need to read things that are written in the style of the era in which you live. Rule of thumb: only scripts from the last ten years (roughly).
Caveat #2: You need to read within the medium you are trying to produce. So, if you’re trying to become a sitcom writer, reading a bunch of gritty feature dramas isn’t going to help you much. If you want to write TV drama, then read scripts in that vein. Don’t go outside of the realm you’re striving for and expect that anything written in Courier New font is going to teach you something.
Caveat #3: There is a BIG difference between spec scripts and shooting scripts. Spec scripts are made to be read by people. Their goal is to be entertaining. Shooting scripts are not. These are versions of the spec that are created with the intention of shooting them. Naturally, when you move into production, things are going to change. It’s common for much of the flavor of the writing to be removed from these in order to condense it to only information required for shooting. There’s no need to waste three lines describing what a set is going to look like when the set is already built, you know? Therefore, this exercise works so much better with specs than it does with shooting drafts of scripts. You want to base your own writing on what is actively being submitted to the decision makers.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: “Okay, Spike. I’m ready to be bored. Where do I find scripts I can read?” And depending on your situation, this could be easy or hard. If you live in Los Angeles, and have friends in the business, then this is a piece of cake. Just ask for them to send you whatever they have. Literally anything that’s not an active project will do. They can even remove the title page if that makes them feel better. You don’t care about the title or the author’s name. You just need the content.
If you don’t live in L.A., and you lack connections to the business, then you’re going to need to do a bit more work than others. Places like IMSDb.com have a lot of scripts (even for modern films), but again, these are shooting drafts, and not the most ideal thing to be reading. The Black List has tons of scripts, but these are available if you have an industry professional account. So, like I said, I don’t have the perfect answer for you.
But I’ll tell you this as well: where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you really want this, I have a feeling you’ll figure out a way to make it happen.
Great writers read. The best writers read a lot.
And for those of you who didn’t know it earlier, the movie I was referencing before was The Shawshank Redemption. 😉
*Feature photo by Johannes Albert (Pexels)