It’s not too surprising that many people start to write a screenplay without ever having read any. We’ve all seen thousands of hours of television and thousands of movies, so it’s easy to assume that has given us an instinctive understanding of the form. That is true for some lucky people – but even they can’t have an instinctive understanding of how a screenplay looks on the page – there are certain conventions you must follow if you don’t want to get your screenplay filed in the laugh-and-junk-pile. (And, you know, just reading free screenplays isn’t enough. You should be working on them too.)
Free Screenplays – What Do You Actually DO With Them?
Would you try to build a cathedral without seeing how other people had done it first?
Before you started might it be a good idea to spend a fair amount of time looking at existing cathedrals?
Seeing how other people have solved those niggling problems of getting those massive arches to span that massive space.
How they stopped their spire from falling down.
How on earth they got all those carved bits of stone to hang from the gables like that.
It’s the same when you start to write screenplays.
You can save yourself a LOT of pain and years of wasted time by sitting back for a while and surveying the field.
It’s not just about sitting back and enjoying the story.
First time through that’s fine.
Apply These Steps to Every Screenplay You Read
Next few times through (I’m serious) you need to be looking for the techniques and tools, as well as the formats that have been used.
- Write down a list of every single scene – and come up with a one sentence summary of what happened in each.
- Count the separate story strands.
- Look for structure, look for act breaks, look for inciting incidents.
- Look at when the hero is introduced, the villain, where they first meet, when they have their face to face confrontation.
- Look at the balance between action and dialogue.
- Look at the LOOK of the thing. See all that white space? See how brief the dialogue can be.
- Look for subtext, look for on-the-nose dialogue.
- Look for what has been included, and what has been left out; what story questions are set up where, and where they are paid off.
- If you’re reading a script that has made it to the screen get into the habit of watching the movie with the script on your lap. The difference between what the writer specified, and what the director interpreted, can be spectacular, and very enlightening.
Of course, learning what doesn’t work by looking at the flops can be just as useful.
Tear the screenplay apart into a pile of beats on your desk. Enjoy the process – don’t feel guilty, that time spent watching tv and reading scripts is wasted – it’s a wonderful way of training yourself to make sure your story arches stay up and your spires don’t fall down.
Start with these sites:
They have links to a wide selection of scripts for films, TV, radio, anime, musicals and foreign language films. Some of the sites even carry treatments, the pitching documents that the writers used to sell the story before there was a script.
Some of the sites above reproduce the scripts, but many are links to the scripts hosted by other sites (you need to remember that screenplays are copyrighted), including the film studios such as Warner Bros, Sony Classics, Paramount, Weinstein Brothers, and Disney.
You also need to be aware that screenplays may be made available temporarily by the studios, and can sometimes be withdrawn online. Many are in a pdf format so you will need Adobe Acrobat to read them.
DON’T think that the scripts will always accurately reflect the final film: some of the links are to an unspecified draft, or the film may have been finalised only in the cutting room. And the versions that are posted may not be complete; pages may be blank in pdfs if they have not scanned in properly. But it can be very instructive to see the first draft (the thing the writer first submitted) as opposed to the shooting draft (the thing the director worked from when he was shooting) as opposed to the continuity draft (the thing assembled after the thing put to bed by someone in the studio sitting and knocking the production draft around to match what is actually on screen.
DO avoid the files that are called ‘transcripts’. These are NOT usually official releases – they are in fact documents that have been created by fans who love the piece, and have sat in front of the screen taking the dialogue down as dictation and interpolating their own idea of the stage directions. They can be very different in quality from the original script – and you aren’t getting a fair idea of what the original writer put on paper. Use them for the dialogue ONLY!
Make The Cut Yourself
It’s an ever changing and fast updating list. But if you have ambitions to see your own script up there on one of those sites (it’s a serious statement of how good your writing is, after all) you’d better make sure that your script is as good as it can be. The Screenwriting Goldmine downloadable guide to writing screenplays guides you through that process with clear directions for every step of the way. Get it here.