One of the more celebrated platitudes disguised as “screenwriting advice” is the suggestion to “read all of the scripts you can, and learn what TO do and what NOT to do!”
I am not aware of a single script ever written that tells you HOW or HOW NOT to write a spec screenplay. The fact that a particular screenplay was successful, in and of itself, means nothing in the final analysis. There are just too many elements that go into creating a successful screenplay – including luck – that, to limit it to one rule or even a series of rules is folly.
Undoubtedly, a fellow screenwriter who believes he or she knows more than the rest of us, or one of those dangerously self-proclaimed “gurus” will suggest something along the lines of the following:
“You want to learn how to write a screenplay? Read “Chinatown” until your eyes bleed! THAT’S how you write a screenplay!”
“You write comedy? Read ‘The Hangover’. That’s the direction comedy is going these days.”
“So you think you write horror? Better be like the “Saw” franchise. Better yet, make it a found footage horror. They’re hot right now!”
We’ve all heard- and read- these kinds of suggestions before, and they’re still passed on, like family secrets, by well-meaning screenwriters who don’t really take the time to actually listen and decipher to what they’re ACTUALLY saying.
You’ve all been told about “the screenplays”; Casablanca, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Network…the list goes on and on. Then, the untrained, uneducated, unlearned spec screenwriter takes all the little tricks and traits that make those screenplays among the best ever written, and writes their masterpiece.
How can they possibly go wrong?
How about by including the actor cue, “INTENSE BEAT”. Not just a “beat”, but it is so stringent, it is an “INTENSE beat”, and not only include it, but…here it comes, now…putting it in the SCENE DESCRIPTION!
And – because you saw it in a Woody Allen script – why not include…
“CAMERA RAMP TO CLOSE UP OF MAN’S CROTCH“?
It worked for him, why not me? How about three full pages of script dedicated to the credit roll and subsequent background graphics, not to mention a song list and YouTube links of suggested dance numbers?
Sounds ridiculous? Silly?
Maybe, but I saw it all- just a few weeks ago.
The point is, friends, that the large majority of the scripts you’ll read from are, in fact, scripts of PRODUCED MOVIES, written by extremely talented, professional, WORKING screenwriters.
Chances are, if you’re reading this post, this probably doesn’t define YOU- at least, not where you are today. That’s just a fact, Jack; not an insult.
(if it DOES define you, email me and let me know what you think of the Debunking Series, and request a script read or two!) 😉
Those scripts are most likely final SHOOTING scripts and do not at all resemble the format and appearance of what a spec screenplay should look like written by an as-of-yet undiscovered writer.
Learn the spec format rules as they apply to the spec screenplay. Read all the produced screenplays you want- of your favorite movies, or from your favorite screenwriter. I do. I just don’t use them as examples of how my script should look or how it should be written.
I’ve come up with an expression for those who take these sorts of risks. Feel free to commit it to memory:
“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you get to the dance floor”.
Read those scripts for enjoyment. Read them for inspiration, for ideas, for education.
Read them because you’re stuck on a plane on the tarmac while they’re spending two hours de-icing the wings.
Read them to pass the time in traffic court as you wait to plead “not guilty” to your speeding ticket.
Read them at Starbucks, pretending to be someone important.
Just don’t read them to learn how to write. Instead, take a class; get a mentor; read a book; attend a seminar; watch a webinar. Do all of these things- many times over.
WRITER’S BIO: Geno Scala is the owner of “The Script Mentor” (www.thescriptmentor.com); professional screenwriter; ghostwriter/book adaptations-for-hire; known as “Ghostwriter to the Stars”; Executive Producer at Shark-Eating Man Productions (www.sharkeatingman.com) ; former Executive Director of 72nd Academy Awards, Grammys, Soul Train, Saturn and Blockbuster Awards shows; currently developing “Bad Priest“, one-hour drama, episodic TV series; produced reality docudrama “Just Like Elvis” TV series; screenwriter of “Banking on Betty“, (action adventure/comedy; 2012); winner StoryPros; Script Pipeline; runner-up Scriptapalooza and more.