Why All Writers Should Study Screenwriting

Originally posted June 11, 2013

There is one reason my entire blog isn’t film reviews and articles of me being a movie snob: I don’t like it when people criticize an industry they have no experience in. It makes them look really stupid when they inevitably do a few of the things they once claimed to hate. I don’t know what those things are yet, so I keep my movie-snob-self locked up when I can help it. I’m saving that for when I’m successful enough to talk. Except for this one guest post I wrote once.

I always wanted to make movies. Those of you who weren’t raised in the 90’s don’t remember that printer paper used to look like white film, with little holes on either side of the connected pages. I would spend hours drawing out whole movies, then forcing my family to watch me rotate through the stack of paper with a scene scribbled on each panel.

When I studied screenwriting, I learned it’s a different kind of writing than anything else, but it spurs success elsewhere. Some of the best journalists, novelists, and bestselling inspirational authors were screenwriters. What do screenwriters know that other writers don’t?

The screenplay demands precision. Even journalism’s word-count assignments and stinginess on adverb use doesn’t come close to the precision of a good screenplay. Almost without exception, every page of the script takes one minute of screen time. Even if the characters aren’t talking, a minute will need so much play-by-play description that it fills a whole page. Reading a screenplay should be like watching the film—the reader knows exactly what is going on. While novelists tend to be good at description, they can write transcripts with far more information than screenwriters. This slows down the action scenes, and makes novels 600-1,000 pages longer than film scripts (this also explains why film adaptations of books disappoint readers).

Because screenplays are so time-aware, those in the industry refer to plot changes as happening on a certain page. Five minutes into the film is page five of the script. Many rules of writing move this way: “Often actors will only read the first and last 10 pages of a script to see if that drastic character change is in there, and see if it’s intriguing.” Or, “Page 30 might end act one with a decided remark or event that stops establishing and leads to building. (‘I’ll get you for this!’)”

My favorite thing about the screen is how subtle communication has to be. Viki King wrote, “A screenplay is not introspection. We see what characters do, not what they think. Character is revealed through action, and very often; in fact mostly, we humans don’t do what we think and we don’t say what we feel.”

Here are some resources for studying screenwriting (these recommendations have a language and mature content warning):

  1. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller – an inspirational bestseller about applying the lessons of screenwriting to real life.
  2. Screenwriting books – Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hauge, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, and Writing a Movie in 21 Days by Viki Snyder. If you’re more of a website reader than a book reader, GoIntoTheStory has some great content with several updates each day.
  3. Read Scripts – while watching the commentary on your favorite film can be fascinating, the first draft of the film’s script is eye-opening. For instance, the version of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man that sold opened with Peter Parker getting beat up in an alleyway, but this scene was replaced because it was too violent. The difference between Supernatural’s pilot episode’s script and the final pilot is huge. One of my favorite scenes was written for the pilot and wasn’t used until season 5 in a different context.
  4. Read Advice from Script Readers – there are a bunch of guys in Hollywood whose job is to sit in an office and read spec scripts. Specs are non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplays—or the ones written by people trying to get into the industry. The script reader has to read every screenplay and decide whether his company will buy it or not. They say accepting one in every 100 scripts is generous, because so many scripts are so bad. One great website is The Bitter Script Reader, a whole blog full of what not to do in writing.

I found them helpful. I hope you do, too.