Every screenwriter learns their first education in filmic storytelling by watching movies that inspire them to take a shot at it themselves. The movies are your first, and most important tutor, but in professional
screenwriting it can be just as important to study actual scripts, as written before directors, producers, or anyone else has gotten their hands on them.
Taking a crack at such a particular medium without being properly acquainted is setting yourself up for failure. On top of gaining the pleasure of enjoying great writing typically left unread by mass audiences, here are a few lessons you can look out for whilst reading scripts.
The first is length management. Sometimes our creativity runs away with us, or we realize our ideas are beefier in our minds than in reality. Look to scripts to spot how lengthy different sequences are on paper, and how this translates to the screen, and bare this in mind for your own writing. The average screenplay is between 95 and 125 pages, with 1 page generally equating to 1 minute of screen time.
In a similar vein, see how screenwriters judge pacing as their accounts translate to the screen. How do descriptive, action-packed passages stack up when compared to lengthy dialogue scenes? Don’t catch yourself staring down at a script of reasonable length page wise, but which when put to film drags or overstays it’s welcome.
Next, keep an eye out for how different writers specify dialogue well before roles are cast. It’s of course important to give your characters some… character, but take a look at scripts like Fargo to see which details of dialect are outlined specifically, and which are left implied.
How descriptively scenes are depicted differs from writer to writer, so be mindful of which sort of scenes or props or characters call for transportive descriptions, and when it’s better to be brief and not clog up the script with details better left to the vision of the filmmakers on set. By reading screenplays ranging from the loquacious and novelistic Quentin Tarantino to the practical and professional work of the modern studio system, you can better conclude how you’d like to capture a scene.
And lastly, the all-important Spot the Difference. Pick a film you’ve already seen and know well. See which sections of the screenplay were trimmed or altered and ask why. Bad writing contains just as many insights as good writing, and by interrogating the qualities that left these sections not up to snuff, you’ll better avoid making similar mistakes.
For a great archive of screenplays of all kind, head to the Internet Movie Script Database. Good luck, and happy reading.