What would you think of someone who tried to write a novel without ever having read one? Or someone who tried to design a house without ever having seen a blueprint? Foolish, right? But a surprising number of people try to write screenplays without ever reading one. They have seen movies, of course, and that helps. But if you plan to be a screenwriter, you need to read screenplays.
This can be harder than it sounds. Screenplays generally aren’t published, and when they are, they are often reformatted and edited to match the final cut of the film. There are “screenplays” online that are actually just transcripts of the film written after the fact. If you are trying to learn screenwriting, you want to read the screenplays that actually went into production.
Here are a few sources of actual production screenplays:
The excellent Good in a Room blog posted screenplays for The King’s Speech, Milk, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Iron Lady, Wolf of Wall Street, and Lincoln.
You can browse The Daily Script, Drew’s Script-o-Rama and Simply Scripts. They are archives of all kinds of screenplays, however they do include many transcripts. And, many of the screenplays are production screenplays which are formatted a little differently than what you would submit as a writer (more on that in a moment).
Here are two pdf’s that are the actual, properly formatted screenplays for Mean Girls and Speed. And here are screenplays for The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Matrix that are in more-or-less proper format and style, except they’ve been converted to html so the page breaks are no longer there.
If you’re in Los Angeles, there are also plenty of places you can go read physical scripts. The Writer’s Guild Foundation Library is a good starting point.
I’ve referenced the different kinds of screenplays out there. I want to go into a little more detail on this subject. I’ll leave out the transcripts and other forms of “screenplay” that are not actually something the writer is involved with. There are three basic types of screenplay you should understand. I’ll cover them in reverse order of the chronology in which they are created.
Production Screenplay – this is the screenplay that is used to make the actual film. A screenplay becomes a production screenplay when it is “locked” – which generally happens when the film is given a “green light” by the studio, or put into production. At this point the production manager or line producer will number the scenes so they can start breaking down the script for scheduling and other production purposes. This is the primary way to recognize a production screenplay: the scenes are numbered. Screenwriters never number the scenes when submitting scripts for sale or development!
Just because we call the screenplay locked doesn’t mean it won’t change, however. Often revisions are made as pre-production is going on, or even into production itself. This can cause problems for the crew, though, because if you start changing scene and page numbers, it becomes difficult to track and schedule things. So there is a special process used, involving things like Omitted Scene designations, a and b pages, and asterisks to mark changes. New revisions are printed on colored paper, starting with blue and moving through a pre-set order of colors. New pages are integrated into the crew’s screenplays until they look like rainbows! How to do this would require a blog post all its own, but it uses all those things on the “Production” tab of Final Draft.
Development Screenplay – this is the type of screenplay you see while the movie is in development. In other words, the studio or production company has acquired or optioned the screenplay and is now paying writers to revise it. The example links I’ve included above are mostly this type of screenplay. Development screenplays do not contain the production mark-ups of a production screenplay.
Selling Screenplay – These are the screenplays writers write – often on spec – to try to get the project off the ground. A selling screenplay and a development screenplay look quite similar. The difference is mostly stylistic, based on the different purposes. Since a selling screenplay is meant to sell, they tend to focus on making a great reading experience (while still conforming to the filmic guidelines I discussed in my last post).
What does this mean? It means deemphasizing things like camera direction. Sometimes it means fudging the format – for example, many selling scripts use incomplete slug lines to speed the reading experience. It can mean using more explicit expository dialogue than you might want in the final film, to make sure a development exec, who is reading five scripts a night very quickly, doesn’t miss an important point. And it can mean streamlining action, since action is hard to convey with text.
Admittedly, the distinction between a development screenplay and a selling screenplay is subtle. But it can be important. You can’t make your movie until you convince the right person that it deserves to be made. Newer writers are usually writing spec screenplays and should thus be using a selling screenplay style. Too many inexperienced writers overload those screenplays with unnecessary and even inappropriate things like camera direction or music suggestions that are not integral to the story.
The best way to grasp the differences is to read a lot of screenplays. Try to read recent screenplays, since format and style changes over time. And any time you can get your hands on the selling draft – a difficult thing to do – pore over that script carefully!
You want to pay attention to the tone and style, and to the sorts of things the writer includes – as well as what they leave out. How much description do they use to set the scene? How much detail do they provide for action scenes? How long are their paragraphs? What is the ratio of dialogue to action to description?
Every writer is a little different, but by studying a broad selection of screenplays you will start to get an instinctive understanding of what professional screenplays look and feel like. And then you can make sure yours are up to that standard.